Thursday, February 28, 2008

Reflections on Penance Services

Last night, I helped out at a local parish's Lenten Penance Service. These communal penance services with individual confessions (along with a matching one during Advent) seem practically obligatory in the world of parish life today.

From the point of view of the clergy, these communal penance services (from now on, I'll call them CPSs) are opportunities for interaction with brother Priests, and in that regard they fill in the space previously occupied by "40 Hour devotions" in the parishes, which used to be more plentiful and gave Priests a chance to eat dinner, play cards, and solve all the problems of the universal Church. Today's penance services usually have a dinner involved, and it's always a good thing when parish Priests (the majority of whom live alone) can enjoy each other's company.

So what's the "down side" to these CPSs? Here's what I've thought of:
  1. CPSs have largely replaced Saturday morning confessions as the time when people receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Most of the penitents I heard from last night told me their last time going to Confession was last Christmas. Yes, they're going twice a year, which I suppose is better than the bare minimum on once per year required from all Catholics. But what seems to be happening is that people are hanging on to mortal sins until the next CPS, rather than feeling the need to confess these sins immediately.
  2. The faithful, particularly those under 30, are so conditioned to only going to Confession at CPSs, that they do not know how to begin an individual confession (i.e. - "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been ___ since my last confession."). Also, since most of these CPSs include the recitation of an Act of Contrition communally, most younger Catholics have neither an Act of Contrition memorized, nor know that it is called "An Act of Contrition" (and so I have come to say to them, "You know, that prayer that starts with, 'O my God...'").
  3. Children in religious education classes are usually herded into CPSs like cattle and forced to go to Confession. Here the teaching moment has gone out of the window, with the lame (but comforting) rationalization of, "If we don't make sure they go to Confession, they won't go. Their parents sure aren't going to take them!" But are they really learning anything about their future obligation to go to confession on their own? In my opinion, what needs to be instilled in young minds is, yes, the need for the sacrament of Reconciliation, but also the need to understand that this is something you should do on your own. I don't know how to get that into their minds (especially if they don't see it lived in their family life) but I think that's the goal.
  4. CPSs have practically eliminated the opportunity (and the right of a penitent) for anonymous confession. We've all seen the layouts of CPSs: sets of two chairs facing each other, spread throughout a church. I think the quality of individual confessions would rise if people were assured of some degree of anonymity. A friend of mine, a high school chaplain, made lightweight confession screens, first by making the frames out of plastic PVC pipes and joints he bought at a local home improvement store, then stringing some material over the top of the frame. He noted that, once his students felt "safe", their confessions went beyond the benign and, to borrow from JP2, "put out into the depth" of their souls.
  5. Now, lest I be accused of only bashing CPSs, let me say this: Individual confessions are not always so well done, either. I'd wager that every Priest who reads this has had the experience of having a penitent come to confession without having made an examination of conscience (or knowing they were supposed to do so), only to get in there and give you a bunch of "ums" and "ers" since they hadn't really thought about what they would say in confession. CPSs can be beautiful; certainly having people hear Scripture passages read about God's mercy and forgiveness can only benefit our spiritual lives. And, if they are done well, an public recitation of an examination of conscience can enlighten people as to just what is considered sinful.
  6. If it were up to me, I'd ban the word "impatient" in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Impatience is to confession what songs like "Fame" and "My Heart Will Go On" were to radio station playlists in their respective eras: overused. From now on, "I was impatient" is like the letters R,S,T,L,N, and E on Wheel of Fortune: I'm going to give you that sin from now on and presume you've done it before you even open your mouth. For many, impatience a "safe" sin. It sounds serious enough to say, but is, in reality, pretty common (and venial). It's the "popover" of Confession: looking serious on the outside yet hollow on the inside. OK, enough metaphors; you get my drift.
  7. If CPSs are the way that people are now conditioned to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the 21st century, then let's abandon scheduled Saturday morning confessions. BUT, let those pastors who do so have CPSs once each month, rather than only during Advent and Lent.


Unknown said...

I am a faithful reader Fr. J - one young foge to another - but the thougt occurs to me, are you taking opportunities to gently hint to your penitents that maybe they out to consider greater frequnecy?

On the flip side, you could start a tradition of monthly dinners at your place for a half dozen priests to show up and make CPS more of a monthly thing.

People like confession - I say that as an ex-seminarian who wept profusely with joy and gratitude after making a good one for the first time in 9 years. I go weekly now and it is no burden but rather a total joy.

Help people to see that. Help them to know how clean and uplifted they will feel and how joyous their soul and spirit will be when they make a worthy communion afterwards.

