It’s the forgotten sacrament. Three-quarters of U.S. Catholics either never go or go less than once a year. Many aren’t even sure what to call it: Reconciliation? Penance? Confession?
Once upon a time, people availed themselves of the Sacrament of Reconciliation as much as they did the Eucharist. It was offered frequently, and whole families waited in line to enter the confessional and tell the priest their litany of sins. I remember people standing in line as Mass began, waiting to enter the confessional and say, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”
Now only a fraction of Catholics go to confession even once a year, although the Church encourages us to go monthly. And it is not just a problem for laity. Use of the sacrament by priests has been in decline for years.
There are many reasons why the sacrament all but disappeared. In part it may have been a reaction against that kind scrupulosity that turned confession into a data dump of venial sins, tallying all the missteps that often substitute for a real reflection on the blindness and failures that truly turn us away from God.
Another reason is that the whole notion of sinfulness has waned. If God is a cross between an indulgent grandparent and a best friend, then no sin seems to merit a passionate appeal for forgiveness. We are also so prone to psychological rationalizations of our behavior that we judge ourselves incapable of sin. If everything is in our genes or our upbringing, then nothing is our fault.
Over the past several years, however, there appears to be a growing desire to restore the sacrament to a more central place in the life of the Church. New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan has appealed eloquently for a renewed appreciation of the sacrament within the context of the New Evangelization, calling it “a repentance from within that can then transform the world without.”
My parish tried something unusual this Advent. It decided to make the sacrament available when parishioners were available. A few months ago, Father James Shafer, our pastor, proposed to his two associates that instead of hearing confessions for an hour Saturday, they try a “back to the future” idea.
“I told them that I always wondered what would happen if we heard confessions around the weekend Mass schedule,” he said. “Would making it more available and convenient for people help more of them experience his great forgiving love in their lives?”
The priests agreed. They first talked about confession from the pulpit. They published an examination of conscience in the bulletin. Then, for two weekend Mass cycles, as one priest celebrated Mass, the other two were available not just before and after Mass, but during it as well. For two weekends, the three priests logged more than 60 hours in the confessional, and according to Father Jim, more than 98 percent of the time, they were busy.
“On Sunday we began a half hour before the 7:30 a.m. Mass and never left the confessionals until 1:30 in the afternoon! We were overwhelmed by the outpouring of people. Many, many of them thanked us for making it available during Mass times,” he recalled, and many hadn’t been to confession in decades.
“We were exhausted, but it was the draining one knows after a job well done,” he said.
Well done, and yet just a beginning. In many parishes, the priest shortage makes this kind of blanket coverage extremely difficult.
In the crazy busy world we live in, however, this is one example of how the Church can respond with new tactics rather than abandoning old practices. It turns out the need for healing and reconciliation hasn’t gone away. We just need to make it a priority again.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.