"CONFESSIONS: SATURDAYS FROM 4:00 TO 4:05"
Dear Friend of Catholic Answers:
That is what I imagine the average church's signboard could advertise, so few are those who go to confession any more. Like me, you probably go to confession regularly, but most Catholics go rarely or not at all.
This was confirmed in a newspaper article that appeared last week, so it must be true. The article was distributed by the Religion News Service, which said that "only 14 percent of Catholics go to confession yearly. ... Forty-two percent reported they never go to confession at all. ... Fifty years ago, penitents lined the aisles outside confessional booths on Saturday afternoons, waiting to admit their sins, recite the Act of Contrition, receive absolution from a priest, make their penance, and be forgiven."
Gone with the wind, that. What happened?
The article said that "sociologists and Catholic clergy list a number of reasons, including changing notions of sin, opposition to the Church's stance on birth control, widespread changes after the Second Vatican Council, ignorance about the sacrament, and busy lives."
Each of those, no doubt, has had something to do with our ending up with everybody going to Communion and almost nobody going to confession, but I think the real answer may be simpler than that. Let me tell you a true story.
Some years ago I was invited to dinner at the rectory of the most populous parish in the Los Angeles Archdiocese. When I knocked on the door, the housekeeper admitted me. It was evident at once that no one else was there. Had I shown up on the wrong night? Oh, no, said the housekeeper. All four priests were still in the church, hearing confessions.
On a Thursday night?
When the priests finally returned to the rectory, the pastor apologized for keeping me waiting. They had had fifty more penitents than usual for a Thursday. I remarked that Thursday evening seemed an odd time to have confessions. "Oh, we have confessions every evening," said the pastor--hundreds and hundreds of confessions each week.
I wondered how that could be possible. The pastor chuckled. He said that neighboring pastors asked the same thing--and they proffered answers. "Many of them say, 'Well, you're just getting our penitents because you have such convenient times for reconciliation,' but that's not so, you know. We can tell that these are our own people."
But why, I asked, were the four priests in this parish kept busy with confessions each evening, not to mention on Saturday afternoons, when in neighboring parishes only a handful of people showed up at the once-a-week slot for confessions?
"Easy," said the pastor. "It's so easy that other priests don't believe how we do it."
Okay, I said. What's the secret?
"From the pulpit we tell our people that they are sinners, that they know they are sinners, and that they need to go to confession. We tell them that God loves them and wants to forgive them. We tell them that we will be waiting for them in the confessionals each night and on Saturday afternoon. We tell them this often and always gently, and so they come to confession. Lots of them."
That's it? I asked. No fire and brimstone? No bribes, spiritual or otherwise? No threats?
"Not necessary," said the pastor. "If you tell people the truth that they already know in their hearts--that they are sinners and need forgiveness--they will respond to that." And so they did.
No matter what changes have occurred since Vatican II, no matter how ill-instructed today's Catholics may be, no matter how put off they may be by scandals or flat homilies, one thing has remained constant: human nature. People today commit the same sorts of sins that people committed fifty or a hundred or a thousand years ago, and those sins affect them as sins always have affected people. At least in this regard, there is nothing new under the sun.
The story I have told suggests why most parishes have few penitents: The fault is found not so much in the wider culture but in the narrow pulpit. When is the last time you heard a priest, even a good one, say clearly that those listening to him were sinners, knew they were sinners, and needed to go to confession--and that he would be waiting for them and would give them as much time as they needed?
Yes, I know of good priests who mention confession, but I can't remember the last time I heard that even one of them spoke about the sacrament the way it should be spoken about. And those are the good priests. What about priests who would rather not have Saturday afternoons so inconveniently interrupted, the ones who have never uttered the word "confession" from the pulpit, who think they are doing their parishioners a favor by not trying to burden them with guilt?
I have news for such priests: Their parishioners already are burdened with guilt. They struggle with guilt because each person over the age of reason is a sinner. That is something called a Brute Fact. What a pity that so many priests fail to understand what is so obvious to the people they preach to each week!
Now, if you're a Priest, your first reaction might be, "Hey, Karl, how's the view from the cheap seats?" But that reaction comes from the fact that Karl just hit us where we're vulnerable, and a nice shot it was. So, if we're men, we'll take the shot, use it as a learning experience to show where our weakness lies, and make a resolution not to be weak in that aspect again.
