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James Martin, S.J.May 21, 2007

The statistics are alarming. According to the Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate, a survey in 2005 showed that 42 percent of Catholic adults, when asked how often they went to confession, answered Never.

Alarming but hardly surprising. Is there any American Catholic who does not know how empty the confessionals are in this country? The days of ritual visits to confession on Saturday afternoons are over for most Catholic families. In that same survey, 32 percent of Catholics said they confess their sins to a priest less than once a year.

More worrisome is the fact that active Catholics, not just lapsed or lukewarm Catholics, avoid the sacrament of reconciliation. Brian Stevens, 35, is a Catholic who is completing a master’s degree in pastoral ministry at St. Thomas University in Miami, and has just accepted a job with Catholic Charities. He does not go to confession. One reason he stopped was that he could not find a parish he liked. Not going to confession goes to the heart of feeling disconnected from the local church, Stevens said. He disagrees with blaming the laity, adding, There’s a reason for the decline; it points to a flaw in the way it’s been presented. It’s not the people’s fault.

Many younger Catholics in particular find the sacrament beside the point. Tom Beaudoin, a theology professor who writes frequently about young adults, notes that for his students at Santa Clara University in California, the sacrament is simply not an issue. I have had students talk to me about baptism, marriage, funerals, but never confession, he said. It hardly registers with them.

What has happened to confession in the U.S. church of the 21st century? Has there been a flaw in its presentation? More important, what can be done to invite Catholics to participate in the sacrament that is at the heart of our experience of the love and mercy of God? In short, how can the sacrament of reconciliation register with people?

What Happened?

Even a short history of the sacrament could fill volumes. Briefly put, the rite of reconciliation developed gradually. It is based on Jesus’ granting to the apostles the power to forgive sins, as recorded in the Gospels (Matt 16:19, John 20:23). During the first and second centuries, Christians debated whether a baptized person who had committed serious sins (for example, murder, adultery or apostasy) could be reconciled to the church. In the third century, Tertullian advanced the idea of penance, which took the form of a public act of penitence. But what most Catholics would call confession did not began in earnest until the late sixth century, when Celtic priests began to incorporate auricular confessions as part of their spiritual counseling. By 1215, theologians at the Lateran Council were reflecting and writing on the practice, which had become more widespread. The Council of Trent also took up the sacrament, laying down clear guidelines for its use.

The Second Vatican Council placed a greater emphasis on sin as an offense against both God and the community. It also declared that the rites of the sacrament were to be revised so that they more clearly express both the nature and effect of this sacrament. Vatican II defined three forms of the rite, renamed the sacrament of reconciliation: first, for individual penitents; second, for several penitents with individual confession and absolution; third, for several penitents with general confession and absolution. In the wake of Vatican II, Catholics grew accustomed to seeing reconciliation rooms supplementing or replacing the old confessionals.

The sacrament, then, has been developing slowly over centuries. So how did the church in this country move in just a few decades from full to empty confessionals? Most experts point to a confluence of factors.

The first is a profound change in the sense of sin. As John Baldovin, S.J., a liturgical scholar, points out, this is both good news and bad news. On the one hand, we’re not obsessed with sin any longer,he said. On the other hand, people don’t think of themselves as sinners, which is a big problem. Some observers note factors like an American culture that increasingly stresses victimization, rather than taking full responsibility for one’s sinful actions. Many are not all that open to recognizing personal responsibility, said Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. Contemporary Catholics may also feel that the psychologist or spiritual director fills the same needs that the confessors once did.

The second is a shift in emphasis on the presentation of the sacrament. After Vatican II, not only did priests begin to speak more frequently about social sins, like racism and sexism; they also reminded parishioners that the penitential rite at the beginning of the Mass was an important way to reconcile oneself with God and others. Father Baldovin surmised that because of the new three-year cycle of readings, priests were also preaching more homilies about stories of the forgiveness of Jesus, emphasizing God’s mercy more frequently than before. While they heard the good news, this may have relativized their sense of sin, he said. As a result, some Catholics may have become confused about whether or not confession is still necessary.

A few Catholics have told me that the church’s ecumenical stance after Vatican II further influenced their view of confession. Mary Collier, 60, a lifelong Catholic in Peoria, Iowa, said, If God is going to welcome Protestants and non-Christians to a life beyond, and they didn’t go to confession, I highly doubt that I’ll be left out because I’m not going. She almost never participates in the sacrament. I’m part of that 42 percent, she said.

