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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Guilt and Confession

Please read this latest e-letter from Karl Keating (to which I am subscribed):


Dear Friend of Catholic Answers:

That is what I imagine the average church's signboard could advertise, so few are those who go to confession any more. Like me, you probably go to confession regularly, but most Catholics go rarely or not at all.

This was confirmed in a newspaper article that appeared last week, so it must be true. The article was distributed by the Religion News Service, which said that "only 14 percent of Catholics go to confession yearly. ... Forty-two percent reported they never go to confession at all. ... Fifty years ago, penitents lined the aisles outside confessional booths on Saturday afternoons, waiting to admit their sins, recite the Act of Contrition, receive absolution from a priest, make their penance, and be forgiven."

Gone with the wind, that. What happened?

The article said that "sociologists and Catholic clergy list a number of reasons, including changing notions of sin, opposition to the Church's stance on birth control, widespread changes after the Second Vatican Council, ignorance about the sacrament, and busy lives."

Each of those, no doubt, has had something to do with our ending up with everybody going to Communion and almost nobody going to confession, but I think the real answer may be simpler than that. Let me tell you a true story.

Some years ago I was invited to dinner at the rectory of the most populous parish in the Los Angeles Archdiocese. When I knocked on the door, the housekeeper admitted me. It was evident at once that no one else was there. Had I shown up on the wrong night? Oh, no, said the housekeeper. All four priests were still in the church, hearing confessions.

On a Thursday night?

When the priests finally returned to the rectory, the pastor apologized for keeping me waiting. They had had fifty more penitents than usual for a Thursday. I remarked that Thursday evening seemed an odd time to have confessions. "Oh, we have confessions every evening," said the pastor--hundreds and hundreds of confessions each week.

I wondered how that could be possible. The pastor chuckled. He said that neighboring pastors asked the same thing--and they proffered answers. "Many of them say, 'Well, you're just getting our penitents because you have such convenient times for reconciliation,' but that's not so, you know. We can tell that these are our own people."

But why, I asked, were the four priests in this parish kept busy with confessions each evening, not to mention on Saturday afternoons, when in neighboring parishes only a handful of people showed up at the once-a-week slot for confessions?

"Easy," said the pastor. "It's so easy that other priests don't believe how we do it."

Okay, I said. What's the secret?

"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."

That's it? I asked. No fire and brimstone? No bribes, spiritual or otherwise? No threats?

"Not necessary," said the pastor. "If you tell people the truth that they already know in their hearts--that they are sinners and need forgiveness--they will respond to that." And so they did.

No matter what changes have occurred since Vatican II, no matter how ill-instructed today's Catholics may be, no matter how put off they may be by scandals or flat homilies, one thing has remained constant: human nature. People today commit the same sorts of sins that people committed fifty or a hundred or a thousand years ago, and those sins affect them as sins always have affected people. At least in this regard, there is nothing new under the sun.

The story I have told suggests why most parishes have few penitents: The fault is found not so much in the wider culture but in the narrow pulpit. When is the last time you heard a priest, even a good one, say clearly that those listening to him were sinners, knew they were sinners, and needed to go to confession--and that he would be waiting for them and would give them as much time as they needed?

Yes, I know of good priests who mention confession, but I can't remember the last time I heard that even one of them spoke about the sacrament the way it should be spoken about. And those are the good priests. What about priests who would rather not have Saturday afternoons so inconveniently interrupted, the ones who have never uttered the word "confession" from the pulpit, who think they are doing their parishioners a favor by not trying to burden them with guilt?

I have news for such priests: Their parishioners already are burdened with guilt. They struggle with guilt because each person over the age of reason is a sinner. That is something called a Brute Fact. What a pity that so many priests fail to understand what is so obvious to the people they preach to each week!

Until next time,



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