Friday, March 28, 2014

(136) The National Confession Crisis: Are we part of it?


The Confessional, 1712, Giuseppe Maria Crespi
       Well into the 1960s long confession lines were common in the typical Catholic church in the days leading up to Christmas and during Holy Week.  They still are common in Poland.  During the rest of the year, every parish had an hour or so of confession every Saturday afternoon or evening.  .  Very few people would go to Holy Communion unless they went to Confession the night before.  Most people assumed they were not in spiritual condition to receive our Lord in the Eucharist…….many because of scrupulosity and others because of sins of impurity as lustful thoughts, engaging in porn, contraception, sex outside of marriage, cohabitation (a.k.a. “shacking up”), etc.; divorce and remarriage, deliberate drunkenness, drug usage, intentionally missing Sunday Mass for no compelling reason, or some other objective mortal sin.
        Then came the turmoil after Vatican II and the sexual revolution.  Many Catholic laymen and even some priests fell into it, as for example sexual abuse.  Before everything was a sin; suddenly and since then nothing seems to be a sin……a little hyperbole to make a point. 
      Fast forward some 50 years to the typical American Catholic parish of today.  Unless the pastor aggressively promotes confession, there may be a handful of people attending a Penance Service during Advent and Lent.  Most parishes have a very limited schedule for the rest of the year, in part because the demand for confessions is so low.  According to a CARA survey of 2008, 45% of Catholics never go to confession and another 42% go to confession once a year or less.  According to a more recent survey most adult Catholics have not been to confession since they were kids.  See
Today practically nobody goes to confession; yet everybody goes to communion at Sunday Mass when they do come.  What’s going on?  Has sin disappeared?  Has confession gone out of style?  Is it that nobody sins anymore?  Or is there a general moral laxity (loss of a sense of personal sin) and a lot of sacrilegious communions going on, either knowingly or unknowingly out of ignorance in not knowing the faith and its moral teaching?  Fr. Bill Casey CPM brought this out on EWTN in no uncertain terms.  Of course, only God can judge the individual soul.  Apart from the scandal involved, cohabiting couples, must have extraordinary will power and grace to remain pure and thus able to receive communion. 

Clearly, the American Church has a crisis on its hands.  To a large extent the confession crisis is simply a reflection of an even bigger problem.  The average person in the pew does not know the faith or picks and chooses what to believe as a cafeteria Catholic without understanding.  At one time most Catholics went to a Catholic school where dedicated nuns made sure the children knew their faith.  Furthermore, their teaching was reinforced by a Catholic culture at home.  Parents also taught the faith to their children.  Today, the typical Catholic family does not have much of a Catholic culture.  Sunday Mass attendance is often sporadic and the next generation follows suit.  Parents think they’ve done their jobs by dumping their kids off at CCD and shopping in the meantime.  They think that they’ve done their duty, not realizing that the parents are the principal educators of the faith.  CCD is only a help, but nowhere near enough.   What the kids learn at CCD must be reinforced and advanced at home, but often the parents don’t know the faith themselves. 

Thus we need a New Evangelization of those in the pews in addition to fallen away Catholics and non-Catholics.  One aspect of this new evangelization in the parish is promoting Confession for all members of the parish at least at the Communal Penance Services in Advent and Lent each year. 
Confessing to the Priest as Christ, the Source of Mercy
The Advent or Lenten Penance Service is beautiful.  We as a community sing together, listen to scripture, and examine our consciences.  Each person has a choice of four confessors who are willing and able to be instruments of God’s mercy to counsel, answer questions, give spiritual direction and individual attention in order to help us become holy and ready for eternity that could call at any time.  It’s so sad that three visiting priests drove through the rain to join one pastor for a Penance Service and only a handful of people show up… one church more confessors than penitents.
Is confession also for those who have not committed any serious sin?  Pope John Paul II went to confession every week and he will be canonized a saint this coming Mercy Sunday, a week after Easter.  Frequent confession must have had an important role in helping him become a saint of the Catholic Church.  If this saint felt a need for weekly confession, how much more do we need this sacrament of mercy in our quest for holiness and salvation at least during the twice a year Penance services, first in preparation for the coming of the Messiah and later for His victorious passion and resurrection?

Pope Francis showing the example and confessing his sins.
Spiritual directors generally recommend confession once a month to all who try to lead a good Christian life.  We often get tired of repeating the same old sins.  Our Lord never gets tired of forgiving us as long as we are sorry and sincerely resolve to overcome our sins.  In one of her programs, the feisty Mother Angelica, founder of EWTN,  made a point to the minimalist, who only follows the Church precept that one must go to confession at least once a year by asking:  “Do you take a bath only once a year?”  Let’s give our souls a good bath and a spring cleaning for Easter.  Go to confession!
We really confess our sins to Christ in a very personal way.
We really don’t confess our sins to a priest, but rather to Christ.  The priest is the Lord’s instrument who represents Him, in essence another Christ.  In instituting the sacrament of Penance, giving us this great gift and priests the privilege of being confessors, Jesus said: “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained”.  The priest cannot make that decision or counsel the penitent effectively unless he would know the nature of each sin.  People pay big bucks and reveal their intimate sins to a shrink; why not to a priest?  In fact many psychiatrists admit that the Sacrament of Penance is therapeutic in alleviating feelings of guilt and facilitating healing, such as from post-abortion syndrome (see ……and it’s free. 

The Sacred Seal of Confession. The priest is bound to complete secrecy.  The seal of confession is so sacred that a priest could be excommunicated for violating it.  The threat of prison, torture, or death; saving the life of a person on death row who is falsely accused, a court subpoena, or national security is no excuse or justification for violating that sacred seal with even the slightest hint, direct or indirect.  More than one priest suffered martyrdom for refusing to reveal a confessed sin.  