Overall, said Kurt Stasiak, O.S.B., author of the widely used manual A Confessor’s Handbook, Parishioners don’t get a sense that this is an important thing to do.

The third reason behind so many empty confessionals, according to nearly all observers, is the publication of Humanae Vitae, in 1968, the Vatican’s encyclical on birth control, whose teachings on contraception were not only widely rejected by many American Catholics but also, in the eyes of those who disagreed, lessened the credibility of the church’s stance on sexual morality in general. Catholics began to doubt not only the need to confess sexual sins but also the moral authority of the church, whose representatives would absolve them from these sins.

The fourth reason may be the simplest: because of busierlives, American Catholics are not as able to keep the Saturday afternoon ritual of going to confession with their familyif they know about that practice. Very few people under the age of 35 even have the experience of that as a weekly event, said Paula Fitzgerald, a campus minister at John Carroll University in Ohio.

Taken together, these four reasons help to explain why short confession lines are the norm today. According to the CARA survey, only 12 percent of Catholics go to confession more than once a year. Perhaps the more important question is: What can the church do about it?

Old Strategies, New Solutions

While most scholars agree that the sacrament has fallen on hard times, they also agree on steps that can be taken to rejuvenate the sacrament and reintroduce it to the faithful. Father Stasiak, who teaches at St. Meinrad’s School of Theology in Indiana, said that while the sacrament is on the decline, some parishes are attracting many people to confession.

He notes four general strategies, echoed in various ways by other experts, which make for good attendance at confession.

First, priests can encourage their parishioners to participate in the sacrament. Priests can talk from their own experience about the sacrament, not as an obligation but as an opportunity, said Father Stasiak. Bishop John Cummings, the emeritus bishop of Oakland, Calif., agrees. Where there are priests who are cheerful and hopeful about the sacrament,he said, it will work.

The biggest barrier in many Catholic minds to such encouragement is the notion that the sacrament is unnecessary. Monica Andrews, 35, a former campus minister, is a social worker who lives in Seattle with her husband and infant daughter. She hasn’t seen a priest for confession in eight years. I just don’t feel that I need to verbalize my sins, she said. I feel like I can confess to God in prayer. Mary Collier raised a similar objection. Nothing against priests, but why go to a human being to ask for forgiveness if I can go to God?

Pastors are trying a variety of ways to respond to such objections. During this past Lent, Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl, of Washington, D.C., rolled out an ambitious archdiocese-wide program, The Light Is On for You, designed to attract people back to confession. This is a moment when we need to be aware of how diminished the sacrament is, in terms of its regular use, said the archbishop. When asked about these objections, he responded that Jesus established things in such a way that people could be assured of forgiveness. It’s a human need to hear from the other side, I accept that,’ he said. Jesus built that into the sacrament.

Father Stasiak suggests that the parable of the prodigal son is helpful when responding to such objections. Imagine how different the story would be if, instead of the forgiving father meeting the son with outstretched arms, the younger son had come home and found a note from the father tacked to the door. You need that personal connection, Father Stasiak said.

A second component concerns the priority of scheduling. Today the traditional Saturday afternoon hourlong time slot may be both insufficient and poorly timed, given many families’ busy weekend schedules. The problem is exacerbated in one-priest parishes or when a single priest is asked to care for several parishes. But timing may be everything. A centerpiece of Archbishop Wuerl’s Lenten initiative was asking all the churches in the Washington Archdiocese to remain open from 7 to 8:30 on Wednesday eveningsduring Lent, as a way of recognizing the timetables of contemporary lives. Why not offer it when people have a chance of being free? the archbishop said. We need to make the sacrament available in a way that people can actually access it.

Creative scheduling of penance services, including seasonal communal gatherings during Advent and Lent, may also encourage Catholics who may feel turned off by the box. And Paula Fitzgerald noted that retreats and spiritual direction at John Carroll have helped young Catholics feel more inclined toward the sacrament. During spring break this year, at the 10 p.m. Mass we had two or three students approach the presider to say, We came from retreat, would you hear my confession?’