Pope Benedict's Apostolic Letter last week, Sacramentum Caritatis, used the connection between the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation to make these observations about confession (you can read the whole letter here):
II. The Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation
Their intrinsic relationship
20. The Synod Fathers rightly stated that a love for the Eucharist leads to a growing appreciation of the sacrament of Reconciliation. (54) Given the connection between these sacraments, an authentic catechesis on the meaning of the Eucharist must include the call to pursue the path of penance (cf. 1 Cor 11:27-29). We know that the faithful are surrounded by a culture that tends to eliminate the sense of sin (55) and to promote a superficial approach that overlooks the need to be in a state of grace in order to approach sacramental communion worthily. (56) The loss of a consciousness of sin always entails a certain superficiality in the understanding of God's love. Bringing out the elements within the rite of Mass that express consciousness of personal sin and, at the same time, of God's mercy, can prove most helpful to the faithful. (57) Furthermore, the relationship between the Eucharist and the sacrament of Reconciliation reminds us that sin is never a purely individual affair; it always damages the ecclesial communion that we have entered through Baptism. For this reason, Reconciliation, as the Fathers of the Church would say, is laboriosus quidam baptismus; (58) they thus emphasized that the outcome of the process of conversion is also the restoration of full ecclesial communion, expressed in a return to the Eucharist. (59)
Some pastoral concerns
21. The Synod recalled that Bishops have the pastoral duty of promoting within their Dioceses a reinvigorated catechesis on the conversion born of the Eucharist, and of encouraging frequent confession among the faithful. All priests should dedicate themselves with generosity, commitment and competency to administering the sacrament of Reconciliation. (60) In this regard, it is important that the confessionals in our churches should be clearly visible expressions of the importance of this sacrament. I ask pastors to be vigilant with regard to the celebration of the sacrament of Reconciliation, and to limit the practice of general absolution exclusively to the cases permitted, (61) since individual absolution is the only form intended for ordinary use. (62) Given the need to rediscover sacramental forgiveness, there ought to be a Penitentiary in every Diocese. (63) Finally, a balanced and sound practice of gaining indulgences, whether for oneself or for the dead, can be helpful for a renewed appreciation of the relationship between the Eucharist and Reconciliation. By this means the faithful obtain "remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven." (64) The use of indulgences helps us to understand that by our efforts alone we would be incapable of making reparation for the wrong we have done, and that the sins of each individual harm the whole community. Furthermore, the practice of indulgences, which involves not only the doctrine of Christ's infinite merits, but also that of the communion of the saints, reminds us "how closely we are united to each other in Christ ... and how the supernatural life of each can help others." (65) Since the conditions for gaining an indulgence include going to confession and receiving sacramental communion, this practice can effectively sustain the faithful on their journey of conversion and in rediscovering the centrality of the Eucharist in the Christian life.
(54) Cf. Propositio 7; John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia (17
April 2003), 36: AAS 95 (2003), 457-458.
(55) Cf. John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (2 December 1984), 18: AAS 77 (1985), 224-228.
(56) Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1385.
(57) For example, the Confiteor, or the words of the priest and people before receiving Communion: "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed." Not insignificantly does the liturgy also prescribe certain very beautiful prayers for the priest, handed down by tradition, which speak of the need for forgiveness, as, for example, the one recited quietly before inviting the faithful to sacramental communion: "By the mystery of your body and blood, free me from all my sins and from every evil. Keep me always faithful to your teachings and never let me be parted from you."
(58) Cf. Saint John Damascene, Exposition of the Faith, IV, 9: PG 94, 1124C; Saint Gregory Nazianzen, Oratio 39, 17: PG 36, 356A; Ecumenical Council of Trent, Doctrina de sacramento paenitentiae, Chapter 2: DS 1672.
(59) Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, 11; John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (2 December 1984), 30: AAS 77 (1985), 256-257.
(60) Cf. Propositio 7.
(61) Cf. John Paul II, Motu Proprio Misericordia Dei (7 April 2002): AAS 94 (2002), 452-459.
(62) Together with the Synod Fathers I wish to note that the non-sacramental penitential services mentioned in the ritual of the sacrament of Reconciliation can be helpful for increasing the spirit of conversion and of communion in Christian communities, thereby preparing hearts for the celebration of the sacrament: cf. Propositio 7.
(63) Cf. Code of Canon Law, can. 508.
(64) Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution Indulgentiarum Doctrina (1 January 1967), Norms, No. 1: AAS 59 (1967), 21.
(65) Ibid., 9: AAS 59 (1967), 18-19.
So here's some thoughts I had when reading those paragraphs:
- "the faithful are surrounded by a culture that tends to eliminate the sense of sin and to promote a superficial approach that overlooks the need to be in a state of grace in order to approach sacramental communion worthily." - For a guy who hasn't been assigned to a parish in literally decades, Pope Benedict has a pretty good grasp on the pulse of the average Catholic parish.
- "The loss of a consciousness of sin always entails a certain superficiality in the understanding of God's love." - We get so caught up in our sins that we almost stop believing that God has both the desire and the ability to give us forgiveness.
- "...sin is never a purely individual affair; it always damages the ecclesial communion that we have entered through Baptism." - Well, this beats the pants off of the 'what I do on my own is my own business' argument!
- "All priests should dedicate themselves with generosity, commitment and competency to administering the sacrament of Reconciliation." - 'generosity' = more than one hour once a week (and the "or by appointment" thing doesn't count); 'commitment' = consistency so that the laity know we'll be waiting when they come a-confessin'; 'competency' = knowing what to say when it needs to be said.
- "it is important that the confessionals in our churches should be clearly visible expressions of the importance of this sacrament." - Hey clergy, do visitors to your church have trouble finding just where Confessions are heard (I won't even ask whether they can find the tabernacle)? If the answer is "yes", then your confessional is not visible enough. Do our confessionals also serve as storage closets for folding chairs, books, or boxes? That sends people a horrible subliminal suggestion that what happens there is not really important enough to have its own dedicated space. But I will also say this: the opposite can also happen, as liturgical gurus seek to make confessionals into places with big comfy chairs, zen-like trickling waterfalls, and aromatherapy candles. Confession is neither spiritual direction nor counseling. Nothing against either of those, because they're good and have their place, but they're not part of the Sacrament (especially this time of year when there still is a line of people waiting for Confession).
- "Finally, a balanced and sound practice of gaining indulgences, . . . can be helpful for a renewed appreciation of the relationship between the Eucharist and Reconciliation." - Indulgences? Whoa, don't hold your breath on that one.