Confession, Pure and Simple

Despite the importance of Reconciliation there have been great changes in people's experience of the sacrament over the decades. I suspect that priests of different ages remember this experience in very different ways.

Those of us who have spent 40 or 50 years in the priesthood remember the lines that appeared in churches every Saturday afternoon -- lines of people waiting for Confession. Often they were long lines, and a fairly large percentage of the population of the parish would be on them. They usually moved quickly, and speed seemed a part of this sacrament. People told their sins quickly, and the priest absolved them quickly to make room for the next person. It was not unusual for a priest in those days to hear dozens of confessions in a day, particularly on the eve of first Fridays or as holydays approached. Often parishioners would avail themselves of this sacrament weekly, every other week, or once each month. Many people back then would never dream of approaching the Eucharist without Confession first.

Priests who were ordained after the Council have a very different experience of Confession. As no one can deny, there was a sudden and dramatic drop in the practice of Confession after the Council, just as there was a drop in the awareness of sinfulness among many Catholics. The lines of people waiting for Confession disappeared almost overnight and in many places people began to go to Confession only once or twice a year and then only once in several years, and then, perhaps, never. In many places the people were offered a kind of substitution for Confession. This was something called ''General Absolution.'' To this day we can seriously question whether this procedure actually led to the absolution of sins or not. Certainly it is valid in situations of danger and special need, but it was never meant to be the norm. I have always believed General Absolution to have been an unfortunate development. It took from people what they understood to be most essential in the Sacrament of Reconciliation: the acknowledging of their sins in the presence of a priest -- admitting the faults, failings and misdeeds that are unique to them at a specific moment in their lives.

This is important not only for sacramental reasons but for psychological reasons, as well. One of my professors, a brilliant, old Jewish woman saw this and defended Confession well. While correcting a graduate student who had made a negative remark about the Catholic Church, she said that she ''admired the Roman Catholic Church greatly for Confession'' and that she wished Protestants and Jews could have the same experience. She claimed that the confession of sins was psychologically healthy and could probably save many from spending money on psychotherapy.

This amazing but perceptive observation shows the Church's wisdom in demanding that sins be verbalized, that the admission of guilt be not totally internal but be heard by another.

Obviously the deliverance of the burden of guilt along with the resolution to change is part of Confession. These are necessary elements if we want to transform our lives. An example of this outside of Catholic sacramental experience is the confession of failings in the twelve-step programs common to movements such as Alcoholics Anonymous. The fourth through eighth steps of AA are worth repeating.

  •  Four: Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves
  •  Five: Admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  •  Six: Be entirely ready to have God remove all our defects of character.
  •  Seven: Humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings
  •  Eight: Make a list of persons we have harmed and be willing to make amends to them all.

It is very interesting that the twelve steps do not mention alcoholism or other forms of addiction. They deal instead with the conversion of the individual. How closely these steps follow the procedure of the Confession that has been part of the Catholic Church for centuries.

In too many parishes Confession has all but fallen into disuse. It is as common as it is pathetic to see this great sacrament offered only for a half hour before one of the Sunday Masses. Thus Confession is reduced to an afterthought, a not-very-important option. Often one even sees the celebrant called from the sacristy before Mass for a hurried few moments in the confessional with a penitent.

I would hope that our readers will work to reestablish (if necessary) an opportunity for Confession at an appropriate and leisurely time. Perhaps we could return to those traditional times during Saturday afternoon. Of course the Vigil Mass makes scheduling such times more difficult than it once was.

I have often thought of the immense good that is done by the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I can honestly say that if I had the choice between losing my eyesight or hearing I would choose the former. I could still hear Confession and be able to help people overcome the estrangement from our heavenly Father that their sins have created.

The friars in our community often hear Confessions in St. Patrick's Cathedral, and we have found it to be a very blessed and meaningful spiritual experience. Many people wait on lines that resemble the ones in parish churches years ago. They confess their sins quickly. Despite this seeming hurry, these people -- many from countries we consider mission countries -- have made the time in their busy lives to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. They put us all to shame because they know how to go to Confession well. TP