Third, the church needs to do a better job in catechesis, say experts. Peter Fink, S.J., editor of The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, who taught the confession practicum at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology for 31 years, put it bluntly: It has been a failure of catechesis. Father Fink, who is now associate pastor at St. Francis Xavier Church in New York City, suggested that catechesis should move from focusing on sins that need to be forgiven to forgiveness that heals sinfulness. We have failed to convince people that the sacrament is more about how good God is than how bad we are. Poor education of the faithful in the basics lies at the heart of the decline of participation in the sacrament. Some adult initiation programs, for example, still spend only a few minutes discussing the sacrament.

Ironically, some Catholics who do not go to confession nevertheless show a deep understanding of what the sacrament should be. Brian Stevens said, If it was actually about reconciling oneself to the community it would make more sense. Appealing to some Catholics may be as basic as reminding them that what they are seeking is what the sacrament is already designed to offer.

Archbishop Wuerl responded to the catechetical problem by issuing a lengthy (and highly readable) pastoral letter to his archdiocese, titled God’s Mercy and the Sacrament of Penance, as part of his Lenten renewal program. It covers both the scriptural and more broadly theological bases for the sacrament, and it uses an encouraging tone and basic language that make it easy for most Catholics to hear and understand. The sacrament of reconciliation is the story of God’s love that never turns away from sin, reads the letter. It endures even our shortsightedness and selfishness.

To ensure that the message would be heard, the Archdiocese of Washington distributed 100,000 brochures and launched what The Washington Post called a marketing blitz, buying ad space on buses, billboards and on the radio.

Finally, parishes can provide good confessors. People will be more likely to gravitate to good confessors if they can be assured of compassionate priests, who will, as Father Fink says, speak a word of forgiveness. This is not to say that every priest or bishop can be a Padre Pio or a John Vianney, who were renowned for their skill as confessors. (St. John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, is said to have spent 16 hours a day in the confessional.) But hearing confessions is an art. Father Stasiak addresses it at length in A Confessor’s Handbook, which includes a helpful list of dos and don’ts, like Do not accuse; do not insult and Don’t get caught up in your own words.

An even more basic idea comes from Father Fink, who said, I used to tell my students simply to imagine what Jesus Christ would say to the person before you.

God’s Mercy

Archbishop Wuerl is hopeful about the long-term results of his Lenten program. So far it has been remarkably successful, with a dramatic increase in people coming to the sacrament, he noted a few weeks after it started. Churches where the sacrament remains a vital part of parish life tend to use a combination of strategies.

Parish priests and pastoral associates must trust that in this sacrament the church is offering something of valueeven todayto a society that minimizes sin, emphasizes victimization over personal responsibility, places enormous demands on people’s time and fosters distrust of institutions. The sacrament of reconciliation offers something everyone desires: God’s mercy. As Father Peter Fink said about his own need for the sacrament, I go to stand before God as a sinner and to hear a word from God that says, Don’t go away. I’m still with you.’

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16 years 9 months ago
Thank you for the article (May 21, 07)Bless Me Father on confession. Your research and consulting of scholars, bishops and a few good women was impressive. Now, why don't you ask the women whose children were abused by the men in the 'confessional why they do not go to confession? Or perhaps the women who sit in church listening to the proclamations regarding all they cannot do in church, ( you may run for President of the country but may not preach or hear confessions. )Perhaps also,those women who minister to the sick and dying but may never hear their confessions, and do ask the many women who give spiritual direction, hear all about sin but may not (oficially) give absolution. ah, yes, these women may give you very good reasons for not getting on line on Saturday

