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Confession: a shadow of its former self?

When Bonnie Lavric was growing up in a Philadelphia suburb in the mid-1960s, her mother, father, and four siblings dutifully piled into their VW Beetle every Saturday for an afternoon drive. The destination? Weekly individual Confessions at their local parish. Though Lavric somberly remembers being intimidated by the dark, musty confessional with its heavy red curtain, she recalls the drive to church as having elements of both a lighthearted road trip and a sobering guilt trip.

"My siblings and I tried to remember all of the heinous things we had done that week," she says. "Sometimes we would punch each other on the way over so we would have something to say.

"The road to the church was really bumpy," she recalls. "And every time the car went over a bump, we'd yell out, 'Whee!' And then we would be chastised because we were supposed to be concentrating on our sins. There were a lot of conflicting things going on in that car."

The road to Confession, for Lavric, was somewhat bumpy on a deeper level, too. "It was all very confusing and uncomfortable and scary. I don't remember it being positive at all," she says.

These days, Lavric, now 47 and living in Dublin, Ohio, has a different view of the sacrament. She uses words like "remarkable" and "rejuvenating" to describe her experiences of Reconciliation and celebrates the sacrament three to four times a year. What changed her outlook, she says, was revisiting Reconciliation as each of her five children experienced it for the first time. "Growing up, there was more hellfire and brimstone," Lavric says, "But now the focus is more on the fact that I am forgiven."

Lavric now regularly makes time for Reconciliation, as do many young parents who wish to set a good example for their children preparing to experience the sacrament. But the family drive to church for Saturday Confessions is now a thing of the past, and the Catholic population at large doesn't exactly mirror Lavric's wholehearted embrace of Reconciliation. In fact, Catholics are split almost down the middle. A 2003 survey of over 1,000 Catholics, conducted by sociologists James Davidson and Dean Hoge, indicates that while 46 percent of Catholics celebrate Reconciliation once a year or more, 53 percent never or almost never do. In addition, only 38 percent of Catholics say that private Confession to a priest is "essential to [their] vision of being Catholic."

In a 2001 article in Commonweal magazine Boston College historian James O'Toole wrote: "We seem to be in the process of reducing the number of sacraments from seven to six--by default." A closer look at the "most endangered sacrament" reveals that, though there are signs of hope, this trend isn't likely to reverse itself anytime soon.

Through new eyes

Despite the widespread national decline in the celebration of Reconciliation, parents of young children are still willing to revisit the sacrament as their children prepare to receive it for the first time, often because parish programs require it. Parents often find that their children's preparation differs drastically from the doom-and-gloom, anxiety-ridden lens through which they were taught to view Confession. Tom Weed of Merrillville, Indiana noticed this difference when he attended preparation sessions with his 7-year-old son.

"When I was young we were taught to be afraid," says Weed, 45. "But my son was taught that this is a very loving and giving thing, a gift he is receiving. The understanding of God giving total forgiveness was pushed a lot more."

Mike Madonna, a father of two living in Old Bridge, New Jersey, also noticed a fresh perspective in his son's sacramental preparation.

"It was a lot more kid-friendly, a happy occasion, and my son was so excited," says Madonna. "What I remember more from my parish growing up was, 'You are going to get punished. Say your rosary and Our Fathers.'"

When Sean Going, 39, of Medford, Massachusetts attended his parish service for his son's First Reconciliation, he couldn't believe his eyes.

"After the children went it was tremendous to see the number of parents who took part in the sacrament as well," he says. "I don't know when I've seen so many people go to Reconciliation."

In attending the preparation sessions for his son's first Reconciliation, Going noticed that his parish emphasized a more relational approach to the sacrament than he had been taught as a child. "It focused more on it being another method of communicating with God," he says. "Back in my day it was, 'Get in there and confess your sins.'"

Claire Lane, 38, of Gaithersburg, Maryland, learned that Reconciliation takes place within the context of a relationship with God, but also within a worshiping community.

