Since this is Reconciliation Monday in the greater New York City area — three dioceses are “leaving the light on” until 9 pm tonight, so people can go to confession — here’s a fascinating glimpse at the sacrament from the 19th century, courtesy Pat McNamara, who found this advice in a manual for seminarians:
A dangerous rock which the priest encounters in the stormy sea of the world is the hearing of women’s confessions. The knowledge of this fact and a sense of dread are his best safeguard. He must persevere in a state of indifference and insensibility towards female penitents; he must keep his heart hermetically sealed against human sentiments of affection and avoid every sign of familiarity, though cherishing a holy respect and reverence for the sex of our mothers.
Woman needs the sacraments more frequently than man. Her good influence in the home-circle is of the highest value for the faith and morality of those who come in daily contact with her. Her presence should spread about her the perfume of Christian devotion and charity. It is the duty of a confessor to cultivate the virtues of humility and purity in the queenly heart of the Catholic woman and to fit her for the exalted position which Mary, the Mother of Jesus, won for her in the Church of her Son.
Guard your eyes: Averte oculos tuos, ne videant canitatem. The eyes are the windows of the soul; close them to keep sensuality aloof. Do not look at a female penitent either before, during, or after confession. It would he injurious to you and others for several reasons. Non permittas illas ante confessionale accedere, ut tibi loquantur, et multo minus, ut manus deosculentur. In actu confessionis non ostendat, se eas agnoscere(St. Alph.). Guard your tongue; never use expressions of friendship and familiarity; put the fewest possible questions.
With young women observe the advice of St. Augustine: Sermo brevis et rigidus cum his mulieribus habendus est; nec tamen quia sanctiores, ideo minus cavendae; quo enim sanctiores sunt, eo magis alliciant. St. Liguori says: Cum junioribus in confessionariosis potius rigidus quam suavis. Speak to a woman in the confessional as if you were addressing her spirit, separated from the body and standing before the judgment-seat of God. Be kind and respectful to old women, especially if they are afflicted with deafness or some infirmity peculiar to their age. Obsecra anus ut matres(1 Tim. v. 2).