Anne Chapman
9 years 10 months ago
It's probably been 25 years at least since I went to confession to a male celibate priest. I know that God forgives, not a priest and I don't need to hear another human being "absolve" me of my sins. I would only consider "going to confession" again if it was really for spiritual direction and if the "confessor"/spiritual director was a woman, preferably a married woman. I would never dream of having the arrogance to suggest that a male celibate should "confess" to me, nor would I have the arrogance to believe that I had the power to "absolve" him of his sins. Group penitential services can be very helpful and useful IF the person leading the service conducts it on an intelligent and adult spiritual level, in reflections and in the silent individual examination of conscience. Individual confession to a priest is most often not helpful for the spiritual journey for many (maybe most) Catholics. I live in the Washington DC archdiocese. The literature that floods every church at this time of year is a bit embarassing. It seems to assume that adult Catholics are really still adolescents. The examination of conscience has no depth nor does it provoke any real interior reflection. Instead it has questions such as "Have you obeyed the laws of the church"? Have you gone to mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation? Have you fasted and abstained when the church decrees? And of course, the focus on sex - along the lines of "impure" thoughts and entertainment. Of course, contraception is mentioned. And there is an interesting question on respecting "authority"!. How can they expect an adult to take it seriously? It is so bad, that one pastor in a parish near my home, who dutifully displayed the official literature as required, wrote his own guide to examination of conscience - a guide that respects the intelligence and spiritual maturity ot his adult parishoners, and placed it on the racks with the diocesan guide. Those who are truly serious about the examination of conscience are fortunate enough to have the pastor's guide to prompt deeper thought and reflection. Many have suggested that he publish it so that those in other parishes could benefit from it.
Beth Cioffoletti
9 years 10 months ago
I agree with you Anne, about that superficial examination of conscience and the "rules" of the Church. In fact, at my recent confession last Saturday I deliberately left out my not being a regular Church-going Catholic. I knew that it would just introduce a stumbling block into the sincere need I had to confess my sins. I am an admitted "lapsed" Catholic. I do not belong to Club Catholic, nor do I pay my dues. I still consider myself an underground Catholic. Love, love, love joining Trappist monks at their liturgies, but can't quite make the Sunday Church scene. I'm tired of trying to fit in and I'm tired of struggling with it. But I do love the experience that I had with confession last Saturday, and will be going again.
Lawrence Kelly
16 years 9 months ago
I found the article thougtfulin its analysis of the reasons that people do not go to confession.However, when it came to ways to change the situation what it said was that we need better confessors and better times for confession.That seems to me to be a lame solution. If one of the causes is the church's condemnation of contraception and people are unwilling to accept the condemnation, what should they do? Go to confession and omit this sin (?), which seems to be hypocritical, or confess their practive ofcontraception and then resume it, which is even more hypocritical. If people cannot accept the church's position on contraception, as many of us do not, confession becomes meaningless.
16 years 8 months ago
I very much enjoyed this article on the falling off at the confessional. I have often wondered why it is that I have not felt compelled to go to confession more often. I admit freely that I do not like going to confession and I have not gone regularly as an adult. Though I found Fr. Martin's analysis interesting and insightful, I know that it only touched on my experience. The second factor mentioned (
Edward Hannibal
16 years 8 months ago
Thanks for your Mar 21 Liturgy Issue; I found it timely and well done. I was surprised, however, by James Martin’s otherwise excellent take on the near-demise of Confession (Bless Me, Father). How could a study of Penance not include a look at The Eucharist? Today’s faithful may indeed be staying away from The Box in droves, but the lines for Communion are longer than ever. I suggest this phenomenon points to another possible cause of the decline in Confession: that contemporary Catholics no longer believe that they need to walk on hot coals to be made eligible or “worthy” of receiving Holy Communion. They’re there because they need to be, and they know it. In the halcyon days Fr. Martin recalls, behind the gauzy aura of Saturday afternoon family trips to Confession and ice cream, there had been embedded in us a very dark fear: to dare to receive in anything less than the state of grace was a one-way ticket to Hell. For most of my youth, I was scared to death of receiving without going to Confession first. Then it came to me -- another breath of fresh air before the reactionaries re-shut the windows of Vatican Council II -- that the Eucharist isn’t a reward for the perfect, it’s serum for the infected. What a relief. Isn’t it possible that today’s Communicants realize that living ordinary life makes extraordinary demands, and are savvy enough to take all the help they can get, starting with the Eucharist? As in, Come to Me, all ye who are burdened. Edward Hannibal 461 Old Stone Highway East Hampton, NY, 11937 631-324-9653 edhannibalsr@yahoo.com
