I attended a communal Penance Service last week. We have them twice a year, one during Advent and one during Lent. Attendance has steadily dwindled over the years. This one had five priests present to hear 22 confessions. I suspect only 10 to 15 percent of our parishioners receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation at all anymore. Of course, nearly 100 percent of those who still attend Mass receive the Holy Eucharist on a regular basis.
The Bible clearly warns us about receiving the Eucharist in an unworthy manner (1 Corr 11:27). So, why do so many Catholics think nothing of approaching Our Lord in a state of sin? I believe there are several reasons. We have lost our sense of sin. Whose fault is this? I blame the clergy. A recent poster in Steve Ray’s forum told of a priest announcing the Mass Schedule for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a Holy Day of Obligation. He encouraged the congregation to “try to make it” if they could, but not to worry about it otherwise. He laughed saying, “We used to think you could go to hell for missing Mass” and the congregation laughed along with him. It’s no wonder they do not take the obligation seriously. The Church still teaches that missing Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of obligation without just reason is a grave sin. (CCC 2181).
The Examination of Conscience used at the Penance Service last week was schmaltzy and sugar-coated compared to the booklets we used when I attended Catholic grade school some 40 years ago. Gone is the distinction between mortal and venial sin. In those days, mortal sins were listed in all caps. The booklet shouted at us. There was no doubt that such acts or omissions were serious offenses. Today, being judgmental is itself the sin. Who are we to tell someone they are committing a sin by sleeping in on Sunday morning occasionally instead of attending Mass? The emphasis now seems to be one’s own conscience.
While we should certainly listen to our consciences, we have a moral obligation to form that conscience in accordance with Church teaching. Furthermore, the shepherds of the Church have a moral obligation to instruct the flock accurately on Church teaching. Priests should examine their own consciences by asking themselves, “Have I done a spiritual injustice to my parishioners by not being forthcoming in presenting the truth in my preaching?” Pulling punches for fear of offending the congregation only serves to jeopardize souls.
The lack of proper catechesis is compounded by the loss of so many Catholic schools. Few of us have the opportunity for a strong Catholic education. Many Catholic elementary schools have closed due to the expense of hiring qualified Catholic teachers to replace the nuns which are now fewer in number. Religious education is often taught by volunteers who are ill-equipped to do so. Learning the Catholic faith adequately is impossible when restricted to an hour a week. Following Mass last Sunday, our 4th, 5th, and 6th graders from the parish religious education class performed a sign language interpretation of a contemporary Christian song in front of the altar. While their proficiency in sign language was impressive, I couldn’t help but wonder how much they are really learning about their Catholic faith.
Poor catechesis has also lessened appreciation for the Real Presence. Many take the Holy Eucharist like a weekly vitamin, completely unaware of the miracle they are ingesting. The warning of 1 Corinthians 11:27 carries little weight when one does not understand what is actually taking place. How many of those partaking of the Body of Christ observe Church teaching on artificial birth control? How many fasted for an hour? How many can truly say they are in a state of grace? The congregation assumes the attitude that everyone else is approaching the altar and none of them go to confession, so why should I be any different? If there was something wrong with this, the priest would say something, wouldn’t he?
Even those who do understand the necessity of proper disposition are sometimes deterred from receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation by the modern forms. Many are uncomfortable with face-to-face confession, and although the option of going behind the screen is still available, the guarantee of anonymity is shaky at best. Many confessionals have been replaced by Reconciliation rooms where the priest may be visible upon entering. One never knows if he will be seen by the confessor and therefore, may avoid the possibility. How many serious sins go unconfessed because someone fears his anonymity will be compromised?
The fact that few priests show any concern for the long Communion lines and non-existent Confessional lines only further serves to justify the commonly held belief that confession is no longer considered necessary. The Priests contributed to this attitude and only they can reverse the trend by addressing these issues from the pulpit. Souls are at stake!