Reconciliation: The forgotten sacrament?

“Going to confession is hard — hard when you have sins to confess and hard when you haven’t,” Dorothy Day famously wrote in her autobiography’s introduction.

Judith Babarsky, however, wasn’t intimidated by her first confession when she joined the Catholic Church in 2012, and she doesn’t dread it now.

“For me, there really isn’t that anxiety or that fear. Part of it is that I’m a therapist, and I’ve been in therapy myself,” she said. “I’m comfortable talking about my weaknesses, about faults.”

A licensed professional counselor in northern Virginia, Babarsky tries to receive the sacrament of reconciliation every two to three weeks. In September, she blogged about the sacrament in a post titled “Why I Love Confession.” “It is perhaps the greatest benefit of being Catholic,” she wrote.

The sacrament’s decline

Data show few of America’s 67 million parish-affiliated Catholics share Babarsky’s enthusiasm. A 2008 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, showed that 45 percent of Catholics reported never going to confession, and 30 percent said they went less than once a year. Only 2 percent go monthly or more.

When Msgr. Robert J. Batule was ordained in 1985 for the Diocese of Rockville Center, New York, confession attracted long lines of penitents in his parish. The decline of use of the sacrament was already in effect, however, as Pope St. John Paul II observed in a 1984 post-synodal apostolic exhortation “Reconciliation and Penance.”

Within a decade, Msgr. Batule’s confession line dwindled, and he observed that regular penitents confessed less frequently.

Confession, he said, has become “a forgotten sacrament,” but one ripe for renewal with the New Evangelization.

So why do some eagerly seek the sacrament, and some not at all?

Responsibility for sin

Some Catholics see confession as an aspect of a “full, vibrant, Catholic life,” said Msgr. Batule, now pastor of Corpus Christi in Mineola, New York, and a part-time instructor at St. Joseph’s Seminary in nearby Dunwoodie. “Those Catholics who are using the sacrament at regular intervals see the problem of sin as a weakening of our relationship with Christ, and the best thing we can do is take responsibility for our faults and failures, receive the Lord’s forgiveness and start anew.”

Other Catholics, he said, find confession difficult because they’re unsure of how to examine their conscience, erroneously viewing sin as a remote concept. Msgr. Batule attributes that mistaken understanding of sin to three things: secularism, relativism and the misapplication of social science, where behavior is ascribed to formative life events, not free will. People widely believe that everyone is assured salvation, he said, no matter what kind of life they live — an idea that contradicts Catholic teaching — so they don’t feel a need for the sacrament.

However, Msgr. Batule thinks the Rite of Penance is “well attuned to human anthropology,” an idea he explored in a 1997 article for The Priest magazine, and one he maintains today.

“There’s a need for the healing of the human spirit, which has been wounded,” he said. “Oftentimes, the wounds come as a result of sin. When we’re able to take responsibility for sin and ask for forgiveness, then we’re able to make great progress, emotionally and psychologically, because we have received the gift of forgiveness, and it’s a liberating experience.”

A sinner’s haven

Twenty miles west of Msgr. Batule’s parish is St. Francis of Assisi Church in midtown Manhattan, which has earned the nicknamed “New York’s Confessional.”

guide to confession
A Pocket Guide to Confession

Franciscan friars hear 44 hours of confessions there each week, but the parish also offers spiritual direction, professional counseling and a dozen addiction-support groups.

The church’s close proximity to Pennsylvania Station, Madison Square Garden and Macy’s puts it at the confluence of people from all walks of life, many of whom seek out St. Francis’ friars.

“We’ve gained a reputation for being good confessors, in that we’re kind and thoughtful to people,” said Father Andrew Reitz, a Franciscan friar and St. Francis’ pastor. “They know that we hear everything, so they know they probably won’t shock us with what they say.”

Penitents range from those who confess weekly to those who have been away from the sacrament for decades.

Father Reitz said people who fear confession do so for two reasons: They’re not sure how the friars will react, and they have a negative image of God “just waiting for them to make a mistake.”

As he and the other friars see fit, they refer penitents to counseling, and those in counseling to the confessional. Sometimes, Father Reitz added, people need to understand that God has forgiven them, and they have to forgive themselves. “A good spirituality helps you have a good psychology, and a good psychology helps you have a good spirituality,” he said.

Facing fears

Babarsky, a therapist for 23 years, describes what she does as a kind of “secular confession,” and thinks people avoid sacramental confession and therapy for similar reasons: fear of naming their faults and being judged, and a lack of introspection.

“It takes a certain amount of introspection to make good use of therapy, but also to make a good confession,” she said. Frequent penitents are compelled to move beyond a childlike listing of concrete sins, she said, to examining what keeps them from holiness.

“It takes a desire to be as holy as you can, a desire to be a saint,” she said. “I think the theology of confession is misunderstood by a lot of people.”

She pointed to “The Light is On For You,” a widespread Lenten initiative that began in the Archdiocese of Washington and the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, as something that draws people back to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. She also thinks it helpful for pastors to remind Catholics that they rarely hear anything original in the confessional.

“It’s the same thing I get as a therapist,” she said. “If they think that their darkest sins are unique to them, I’m like, ‘No, you don’t know how many people I’ve heard say similar things.’”

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Catholics are obligated to confess once a year or whenever they’ve committed mortal sin. In Babarksy’s experience, converts to the Faith seem more enthusiastic about confession than cradle Catholics, in part because it’s fresh.

“It’s like, ‘Wow, this is a gift; if I had only known this sooner,’” she said. “Through the conversion, I learned the dogma, the theology behind confession, and know it’s not the priest, the man sitting there, that’s absolving me of sin. It’s Christ, and the priest standing in for that.”

Listening to Matthew Kelly’s CD, “The Seven Pillars of Catholic Spirituality,” convinced her to confess biweekly. “You may not have huge, mortal sins to confess every time, but it lined up with what Matthew Kelly was saying — How often do you wash your car? It’s like getting a fresh start,” she said. “It’s washing your soul, getting the little stains off.”

Maria Wiering writes from Maryland.