jane prouty
16 years 8 months ago
Father Martin I often read your columns and comments with great interest. I own your book IN GOOD COMPANY and lend it out on occasion. For many of us the penitential rite at mass seems sufficient. In my former parish I attended penitential services with individual confession and choice of confessors. Strangely enough I was usually told not to worry about what was on my mind. One cranky priest almost drove me away: he suggested I should be over my husband's death fifteen months prior to that confession. I didn't report him but others must have as he was never invited back. What I do rather wonder about is why so many are so concerned about the lesser numbers at confession. I would always prefer to attend an extra evening mass, which my new bigger parish does not provide. This parish of 2600 families does not provide penance services at Lent and Advent and had to turn parishioners away the Saturday before Palm Sunday. (I wasn't one them!)
jane prouty
16 years 8 months ago
Father Martin I often read your columns and comments with great interest. I own your book IN GOOD COMPANY and lend it out on occasion. For many of us the penitential rite at mass seems sufficient. In my former parish I attended penitential services with individual confession and choice of confessors. Strangely enough I was usually told not to worry about what was on my mind. One cranky priest almost drove me away: he suggested I should be over my husband's death fifteen months prior to that confession. I didn't report him but others must have as he was never invited back. What I do rather wonder about is why so many are so concerned about the lesser numbers at confession. I would always prefer to attend an extra evening mass, which my new bigger parish does not provide. This parish of 2600 families does not provide penance services at Lent and Advent and had to turn parishioners away the Saturday before Palm Sunday. (I wasn't one them!)
Bruce Snowden
16 years 8 months ago
"Bless Me Father" (5/21/07) by James Martin, S.J. on why Catholics don't go to confession much anymore, has many answers. Simply put it boils down to faulty cathechesis and a misunderstood particular liturgical form. For decades Bishops stopped teaching and priests stopped preaching the Catholic Faith in toto, which left confused Faithful "faithfully unfaithful!" Then, regarding the misunderstood form, I suggest this. Just before receiving Communion Catholics are told to say, "Lord I am not worthy to receive You, just say the word and I shall be healed." Bad cathechesis has led Catholics to believe that in the "just say the word" liturgical assurance Jesus does heal. So, why go to confession,which has led to the often repeated clergy statement, "Everybody goes to Communion but nobody goes to Confession!" Too simple? Maybe.
16 years 8 months ago
Many thanks to Fr. James Martin for that article on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, written with his accustomed clarity and economy of phrase (5/21). Might I suggest another possible reason for the decline in its usage since Vatican II? It may have been a carry over from a defective sacramental theology that predominated in the years before the council, in which the sacraments were viewed principally as causes of grace, with little importance attached to their sign value. In the sacramental economy established at the Incarnation we can see a certain pattern in God’s dealings with us whereby God reaches us and we reach God through human realities, human gestures. As Archbishop Wuerl was quoted as saying in the article, “It’s a human need to hear from the other side.” Yes! And we need to hear ourselves confessing our sins —this is our gesture of sorrow and repentance—as well as hearing God’s word of forgiveness spoken by the priest. Thomas L. Sheridan, S.J. Jersey City, N.J.
Kate Gallagher
9 years 10 months ago
It seems to me that you should forget all about those long-gone days of Saturday afternoon confessions. I’m 47 and I grew up in an Irish-Italian Catholic parish school (the kumbaya years), and even I don’t remember such Saturday afternoons. I just have vague, rather nerve-wracking recollections of the teachers shepherding each class into the church for a mandatory stint in the little dark box, perhaps once a year. I was so shy and scared that I don’t even think the priest heard me. And I know he didn’t see me. Anyway, you have to start from zero and assume that no one (not even practicing Catholics) have any up-to-date information about what confession is good for (or even what to say once you get in there).. As with many items related to faith, our education on this sacrament (for many of us) came to a halt during childhood. A reeducation campaign like the one you mention in Washington DC might be a good approach.
Beth Cioffoletti
9 years 10 months ago
Oh Kate, you missed the teenage years when we confessed our sexual forays in the confessional, only to have Father prod us on to confess the details of just how "far" we had gone to determine just how serious our sin was. Sigh.
Bruce Snowden
9 years 10 months ago
