Sunday, April 29, 2007

I have a Confession to make

Catholic Answers’ founder Karl Keating writes a periodic newsletter to which I subscribe. Last month, he told of a Los Angeles parish where four priests hear confessions every night of the week plus Saturday afternoons. The lines are long as hundreds and hundreds of parishioners attend regularly to receive absolution for their sins. Amazed at the sight, Mr. Keating asked the pastor how they manage to attract so many regular penitents. His answer was quite simple:

"From the pulpit we tell our people that they are sinners, that they know they are sinners, and that they need to go to confession. We tell them that God loves them and wants to forgive them. We tell them that we will be waiting for them in the confessionals each night and on Saturday afternoon. We tell them this often and always gently, and so they come to confession. Lots of them."

Mr. Keating cited a recent article from the Religion News Service which stated that only fourteen percent of Catholics go to confession once a year, and forty-two percent never go at all. Here in our little parish, I doubt the numbers are that good. The reasons are many.

I can’t remember the last time I heard our priest talk about the necessity of confession from the pulpit. We seem to have lost our sense of sin and the lack of its mention by the clergy reinforces the notion that we no longer need to burden our consciences with guilt. When the conventional wisdom says we do not need to confess to a priest unless we have killed someone, people are not going to go.

In our parish, the confessional was actually removed to make room for a new restroom. Cleansing the body became more important than cleansing the soul. Confessions are now heard in the Sacristy where anonymity is not assured. Penitents have the right to confess behind a screen. Anyone uncomfortable with having the priest recognize them will shy away from confessing in our church.

Despite the fact that we should all experience great joy in receiving the graces of sacramental reconciliation, let’s face it. For most of us, going to confession is not something we generally look forward to. It’s not necessarily a pleasant experience, nor should it be. Verbalizing our sinful behavior to a priest forces us to acknowledge our faults, and serves as a deterrent for repeating this behavior in the future. The Protestant who says he confesses directly to Jesus gets off way too easy. Jesus already knows our sins. He commissioned his apostles, the first bishops of His Church, to be ambassadors of His work of reconciliation. (2 Cor 5:17-20) We confess sorrow for our sins to a priest and receive absolution because that is clearly what Christ wants us to do. “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”? (John 20:19-23)

Our parish holds a communal penance service the Wednesday before Holy Week. This is one of only two days a year when a person may have to stand in line to confess. As I entered the church for the service this year, I was greeted by firefighters who were evacuating the building. Someone had struck an underground natural gas line in the block next to the church causing a leak. I decided to go inside anyway. Five priests and about a dozen would-be penitents were chatting in the vestibule. Our pastor offered a communal absolution and told us the service was canceled. We all left at that point, and the service was not rescheduled. I suspect a natural gas leak is not sufficient reason to extend a communal absolution. Despite the slight risk of a small explosion half a block away, I don’t think any of us were in immediate danger of death.

Another opportunity to stress the importance of sacramentary confession came and went on Divine Mercy Sunday, the Sunday after Easter. On August 3, 2002 came the announcement from the Apostolic Penitentiary that a plenary indulgence would be granted on Divine Mercy Sunday under the usual conditions of sacramental confession, Eucharistic Communion and prayer for the intentions of the Holy Father and a few other simple stipulations.

In addition, the Apostolic decree requires that parish priests "should inform the faithful in the most suitable way of the Church's salutary provision. They should promptly and generously be willing to hear their confessions. On Divine Mercy Sunday, after celebrating Mass or Vespers, or during devotions in honor of Divine Mercy, with the dignity that is in accord with the rite, they should lead the recitation of the prayers that have been given above. Finally, since ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy' (Mt 5,7), when they instruct their people, priests should gently encourage the faithful to practice works of charity or mercy as often as they can, following the example of, and in obeying the commandment of Jesus Christ, as is listed for the second general concession of indulgence in the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum. (

Indulgence has apparently become a taboo word in some catholic circles. Just because indulgences have been misunderstood and often criticized by Catholics and non-catholics alike, some priests treat them as though they no longer exist. The Church, through the power of the keys, has the authority to remit the temporal punishment due to sin. This is a wonderful gift that Our Lord, in His Divine Mercy, has given us. What does it say to us when the parish priest makes no mention of this opportunity? Does he not believe in the authority of the Church to grant indulgences? Does he not believe in the necessity of purgation? Is he lazy? Is he unaware? Doesn't he care? Silence can speak volumes.

What a great teaching opportunity to explain indulgences and temporal punishment, the importance of dying in a state of grace and the power of confession! On the third Sunday of Easter, the week after Divine Mercy Sunday, we hear Our Lord telling Peter to feed his sheep. It is the responsibility of our priests, acting in the person of Christ in union with the successors to Peter, to nourish us, not only in the Eucharistic sense, but by instructing us on the path to salvation.