For Young Fogeys, Advent means hopping around to other parishes to be available to "bind and loose" at the communal penance services that are so prolific during the prequel to Christmas. Yesterday was one of those days (come to think of it, so is today; only I have a funeral first) when I supplied my sacerdotal services for Sacramental "binding and loosing". In the afternoon, I was at a Catholic high school across the river (in another county, state, and diocese) which some parishioners attend, and then in the evening I was at a parish not far from here (but far enough that I was "Father Stranger-Visitor", meaning I was a magnet for those who fear being recognized if they went to Confession to their Pastor, and love seeing an unfamiliar face in a Roman Collar).
In both places I was impressed by not only the quantity but the quality of the Confessions I heard. In the high school there were a steady stream of students for ninety minutes. Now having been a high school student, it would be easy to be cynical and say that they were only going to Confession to get out of class. But there was something about their Confessions that said that they were taking this as a serious unloading of sins, rather than an exercise in running the clock down before the dismissal bell. There was depth. There was introspection. There was a politeness and an understanding of the Priestly ministry being exercised in their midst (I believe there were about 20 Priests hearing Confessions in the school that afternoon). I left the school proud of these students I really didn't know, and especially proud of the school chaplain and faculty for the catechesis they're obviously giving the students. Later that night I went to the parish Advent penance service and experienced the same thing: depth in their exams of self and trust in the Sacrament to say their sins to a Priest honestly and without "packaging". Faith. I saw faith.
The Sacrament of Confession (or "Penance", or "Reconciliation", or whatever you want to call it) is, for me, the secret barometer on the spiritual health of a parish. Here's what I look for:
- Check the parish's bulletin. There should be as many opportunities for Confessions as there are Priests assigned to the parish. For example, a two-Priest parish should have at least 2 set times per week for scheduled Confessions. Also, what day of the week are confessions heard? Still only Saturdays? Saturday isn't the "free day" it was years ago when lines of penitents were plentiful. Now there's food shopping and kids' sporting events and other stuff that make finding the time to get to the church for confessions difficult. If a parish has a scheduled time for Confessions sometime on a weekday, I'm impressed. If it's a weekday evening, they get extra credit in my book.
- "...or by appointment." You see it in almost every parish bulletin. For example, St. Philintheblank's has scheduled Confessions on "Saturdays from 4 to 4:15pm, or by appointment". Confessing sins is embarrassing and humiliating; no one can get through to their Priest on the telephone without giving their name, and who wants to give their name and make an appointment to let out their dirty laundry? Don't get me wrong: The principle behind it of Priests being available to their people at a time when something has moved someone to unload their sins is great. I've had more than a few people actually call me and say, "Father, I'd like to go to Confession." Generally, though, "O-B-A" is a load of garbage. It's Father's way of not sitting in the box without feeling guilty. Bring a book, Father, and maybe a cushion for your chair.
- Penance services. I don't know how I feel about them. I know the Rite of Penance absolutely allows and encourages them. Pope Benedict, in fact, led a communal penance service this past Lent in St. Peters Basilica. But I fear that these communal services have caused a certain numbness towards the need to immediately confess any serious sins. Many people, children especially, are now so accustomed to these communal penance services that they simply do not know how to initiate a private confession ("Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been ... Since my last confession"). I know these penance services mean they're going to Confession at least twice a year (assuming most parishes have these things during Advent and Lent), and that's not a bad thing at all. But these communal services, if not done well, can very easily degenerate into sloppy assembly lines more than opportunities for Sacramental Grace in an encounter with Christ the Divine Physician. Years ago I helped with confessions at a parish mission where the Priest giving the mission told the people, "When you come up, only tell the Priest one thing that keeps you from God." WHAT THE HELL DOES THAT MEAN? What if I was sitting at home feeling sweaty, then clammy, then nauseous, then short of breath, then with sharp pains in my left arm and chest? So I go to the emergency room and the doctor there says, "Don't tell me everything; Only give me ONE symptom"? So I tell him I'm sweaty, and he gives me a glass of orange juice and sits me off in a corner. You know what happens next: Twenty minutes later I'm floating above the ER and "heading towards the light"!
- Communal Penance Services are meant to be an embellishment in anticipation of the private Confession of sins that it's assumed will follow. But sometimes the symbol overtakes the substance, and we get so caught up in the Oprah-ness (mood lighting, soft music, and the "writing your sins down and burning them in the baptismal font") that the mind-boggling opportunity we, as Catholics, have to confess our sins and receive absolution is almost anti-climactic.
- General absolution. If you're on the battlefield or on a plane going down, then O.K., that's what it was meant for. But Priests who give it out like candy with a wink-wink to their flock (because there's such a large crowd and Father neglected to have a sufficient number of Priests available to hear everyone's confessions in a reasonable amount of time - in fact he invited no Priests, just like he did last time the parish had a penance service, and the time before that, and the time before that...) are not being pastoral. That's being lazy.
Yes, we can easily sit around and complain about what's wrong with things in the Church (and, believe me, Priests have this down to an art form). We can argue if Priests stopped being available for Confessions because people stopped going, or if people stopped going to Confession because the Priests stopped making themselves available (the ecclesial 'chicken or the egg'). Some measure success in quantity, while some argue that quality makes something better. But once in a while you get to see something that's well-done, like those 2 opportunities I had to hear Confessions, and you realize that when you've got both quality and quantity going on at the same time it's something special.