To make confession a necessary experience I think one must first believe in the reality of sin, including the one called "deadly" in scripture, along with belief in Jesus' words to the Apostles post-resurrection, "Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven ...". If not true, forget about it! I try to go to confession monthly, in my younger years it was weekly and I've had good and bad confessional experiences. Once in an unusually dour mood, passing a church I decided to make a visit and maybe go to confession although at that time I was not aware of any "deadly" reason to do so.. A priest was hearing and as I began to collect my thoughts I found myself involved in "negative prayer" wondering why I was going through the "painful" confessional ritual. Unexpectedly the following words came to mind as if Jesus was speaking - "I want you to remember that Jesus is your friend and your brother." Spurred by that thought I entered the confessional admitting my sins to Jesus in the person of the priest and the first words the priest (Jesus) said to me were, "I want you to remember that Jesus is your friend and your brother!" These were the very words I had heard imaginatively before confession and I was very astonished. Jesus had reminded me twice of what I already knew but needed to hear again, that he was my friend and brother. If that was true why was I so dour? My mood changed to a happy frame, and a good confessional experience had done it. I'll skip the bad experiences of grumpy priests who yell and growl, figuring they must have been worn out listening to moral garbage maybe for hours, or maybe they suffered from acid reflux, a painful digestive disorder I know about, or maybe sitting in the confession had caused a hemorrhoid flare-up, or what ever! Going back to my First Confession, probably in 1938, I told the priest I "stole sugar" my first confessed "sin." At home Brown Sugar was used and I loved it so I'd sneak a little off the table and run eating. So I thought I was a thief! The priest, a Redemptorist, went to the trouble way back then to explain to a little boy that it is impossible to steal what belongs to you and as part of the family sugar was like that. But if Mom/Dad had said not to take the sugar and you did, then a sin of disobedience, not stealing would happen. Father had taught me how to make "moral distinctions" relative to sin and that info served me well over the years. But as I said earlier, none of this makes any sense unless one believes in the reality of sin and in the teaching of Jesus that our Church has the authority to forgive sin. I think a lot of us have lost sight of thes two necessary prerequisites, so no wonder confession has dropped off with a kind of unintended protestantizing effect.
Beth Cioffoletti
9 years 10 months ago
absolutely agree, Bruce. Somewhere over the last 20-30 years (the JP2 years?) the mainline Church lost its deeper spiritual wisdom. In my very biased opinion, I associate that loss with the sharp dogmatic turn to the right.
Bruce Snowden
9 years 10 months ago
Beth, scrolling through the "confession" postings I came across yours of 4/10 agreeing with what I had to say. So saying "thanks" for seeing my point of view. One of the downers in posting is that one never knows if what one is saying makes sense to anyone and not being a Bat I dislike living in darkness - joke! joke! So I am pleased to know that you liked it. Thanks!
Sandi Sinor
9 years 10 months ago
Neither Cardinal Wuerl nor Fr Martin has actually given a logical response to Monica Andrews and Mary Collier's comments/question - why go to a priest (a human being) when I can go directly to God? I'm curious as to why the big push in recent years to get people to go to confession. Some say it's a way for the clergy to attempt to reassert all the moral authority it has lost - that they are again trying to revive what was for so long a type of control mechanism that the church has used to try to convince people that priests are somehow above and superior to them, and that priests must mediate - that people can't go directly to God. Most people know that isn't true, so to repeat Monica/Mary's question again - why "confess" to a human being instead of to God? If it were Jesus in the confessional, people might go. But why go to Fr. Joe? He's not Jesus and God doesn't need him to know our sins and forgive them.
William Nassari
9 years 10 months ago
Church corruption, sexual crisis in the Church, clergy bad reputation, arrogant and indifferent attitude...one wonders if they add up to the reasons for the decline. In real life, people wouldn't talk serious business with someone they don't trust and respect. Catholics' view of priest is far less reverent today than years ago. Does it mean that they are not good Catholics?
Beth Cioffoletti
9 years 10 months ago
Last week, for the first time in many years, I decided that I wanted to go to "confession" - the formal sacrament of the Catholic Church. Yes, that photo/video of Francis at the confessional was the final push for me. But I also wanted to actually name my sins to another person in a somewhat formal "rite" set aside for such a thing. It was a simple thing and turned out to be a good experience on many levels. The priest, whom I did not know, was a large black man exuding great humility. He reminded me of some of the prisoners that I know. Anyway, reflecting on the experience, I realized that the priest had not given me a "penance" but only said something to the effect of - "pray that you will be able to name the sins that you have not been able to confess today". Wow. I am beginning to realize that this sin stuff goes a lot deeper than what we can grasp in our usual self reflective and egoic agendas. Sin is very deep in our unconscious. Yes, it's internal, personal work. But I'm not sure that it can be totally gotten at alone, by ourselves. At some point the only way we can do our personal internal work is through others, loving others, cultivating the capacity to love others. And let the rest - our deep inherent sinfulness - be. But I do think that I will make Saturday afternoon confession more often. For so many years I put it off because it seemed so "weird" to me. Now it seems like a way to a free-er life. Addendum: I deliberately left out of my confession my not being a regular Sunday Church-going Catholic. I knew that it would just introduce a stumbling block into the sincere need I had to confess my sins. I was afraid that if I brought up the issue, it would become the central theme that I would need to discuss/explain to the priest. I am an admitted "lapsed" Catholic. I do not belong to Club Catholic, nor do I pay my dues. I consider myself an underground Catholic. Love, love, love joining Trappist monks at their liturgies, but can't quite make the local parish Sunday Church scene. I'm tired of trying to fit in or make it work and I'm tired of struggling with it. But I do love the experience that I had with confession last Saturday, and will be going again.