"The idea of reconciling to your community through the priest was very new to me," she says. "I grew up having an idea of personal sin that I needed to confess and atone for and do penance for. It's almost easier to avoid the sacrament if you think of it in those terms because we confess our sins, in a way, at the beginning of Mass. But what I learned with my daughter is that in any sin, no matter how personal or private, you are not only turning away from God but you are turning away from your church community."

Lane, who previously celebrated the sacrament of Reconciliation "once a decade," says she has participated in the sacrament three times in the past nine months. "That's a lot compared to my previous life," she said. "Before I just never felt like I had a mortal sin I needed to confess."

Lane says that during the time when she was away from the sacrament she relied on her own personal prayers and scriptural reflection for spiritual sustenance. In addition, confiding in her best friend and husband took the place of sacramental Reconciliation.

"As a conscientious adult I felt that I was capable of telling people I'm sorry and acknowledging my wrongdoings," she says.

What do we do now?

While most parents speak positively about the insights they gained through their children's sacramental preparation, they differ in their future commitment to the celebration of Reconciliation.

Though Going appreciated his parish's presentation on Reconciliation, he has no plans to make it a regular part of his life.

"I am so comfortable with my relationship with God that I don't believe I need an intermediary," he says. "I'm a big fan of Eastern philosophies that focus more on self-examination or meditation. It's not that I don't like talking to priests; I just don't feel the need to do that. But I think it's great to have as an option."

Going has discussed this approach with his 7-year-old son and plans to teach his 5-year-old daughter in the same manner.

"I want them to have that option," he says. "I tell them that it is a way of communicating with God while having a priest there to focus that communication."

David Bodary, 40, a father of two from Kettering, Ohio, says he celebrates Reconciliation at least twice a year.

"That's not a lot by my parents' or grandparents' standards," he says, "but it's a whole lot compared with some of my contemporaries."

Andrea Madonna plans to continue celebrating the sacrament of Reconciliation with her children, but she has come to realize that there's an additional piece of the puzzle she needs to attend to at home.

"If you are upset with your kid and you say, 'You are going to Confession,' you can't then continue yelling at them," she says. "I learned that children need to understand that when you ask God for forgiveness, after that it is unconditional. Now I know I need to do my part in that--I need to forgive them, too. It's a different branch of the whole process I probably wasn't getting until it was explained to me."

Catholics at large

While parents and their school-age children may provide a temporary spike in the number of reconcilers, participation among the Catholic population at large is much more uneven.

Many post-Vatican II Catholics who don't shudder at memories of uttering "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned" in a grim, dark confessional still don't plan to make Reconciliation a regular part of their lives. For many of these younger Catholics, this outlook is rooted not in negative experiences or theological misgivings but simply in indifference, according to Jeff Guhin, 24, who is currently editing a book of essays by young adult Catholics.

"Very few people have massive problems with the sacrament," says Guhin. "The overwhelming majority doesn't hate it, but they don't go for reasons not intensely thought out. It's just not part of their cultural experience."

Chris Parazin, 31, of Olathe, Kansas, says that while he believes in the idea of Reconciliation, this belief doesn't translate into actually making a commitment to the sacrament itself.

"I was taught that it was something unique to being Catholic, and I buy the line," Parazin says. "But I'm a slave to convenience. The effort [Reconciliation] requires, plus the awkwardness of having the conversation with a priest, means that I would need a really big reason to go. Otherwise, I think, 'It's Saturday, and I've got other things to do.'"

Catholics born after Vatican II have never experienced the long Saturday lines at parish confessionals. Most are likely to have experienced Reconciliation as part of an Advent or Lenten communal penance service followed by individual Confessions, which comprises the vast majority of Reconciliation celebrations today.

Communal penance services, coupled with individual Confessions, were first introduced with the 1973 publication of the new Rite of Penance, which also introduced face-to-face Confession as an option. According to Boston College's O'Toole, communal penance services have more widespread appeal than individual Confession in part because of some of the theological foundations laid out by the Second Vatican Council.