For example, suppose that a priest heard the confession of a woman who became pregnant out of wedlock.  The woman accuses the priest of being the father.  The priest could not use that knowledge in any way whatsoever. He could not even say: “I cannot defend myself because of the Seal of Confession”.  That would be a hint which could implicate either the woman as a liar or the real father. All he could do is deny it. One priest actually was involved in a similar situation regarding an accusation of another sort.

St. John Nepomucene (1340-93) heard the confession of the Queen Sofia of Bohemia.  Her jealous and paranoiac husband, King Wenceslaus IV ordered him to reveal her sins.  After suffering torture, he was killed, paraded on the streets, and thrown into the river.  In modern times Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington vehemently opposed legislative proposals that would require priests to report cases of suspected child abuse said in the confessional, saying that he would tell priests to disobey the law and would even go to jail himself if need be.  The standard of secrecy protecting a confession outweighs any form of professional confidentiality or secrecy.
Confession is an opportunity for both near saints and great sinners to obtain mercy, forgiveness, and graces that help us to grow in holiness.  Priests, brothers, and nuns go to confession too.  We cannot enter heaven unless we are holy.  Shall we become holy here or shall we wait for the intense and arduous purification of Purgatory?  Confession is an opportunity to examine our consciences, to assess how we are doing, and to obtain the grace to overcome our faults in our quest for holiness and growth in virtue.  Confession is really an encounter with Christ, who is most generous in His mercy.  May we overcome our faults and grow in holiness and virtue so that after death we can take a direct flight to heaven with no stopover in Purgatory. 

According to Pope Benedict XVI, “the New Evangelization…..begins in the confessional”.  Then the renewal of the parish and revival in the nation must also begin in the confessional.  After all, to evangelize others, we must first evangelize ourselves.  Then by prayer and example, word and deed…….bring others back to the Church.  The most crucial step to a new beginning in the Church is Confession. 

Confession gives us the grace to live a renewed life in Christ, closer to Him.  It helps us to appreciate the Lord’s passion which made reparation for the sins of the world past, present, and future.  One of the fruits of the passion is the manifestation of God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness in Confession.  It gives us renewed strength and ability to follow Christ.  It helps us to receive Communion more effectively with a more lively faith and sacrificial love.  God wants us to grow in holiness so that we may become saints.
Beautiful is a selection from the website of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops at
"The Sacrament of Penance is an experience of the gift of God's boundless mercy.  Not only does it free us from our sins but it also challenges us to have the same kind of compassion and forgiveness for those who sin against us.  We are liberated to be forgivers.  We obtain new insight into the words of the Prayer of St. Francis: 'It is in pardoning that we are pardoned." 

Repentance: Sincere Contrition and a Firm Purpose of Amendment
Confession is easy and certainly not scary.  You can confess behind a screen or face to face with the priest in a conversational mode.  You don’t have to memorize any prayers.  Most confessions take less than five minutes.  The steps are simple: 

1) Pray asking the Holy Spirit to enlighten you to remember your sins and make a good confession. 
2) Examine your conscience to rehearse what sins and their frequency to confess.  Only mortal sins, including forgotten ones in a previous confession, must be confessed with your best estimate of the frequency and kind.  Significant venial sins should be confessed because, if unchecked, they could eventually lead to greater sin.  Venial sins are setbacks in the quest for holiness and growth in virtue.  You can also mention faults and shortcomings that hinder your spiritual growth and you need to work on.  Essential is sincere repentance.  That is sorrow for your sins and a firm resolution not to repeat them.  For examinations of conscience for children, young adults, singles, married persons, based on Catholic social teaching, and based upon the Ten Commandments, click on
3) Enter the confessional and begin your confession with the sign of the cross and say something like: “Bless me Father for I have sinned.  It’s been so many years or weeks since my last confession.  I have committed the following sins.”

4) Confess your sins according to the examination of conscience you made a few minutes earlier.  It’s OK if you nervously stumble or forgot how to go to confession.  Confessors are patient and eager to help you. Ask any question you might not want to ask outside of the confessional.  You may ask for his advice and brief counseling.  Don’t be afraid to reveal any sin; the priest has heard them all and is most happy along with all of heaven when a repentant sinner with serious sins returns to God, after perhaps 30 or 40 years away from the Church.

5) Conclude your confession by saying something like “I am sorry for all of my sins and all that I have forgotten.  I humbly ask pardon of God and your absolution".  The priest will say a few words of encouragement or advice, give a very doable and reasonable penance symbolizing restitution and a first step in renewing your walk with the Lord.  He will then ask you to say an act of contrition which may be written below the screen.  You can bring a “cheat” sheet or notes if you wish. Finally, the priest gives absolution and dismisses you with something like, “Go in peace”.  Often the penitent feels clean and relieved as though a burden has been lifted.
            In most parishes there are many opportunities for confession.  It may be half an hour before each weekend Mass and by appointment.  In addition a couple of weeks before Christmas and Easter, most parishes provide opportunities to attend a Communal Penance Service during both Advent and Lent with visiting priests from nearby parishes.  Wouldn’t it be beautiful if the parents also go to confession when their children make their first confession this Spring?  DON’T MISS OUT THIS LENT.  You’ll have a more meaningful Lent and a happier Easter.     

St. John Vianney, Patron of Parish Priests and Confessors
            St. John Vianney and St. Padre Pio, great apostles of the confessional, pray for us and for a resurgence of confession.