Michael Barberi
9 years 10 months ago
A great article on a most important subject. I think Ann Chapman made excellent points about the examination of conscience, as well as Beth. I would add a few thoughts. 1. A short guide would be immensely important for guiding Catholics into deeper reflection about examining their consciences about the many ways we may have offended God and neighbor. Keeping things simple, this guide can be similar to the laminated cards that are in the pews for saying prayers at Mass. Of course, the church/magisterium/bishops would have to break new ground so that the guide is not merely a listing of injunctions and prohibitions. 2. Confession should also be a time for assisting Catholics with deeper suggestions for their spiritual growth. Today, as in the past, once you confess your sins to the priest he gives you absolution and a short penance. In the majority of times, that's it. There is little, if any, discussion about "sins" except a repeat of certain injunctions and prohibitions in catechetics and papal encyclicals. 3. Another issue that would help draw more Catholics to confession is to resolve the inconsistency and contradictions between magisterium teachings and pastoral guidance regarding sexual ethics. For example, according to a recent opinion survey of priests in the U.S., 40% of them think contraception for married women is seldom or never as sin; 43% think using a condom as a protection against AIDS is seldom or never a sin; 19% think to engage in homosexual behavior is seldom or never a sin; and 42% think it s seldom or never a sin to masturbate. This causes moral dilemma, doubt about authority, truth and the need for confession. At the moment, no one is doing anything about this except the belief that younger priests that were schooled in JP II's theology will replace older priests who may disagree with certain teachings. However, this same poll of priests demonstrated that a similar percent of them who disagreed with these issues were younger priests. Another most important issue that contributes to the low rate of confession among Catholics is the denial of Holy Communion (and confession) to Catholics who are divorced and remarried. They make up a sizable percent of Catholics. 4. I do applaud the suggestion that more general confessions should be given but conducted in such a way that will help Catholics examine their consciences and grow spiritually so that they strive to be more like Christ. This would eventually prompt more individual confessions and/or personal guidance sessions with priests. Lastly, I have a good friend who graduated Princeton's Theological Seminary and is an Episcopal priest. He has no objection to the Catholic confession to a priest, but does not believe not confessing one's sins to a priest, but to God, will mean anything in terms of their salvation. Many Catholics who confess their sins to God, sincerely and with a firm purpose of amendment, etc, feel the same way. I go to confession about 6 times a year because late Saturday afternoons are not inconvenient for me and I have a habit of going to confession. This was drilled into me by the Nuns in Catholic elementary school during the 1950s. I think that this early formation was critically important to me and I question if the percent of Catholic elementary school education in the U.S. has declined from the 1950s. If so, this is another issue that church should address, and it is not an easy one to resolve. Better catechetics can help but the other issues I mentioned can easily derail early guidance.
Sseprn S
9 years 10 months ago
Mr. Barberi's comments, especially those made in paragraph 3, concerning the divorced and remarried, are noted and appreciated. For all of the verbiage being generated lately about a "more compassionate and merciful Church" in the wake of Pope Francis, many Catholics like myself, having been away from the Church for years, find a less than warm welcome. Those of us with irregular marriage situations find it difficult or impossible to reconcile with the Church. We are denied the sacraments including confession and offered no solution to our problems, or told that no solution is possible under Canon law. Oddly enough, my own civil marriage would have been considered licit and valid for the first 1200 years or so of Catholic history, until the Council of Trent formalized Christian marriage and required Catholics to be married in the Church. Sola Scriptura is not the answer, but inconsistencies in man made (not God made) rules, which limit full communion, harm many of us. Christ and God may forgive and welcome, but men with limited human vision and compassion manage to "retain the sins" of otherwise penitent souls who seek community and grace.
Robert Helfman
8 years 8 months ago
There is no reason not to think that the issue will remain unresolved, as long as it is assumed that the people of God have no relationship with God except that mediated by the clergy.

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