If you google Shrove Tuesday (Tuesday this week) you tend to get numerous images of piles of pancakes, perhaps reflecting its alternative name, Fat Tuesday. Children might well think that the word ‘shrove’ means a pancake; after all the traditional English name for Monday this week, Collop Monday, does refer to the gathering up and eating of bits of meat (‘collops’) before the beginning of Lenten abstinence.
But ‘shrove’ does not mean a pancake, it means ’pardon’, illustrated in this modern picture of medieval practice: for to the left of the woman tossing a pancake a priest is hearing a confession. Traditionally the day before Lent was a day to make yourself right with God, to look at your life, to confess your sins and receive God’s forgiveness. It is an odd irony that for many people the only thing which is left of this history is the eating of pancakes. We have the pre-Lent partying without Lent.
One of the aims of the Jubilee Year of Mercy which came to an end in November was to help Catholics all over the world realise anew the value of going to confession. Lent is always a good time to try and do this, which is why in this parish this is the time of year when we prepare the children of our parish to experience the sacrament for the first time. Since many parents of the children concerned often themselves haven’t been to confession for a long time, perhaps since they were teenagers, we try and make it as easy as possible for them to support their children by example and go once more at one of the First Confession ceremonies.
We all know that adult Catholics go to confession far less than would have been the case fifty years ago, and many reasons are put forward for this. It’s as if Catholics have appropriated the easy-going adage about confession I remember hearing when I was an Anglican: ‘All may, some should, none must.’ (in the Church of England what this really meant was ‘very few do’) – whereas for Catholics the rule has been, since the thirteenth century – ‘All must at least once a year’.
One reason for the decline is, I think, the dominance of individualism in contemporary culture. We think, deep down, that we are autonomous: we make our own rules, if we have any, and we don’t really need God to tell us what to do, let alone the Church. Often, though not always, our reluctance really stems from this inner arrogance, a sense that we are not accountable for what we do – this can be so insidious, feeding our pride, our false sense of independence. As we begin Lent this week it’s good for all of us to reflect on this.