Catholics called to return to the confessional

For many Catholics, making a trip to the confessional can seem like a daunting task. Whether the available times are inconvenient, they are nervous about the process or they simply don’t think they have anything serious to confess, some would just as soon skip the sacrament altogether.

But new efforts in parishes and dioceses are attempting to reverse this trend by addressing the issues that keep Catholics away from confession and inviting them to come back to the sacrament.

At the diocesan level, programs such as “The Light Is On For You” — a joint effort of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and the Diocese of Arlington, Va., launched in 2007 — have used the Lenten season as a time to promote the sacrament. Each Wednesday evening during Lent, confessions are available in every parish in both dioceses, with radio and television ads and posters on buses and trains encouraging Catholics to take advantage of the opportunity.

The program has also been adapted for use in a number of other dioceses.

Matter of convenience

The strategy of The Light Is On, said Susan Timoney, assistant secretary for pastoral ministry and social concerns in the Archdiocese of Washington, is to make confession available at a time when people are likely to be in the midst of their evening commute.

“If you think about your typical drive home and the number of parishes you may pass, knowing that every one of them is open on Wednesday night for confession makes a big difference in terms of the convenience,” Timoney told Our Sunday Visitor. And by partnering with the Arlington diocese, she added, they are able to make the sacrament simultaneously available in nearly 200 parishes across Washington and northern Virginia.

Providing confession at a time that fits people’s busy schedules has also become a priority for St. Olaf Parish in downtown Minneapolis. In an effort to serve those who work in the city, the parish offers confessions six days a week after its 7 a.m. Mass and three days a week after the noon Mass.

Father Mark Pavlic, pastor of St. Olaf, told OSV that this schedule helps Catholics fit in a trip to the confessional on their way to work or during their lunch break.

“People like the opportunity to receive the sacrament at convenient times,” Father Pavlic said. “Before I was ordained, a friend told me, ‘Remember when you are a priest that there is no time more inconvenient for confessions than Saturday afternoon at 4 o’clock. For those of us who work, Saturday is our only day to get things done and having to stop in the middle of the day to go to confession is difficult.’ I think that is why morning and lunch hour confessions bring people in.”

Coming back

The Diocese of Dallas has also begun promoting the importance of confession, designating one day during Lent and one day during Advent last year for confessions in all parishes. This year there will be two days during Lent on which all parishes will offer the sacrament.

Msgr. Robert Coerver, pastor of St. Rita Parish in Dallas, told OSV that these efforts have helped to bring back people who had been away from confession. “Since last Lent I have seen a significant upturn in the number of people approaching the sacrament,” he said.

At St. Rita, confessions are available twice a week, on Saturday mornings and Thursday evenings. While Saturdays remain more popular, Msgr. Coerver said, Thursday nights also draw a good crowd for confession, which is paired with an hour of Eucharistic adoration.

“We priests have made the commitment to be there for the entire course of the Holy Hour (to hear confessions),” he said, “or later, as has become a bit more common.”

Timoney said that the Archdiocese of Washington hasn’t tracked actual numbers of confessions during its campaign, but priests have noted a strong turnout, particularly among Catholics who have been away from the sacrament.

One of the keys to bringing people back, she said, is easing any anxiety they might have about what to do in the confessional. This year, the archdiocese is offering an instructional guide that penitents can download on their phone to help guide them through the steps of confession.

“If it has been a long time, we don’t want people to feel even more awkward than it already feels taking that first step,” Timoney said. “So the message we are trying to communicate is that it is easier than you think. And for our priests, one of their most favorite things to do is to hear the confession of someone who has been away for a long time.”

Creative approaches

When the Diocese of Venice, Fla., launched its own version of The Light Is On For You last year, Venice Bishop Frank Dewane chose Friday nights and Saturday mornings as the time for all parishes to offer the sacrament.

Eric Sammons, director of evangelization in the Diocese of Venice, recalled one parish that was at first concerned about the Friday night time conflicting with their traditional Lenten fish fry. But the parish’s priest took advantage of the large turnout for the fish fry by approaching attendees and inviting them over to the confessional, and many were happy to take him up on the offer.

“That was a great case of a priest really being creative and not seeing it as a problem, but as an opportunity,” Sammons told OSV.

When Lent ended, the diocese continued to seek out new ways to promote the sacrament, Sammons said, including giving talks at parishes, putting articles in the diocesan newspaper and promoting videos on the diocesan website in which priests answer some of the most common questions Catholics have about confession. And after the Friday evening offering seemed to attract people who might not normally make it to confession on Saturdays, some parishes have begun adding new times to their confession schedules.

“I think people kind of believe the story that nobody goes to confession, so why offer it,” said Sammons. “But really what we’ve seen is there’s a real desire out there and people want to go to confession when it is presented to them properly and beautifully.”

Scott Alessi writes from Illinois.