Once upon a time in a place far away a man whom I hardly knew called at the door. The man asked if he might come in to talk and I said, “Of course”.
“I wish to say something under the seal of the confessional”.
Feeling cornered, I agreed to hear what he had to say. It was nothing dramatic, just to do with a relationship he shouldn’t have had; soap opera stuff really.
“I know it shouldn’t have happened and it won’t happen again”.
He seemed unburdened as he left. I felt altogether different.
Confession has never had much part in Church of Ireland ministry; certainly the Prayer Book said that people could go to a minister to quieten their conscience, but few ever did so. In the Roman Catholic tradition confession at least has a semi-anonymous nature; sitting in the front room opposite someone who called because he felt he knew me well enough to say what he wanted to say was about as far as anonymous as it was possible to go.
For years later, I worried about that man. It wasn’t even that he was a particularly religious person; what had prompted him to come knocking at the door? I never saw him again afterwards; perhaps he felt there was no further need, perhaps he felt that there was now an insurmountable barrier between us.
I never want to hear people’s business; they know themselves what is right and what is wrong and they know they are going to get a conservative answer from me. I don’t like people who mess around with other people’s partners; it’s sordid, grubby and often pathetic, and the toll on home life is devastating. I’m getting as crotchety as some elderly parish priest in the west of Ireland, but then I’ve seen too much happiness.
I couldn’t have been a Catholic priest, I just couldn’t have coped with all those confessions, but I am now realising that nor could I have been a primary school teacher.
Children are the most honest people in the world; they will tell things as they are and even the most innocuous questions can sometimes elicit unlooked for responses. Marking exercise books, in which answers about being happy and being sad are written, there is an insight into the complex world faced by kids who just want security and the chance to be kids.
Only after completing the marking of a pile of books did it occur to me that our primary school teachers face this material week in and week out; that the sadness of a generation is coped with by teachers who are charged with a hundred and one other tasks as well. Only after marking the books did it occur to me that in times when the majority of people rarely go to church, the pastoral care for young people is now provided by the teachers.
I gathered my things for the morning and wondered how often they wish they had never heard things. How often are there things that remain with them for years to come? How often are there stories that they cannot repeat?
Who supports them? Maybe there is a whole branch of teacher training I know nothing about. Why has it taken me twenty-two and a half years of parochial ministry before I even gave thought to these questions?