"Their appeal is probably connected to the changes in the Mass as people got used to more participation in Sunday Mass," O'Toole said. "Things that were communal seemed normal to them. Catholics learned to think of the sacramental stuff in a communal sense."

Diane Boyhan, 52, of Worthington, Ohio says that a communal penance service followed by individual Confession best meets her spiritual needs.

"Before, you went into a dark cubbyhole, didn't see the priest, and had a list of sins to read," Boyhan says. "The Reconciliation services they have now help you to meditate and to get to the point where you really know what to ask forgiveness for. And when you share with the priest, it's more meaningful and personal."

Priest-phobia

Though both a convenience-oriented society and a lack of cultural predisposition play a role in diminishing participation in Reconciliation, the most common reason Catholics say they don't participate is that they feel uncomfortable confessing their sins to a priest.

For some, this reticence stems from a preference for a private, one-on-one conversation with God. Michelle Edwards, 45, of St. Louis says she tends to eschew the idea of relying on a priest as an intermediary. When her son acted up recently at home, this mother of five took him to church for a time out.

"I told him I would say some prayers there and that he should, too," she says. "We didn't formally get a priest and go to Reconciliation. It's not that I don't believe in the sacrament, but I feel very comforted in having a conversation with God, and that's what I try to teach my kids.

"As much as I love my faith and believe in my priest, I think, 'Can that one man really absolve me of my sins in the act of Reconciliation formally done versus me directly talking to God?'"

For some Catholics, finding a priest they are comfortable enough to talk to can present a challenge. Yvonne Garcia of Los Angeles was just getting comfortable talking to her parish priest when he was transferred to another parish. That's the main reason she no longer celebrates Reconciliation.

"I ask God for forgiveness when I pray before bed," says Garcia, 37. "My grandmother told me that every house is God's house, and that wherever we speak to God he will hear us."

Even Claire Lane, who believes in the importance of confessing one's sins to a priest, acknowledges that the experience of the sacrament often correlates directly with the quality of the human interaction.

"Quite frankly, sometimes the sacrament isn't performed very well by the priest," she says. "My experience has been both good and mediocre. After a mediocre experience you're more inclined to think 'Hmm, maybe I don't need to go through that again.'"

David Bodary, too, acknowledges that the personality of a priest--if it clashes with one's own expectations--can present a psychological challenge. "You have to go to a person you respect and look up to," Bodary says.

Even priests themselves acknowledge that finding a good confessor isn't always easy.

"I think that if people could absolutely count on the priest being kind, it would be a lot easier to go to Confession," says Father Michael Hazard, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Kalamazoo, Michigan. "That's my own experience as someone who goes to Confession.

Spiritual writer and retreat facilitator Father Ronald Rolheiser, O.M.I., who speaks regularly on the topic of Reconciliation, acknowledges that "even as a priest it is hard to find a good confessor." He says the difficulty in finding a priest with whom one is comfortable is a legitimate concern for laity and clergy alike.

"It's a real thing, it's not a rationalization," Rolheiser says. "The priest's humanity gets in the way, and you cannot talk to that person at a certain level. When you do find someone who is really effective you are able to go deeper, to lay your soul bare."

The rapport (or lack thereof) between confessor and penitent is a practical problem, said Rolheiser, that has a practical solution.

"Find a priest in a different parish," he said. "It doesn't have to be your parish priest. Even way back during the time of the Council of Trent, the old catechism said 'If you are in a small place and the priest knows who you are, wait until a mission priest arrives.' With the amount of mobility and accessibility today, people should be able to find somebody."

Not everyone, however, agonizes over their chemistry with the priest celebrating the sacrament. Esmerelda Polido, a 28-year-old from Pomona, California, takes a very pragmatic view.

"I just don't worry about it," she says matter-of-factly. "That's his job. I don't like to go to a male doctor either, but that's his job. With a priest, that's what he is there for."

Saints or sinners?

While some Catholics may shy away from the sacrament for fear of confessing their sins to another person, an informal survey shows that a sense of sin and a sense of right and wrong is still alive and well in the hearts of minds of many Catholics.