Share with them this "hidden treasure" of our Catholic faith!

Greatest treasure of my life!

Joe said...

Thank you for a reflective post on the Sacrament of Penance. One aspect of the CPS that may not be seen from the "priests side" is the element of testimony to the Sacrament that is given by those who go to confession. For someone who has not been to confession for some time, this visble testimony to the Sacrament can be very powerful. Youth 2000 have a very powerful way of doing this during their weekend prayer festivals.

In some ways, the face to face arrangement does give a more powerful witness. But I think you are right - some people would like to be able to confess with some anonymity, and the availability of this during a CPS might mean that someone goes to confession who otherwise would not. I think the idea of a monthly CPS is a good one - a group of priests/parishes could perhaps collaborate to make provision once each month in each parish, on a weekly rotation round the parishes. Could be combined with Eucharistic Adoration ... Ah, the young fogey in me coming out ...

Unknown said...

I think an important aspect of the "anonymous" confession arrangement is that when I go that way, I can imagine that I am talking directly to Christ; there are less distractions then if I am talking to the priest face to face.

Banshee said...

Saturday morning confessions? Where do they have those? That would be so CONVENIENT! I've never heard of having confessions at any other time than in the afternoon an hour before the vigil Mass.

How are you going to get kids to be able to go to Confession on their own? Are second graders supposed to drive their cars ten miles to church? Heck, I lived pretty close to my parish, and it was at least an hour and a half bike ride. To get there. Slower getting back. And of course, since confessions were only offered in the late afternoon, you couldn't ride off and still get home in time for dinner.

Of course, today's kids are forced to play sports seven days a week, so no confession time would fit their schedule. Unless the priest just decided to hang out in the box all day and night, like the Cure of Ars. That would work, but be a tad hard on those who are not the Cure of Ars.

Paul said...

The main issue that I have with any CPS that I have been to is the lack of privacy. I am about 4 feet away from packed pews without anything to block my voice. Of course the priest is hard of hearing and you have to repeat yourself and hope that you were not tooooo loud. I have an fear with public confession. I really prefer face to face confession with any priest. Just not with a host of others beside me.

Unknown said...

Locally, a Dominican parish hears confessions daily at 11:45 (two boxes, lines for each daily) and half an hour before each Mass. Being that there are two assigned to the parish and several in residence that teach at the local seminary and college, this is a little easier for them.

Again, maybe trying to organize a "floating" monthly CPS for the deanery with all the priests participating at alternate locations - treated to dinner afterwards - might be a good way to encourage the faithful to go more regularly... Once they start the habit, it is really TOUGH to get out of it.

Joe of St. Thérèse said...

I totally agree. I like the prvateness of the screen

Zadok the Roman said...

When screens aren't available, the following solution is a workable compromise...

In addition to the chair placed in front of the priest (for face-to-face confession) have a prie-dieu (or even another chair) slightly behind and to one side of the priest. Arrange the 'queueing' so that penitents approach the priest from behind.

Thus, those who want face-to-face confession can go to the seat in front of the priest, whereas those who are not comfortable with this can use the chair/kneeler which is slightly behind the priest and thereby confess anonymously. Obviously, this arrangements need to be explained to all the confessor-priests so that they know that they're supposed to keep facing forward rather than turn around to those who are confessing 'from behind'.

Kris said...

OK, here's a question for you, Father. How about those of us who go to confession on a regular basis to receive the graces of the sacrament and to help up with principle faults? What are we suppose to do? We have confession very little here where we live (10 minutes before Sunday Masses, 30 minutes before Sat. night Mass.) I have 5 children to get ready and am harried most of the time. I enter the confessional only to be absolved with the priest saying, "If there is any sin here." It makes me not want to go, but I really need the graces. What do you suggest?

Unknown said...

Kris is there any chance that a private appointment could be set up with another confessor on a regular, less harried basis?

Barring that, if possible, I would say poke around some other parishes in the vincinity and find out if, per chance, there are some better accomadations near you...

I used to be plagued with the very same problem... the closest parish to me had confession (according the bulletin) from 4-4:30 on saturdays. If you got there at 4:15 and there had been no one waiting, Father would simply skip out early after waiting for us pitiful penitents for all of 5-10 minutes... Tough luck, sinner!

Then I discovered a Dominican parish where confession is daily (as the sign says) "Half an hour before each Mass on weekends, and 11:15 until the last one is heard" on weekdays.

Daily that parish has two lines for two confessionals. I rather suspect a lot of them are like me - coming from other parishes where it is not nearly so available.

The Dominicans earn their keep - and my respect.