Confession: a part of family life



Dermott J. Mullan, 404 Park Circle Elkton, MD 21921. (e-mail:


Fifty years ago this year, I made my First Confession.

I can still picture the event. It happened in the parish Church in the small town in Ireland where I grew up. Because the weather that day in 1951 was hot  (by Irish standards), Father O’Doherty announced to me and my classmates that he preferred to hear Confessions in the pews rather than in the stuffiness of the confessional.  So I, along with the other boys in second grade, took turns kneeling beside Father in the pew.  And after my confession, I received absolution in full view of my classmates.

That was an auspicious beginning to my experiences with the Sacrament of Confession. But it was only a beginning. In the intervening fifty years, God has seen to it that various people have taught me an increasing appreciation of the Sacrament.

In the early days, my mother would help me with the examination of conscience. Before each Confession, she would sit in the big chair in our living room, near a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I would kneel at my mother’s feet, and she, by means of a series of gentle questions, would lead me through the examination. When it was complete, she would send me on my way to the Church. 

My father helped me to appreciate Confession by his example. On Saturday evening, he would close his store at 9 pm, and walk to the parish Church to join the lines of people still waiting for confession. Standing in line with my father, I would see other people I knew. There would be my uncle who owned the town newspaper, and our local senator, and teachers from my school.

By the time I was a teenager, I did my own examination of conscience. Nevertheless, the image of kneeling beside a mother was reinforced for me when our family  went on a pilgrimage to France.  In Paris, in a convent on the Rue du Bac, we visited the site where Our Lady had appeared to St Catherine Laboure. The main purpose of those apparitions in 1829 had been to reveal the Miraculous Medal. But the aspect of the apparition that impressed me most was the way in which Our Lady related to St Catherine. During the apparitions, Our Lady would sit in a chair in the chapel, and St Catherine would kneel beside Our Lady, with her hands on Our Lady’s lap. I found this image strikingly reminiscent of the way my own mother had treated me when I first started going to Confession. It is an image that stays with me to this day when I pray to Our Lady.

A number of priests in Ireland and America have taught me over the years to value Confession, mainly by exercising a shepherd’s heart towards me in the confessional. But there was one occasion on which some priests taught me a lesson of unique significance. In 1976, there was a Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia, and one event involved an all-night prayer vigil in a sports stadium. During the course of the night, it was announced that priests would be available for Confession: at this, several dozen priests walked onto the field and set up pairs of folding chairs. Each priest would occupy one chair, and leave the other for a penitent. For an hour or so, people came streaming down from the stadium seats, walking across the field to an empty chair, and sitting (or kneeling) down to go to confession.  Eventually, everyone in the audience who wanted to go to confession had received the Sacrament and had returned to the seats. For a while, there were again vacant chairs beside the priests down on the field.

No-one quite knew what to expect next. But then something amazing happened: one of the priests rose from his chair, walked over to another priest nearby, and knelt down by the penitent’s chair.  Here was a priest going to confession in full view of everyone in the stadium! Soon, a second priest rose and walked over to another empty chair, and went to confession also.  By the time the evening was over, I had witnessed dozens of priests going to confession.  I had never seen anything like it before.  I have never seen the like since. It impressed me so much at the time that, although I had decided early in the evening that I would not go to confession in such a public forum, I changed my mind. I figured that if a priest could be humble enough to go to confession in public, then the least I could do was to follow suit.

By the time of that Eucharistic Congress in 1976, my mother had died, and my wife and I were raising a family of our own. I hoped that my own children would learn to appreciate Confession. Taking the lead from my parents, I helped the younger ones with their examinations of conscience, and I made sure that my children would see me waiting in line for Confession in our parish Church.

 But however good my intentions were, there were times when many weeks would elapse between Confessions. This was especially true when the older children reached mid-teenage years. I wondered if there was anything that could be done to get the children to attend Confession more often.  Eventually, a saying of Jesus began to sound relevant: “I tell you, there will likewise be more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine righteous people who have need to repent” (Lk 15:7).  When my wife and I read this to the children, it sounded as if the angels had a celebration in heaven every time someone repented.  So why should we also not have some sort of celebration here on Earth after going to confession?

This led us to decide that after going to confession as a family, the whole family would go out to dinner together. And it would not be just fast food; we would go to a “real restaurant”, despite the expense. In order to make it easier on the teenagers, we would sometimes go to Confession in another parish, where the priests would not recognize us. The children who were too young to go to confession would come to Church with the rest of us: they would stay in the pews and say some prayers while the older ones went to Confession. In that way, the whole family could take part in going to Church, and then going out to the restaurant afterwards.  Cynics may criticize certain aspects of bribery in this approach, but all I know is this: it worked for our children.

It worked especially well for our oldest son Michael who later studied about Confession in some detail. Recently, Mike taught me a valuable lesson about Confession by repeating to me an interpretation of Christ’s famous phrase: “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it  [the Church]” (Matt. 16, 18). When a person is in mortal sin (my son told me), it is as if that person is already in a certain sense in hell, where the devil would want to keep them forever. But in the Sacrament of Confession, it is as if the priest goes down into hell, takes the person by the hand, and leads him or her out of hell. Of course, the devil tries mightily to resist this process of liberation, by shutting tight the fearful “gates of hell”. However, in a struggle with a priest of Christ’s Church, the devil loses this battle: the gates cannot prevail against the Church because of Christ’s promise.  The priest in Confession pushes the gates aside and leads the sinner back out into the freedom of God’s children.

Now, when I think of my parish Church on a Saturday afternoon, a powerful image comes to mind. According to the world’s way of seeing things, it appears as if very little is happening in our quiet town. But in my mind’s eye, I see my pastor (or whoever is hearing Confessions) pushing aside the gates of hell, and leading me and my fellow parishioners back to God. This makes me truly thankful to be Catholic, with easy access to such a powerful Sacrament.