When asked if they thought of themselves as sinners, many answered quite bluntly.

"Yes. I am a sinner," says Manuel Gonzales, 37, of Los Angeles. "If we don't see ourselves as sinners, we are in denial."

"Oh, yeah. I know that I am," says Jodi Dresser, 38, of Austin, Texas. "I have a very heavy conscience. Each time I was asked to be a eucharistic minister or a catechist in my parish I would say, 'No, you are asking the wrong person.' I told them I didn't have the knowledge but really I was thinking, 'No, I am a sinner and it would be insulting to the church.'"

Though Garcia acknowledges that she slips flora time to time, she thinks that most days she lives life on the straight and narrow. "I know I sin, but I think I do more good than bad," she says.

Father Larry Tensi, pastor of St. Columban Church in Loveland, Ohio, says he is struck by the seriousness with which people confront their own shortcomings.

"They name it, and they're not embarrassed to say it," he says. "They know their sin. It's like the psalm that says 'My sin is before me.'"

Father Don Wolfe, pastor of Assumption of Mary Church in Duncan, Oklahoma, agrees. "I don't get the sense that people are tied and twisted up with guilt, but they are very aware of their state before God," he says. "They know how they fall short in their own lives in response to the gospel."

For many in the Hispanic community, a deeply ingrained sense of sin prevents Massgoers from coming forward to receive Communion on a regular basis, though it doesn't prevent them from coming to church on Sunday. Hazard has observed this phenomenon in his Kalamazoo parish, where he celebrates a weekly Spanish Mass at his parish of 1,100 families.

"You can't lump together everybody who speaks Spanish," Hazard says. "But in the Mexican population the sacrament of Penance is like the gate to Holy Communion. Some of them do go to Confession regularly, but more people are not going to Confession and not going to Communion."

Jose Torres, 43, of Norman, Oklahoma, says he will only receive Communion if he has gone to Reconciliation beforehand.

"I need to be free of sin before I receive Christ and the Eucharist," Torres says. "If I go [to Communion] with sin, I commit a double sin, and I don't want that."

Maggie Darett, 32, of Los Angeles, has not received Eucharist since she moved in with her fiance a year ago, though it doesn't prevent her from attending Sunday Mass.

"I go to church every Sunday--I've never missed," she says. "But I don't take Communion because I'm living in sin."

Father Chuck Witschorik, C.S.C., associate pastor of St. John Vianney Parish in Goodyear, Arizona, says that Mass attendance without Communion is primarily a cultural phenomenon in the Latino population but that practical circumstances also play a role.

"For Latinos, Communion is something you only receive when you are worthy of receiving it, not something you receive regularly," he says. "But a lot of times what impedes people from going to Reconciliation is practicality. They work second shift or work all night, or they work so much they can't make it to a regularly scheduled time for Confession."

According to Ted Rodriguez, a deacon at St. Anthony Parish in Renton, Washington, the busyness of U.S. priests also contributes to Latinos' infrequent celebration of Reconciliation.

"In Mexico, you can go anytime to a parish priest and say, 'I'd like to confess,'" says Rodriguez. "The priests there commit themselves to the parish people all day long. Priests in America work hard, too, but they travel a lot--to hospitals, to chanceries. They're always going somewhere."

Where to go from here

Laundry lists of sins and long lines at the confessional are but distant memories for older Catholics and exist as mere quaint curiosities for the younger set, preserved by old movies and the memories of grandparents. Though many people in the pews recognize their shortcomings and failings, whether they see Reconciliation as an antidote to their transgressions is another matter.

Vibrant seasonal penance services and parish First Reconciliation programs that promote parental involvement result in temporary spikes in the number of penitents, but in and of themselves they cannot reverse the tremendous decline in the number of Catholics who celebrate Reconciliation regularly.

"Until there is a new kind of religious consensus formed, revival is going to be very difficult," says James O'Toole. "It won't happen until there is a replacement for the cultural supports Catholics have had in the past."

In other words, it may be a long time, if ever, before Reconciliation can be removed from the top of the "endangered sacrament" list.

RELATED ARTICLE: True confessions.

In 1998, my Franciscan superior asked me to consider being a confessor at St. Peter's in Chicago. St. Peter's-in-the-Loop, as it is commonly known, is a popular place for Confession in the Chicago area. Currently Reconciliation is available for 67 hours each week. For a priest it's the perfect place to learn what it means to be a confessor.

Fortunately when I began to minister at St. Peter's I had already had 16 years of experience. Like riding a bicycle of kneading bread, celebrating the sacrament improves with repetition, becomes more authentic in the doing.

In the first years of my ordained ministry I had an unrealistic expectation of myself: I approached the sacrament as if it were my duty to offer insight or pose a question or suggest an act that could transform the person and resolve the person's sinfulness. I realize now I overemphasized what the Rite of Penance calls "suitable counsel" and placed an unattainable burden on myself. Confession, after all, is much more than suitable counsel.

I hope that penitents in my early years of ministry appreciated my earnestness rather than being offended by my presumption. My expectation made Confession an ordeal for me--and perhaps for those who sought absolution as well.

There was no single moment when I realized I needed to refashion my role. There was no one penitent who told me to relax and get out of God's way. It was the Confessions themselves that made me recognize the inadequacy of my few words of counsel. Sometimes my counsel had been tried. Sometimes it was judged impractical. Sometimes the penitent thought it too radical. I had no insight to offer people whose burdens were enormous of whose choices, though possibly well intentioned, had shaped their lives in a way that could never be altered.

But in time I learned that penitents rarely came to Reconciliation for my words; they came for God. As a confessor, I have a privileged role to play in this encounter. But--surprise, surprise--I'm not God. In time I became what a confessor should always be: just the minister of God's mercy.

My finest teachers of this lesson were those penitents who told me how they had done the worst things that human beings can do. With few justifications, they confessed their sins. Their honesty, though shocking in my early years as a priest, moved me. Trusting me with these unsavory acts of their lives was a gift I had not earned.

What I remember most about these penitents is the heartfelt remorse made present in their voices and their tears. One young man left the confessional after celebrating the sacrament and then returned later, tearfully assuring me that he wished he had not committed the sin he had confessed. My task in those situations was clear: to represent a church big enough for all of us and a God who welcomes all people with mercy.

The penitents I have encountered have taught me that real life rarely looks like its media portrayal. Most people's lives would not make a very interesting drama; few people's lives are nothing but laughs. Our lives are also not so neat; there is a complexity with few clean endings, constant challenges that pay no attention to one's calendar, and innumerable compromises. Having walked with others through the thicket of many knotty moral issues, I feel a lot less confident judging others.

Ministering as a confessor has also given me an appreciation for the human ability to endure painful family situations, chronic illness, losses that will never stop hurting. Spending hours in the intimacy of the confessional, I learned that people long for a real human connection, that loneliness is rampant.

I also learned to laugh in the confessional. Sometimes our lack of insight, emotional missteps, and ill-considered acts can best be faced with laughter. This is not belittling the sacrament or anyone's life. But in the end, sometimes laughing is the appropriate response. After "My last Confession was two years ago" and the only remembered sin was "I cursed three times," I was given to say, "So, you've had a boring life lately." The laughter we shared might be followed by, "Well, I have been wanting to ask someone about ..." or the recounting of a debilitating illness and the struggle to accept one's diminishment, or the description of the quietude of a senior's years. Laughing together made us human and reminded us that our humanity is where God meets us.

What the church "does" through Reconciliation, in the words of the Rite of Penance, is "pursue repentance and renewal" as a sinful and holy people "always in need of purification." Our sinfulness is always an opportunity for holiness. I hope penitents coming to my confessional leave with this vision; it is certainly what they have taught me.

--Jerry Bleem, O.F.M.

RENEE LAREAU is the author of Getting a Life: How to Find Your True Vocation (Orbis). She writes from Columbus, Ohio.
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Author:LaReau, Renee M.
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Date:Nov 1, 2005
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