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Catholics should 'fess up.

Catholics of a certain age who attended Catholic grade schools in the United States before Vatican II have vivid memories of old-time Confession--that is, privately and frequently confessing one's sins to a priest. And they have good reason to hold on to that image from the past.

Somewhat like Madeline of childhood storybooks, Catholic schoolchildren marched in two straight lines, from school to church and back again, to go to Confession. From the time of one's First Communion on, every month, except for summers, a trip to the confessional was on the schedule. Obviously the whole idea was to get in the habit of Confession and to reduce anxiety by being part of an enormous herd of monthly penitents. Plus, it allegedly increased the odds considerably of someday making it into heaven.

And it worked. Catholics grew up, graduated, married, became parents, and sent their own children to Catholic grade schools to begin the cycle anew. Not that adult Catholics necessarily kept up monthly Confession. After all, church law--now and then--requires Confession only once a year, and only then if the penitent is in the state of mortal sin. If one is not a mortal sinner, it isn't strictly necessary to ever go to Confession again. And it's probably fair to say that, back then, the average practicing adult Catholic went to Confession a half-dozen or so times a year.

But Confession was always there if one needed it, and the system kept it comfortably structured. Large urban churches in metropolitan areas had many confessionals with little lights above the entrances to signal, first, whether a priest was there (light on over middle slot) and then whether sinners were confessing in the flanking slots at that moment (red light above) or the slot was open (green light above).

I can't ever recall going into one of those big-city churches and not seeing some lights on at some of the confessionals. It was a kind of 7-Eleven, round-the-clock system of forgiveness.

In the neighborhoods and suburbs, Confession was usually scheduled in parishes from 3 to 5 p.m. on Saturdays, with extra times scheduled near holy and big feast days. And in the heyday of Confession one could usually "hit the box" before weekday and Sunday Masses.

Even in the years right after Vatican II, Confession continued as some part of the lives of folks who called themselves Catholic. Catholics candidly accepted responsibility for their sins; even minor sinners knew that one gained sanctifying grace from just going to Confession. And frequent Confession was often preached as crucial for spiritual growth--sanctifying grace, after all, was the key ingredient to determine "how high" one got in heaven. The holier you became, the higher you'd end up. In any case, the system seemed to work.

But the reason it worked began to weaken, retreat, and almost fade away as the insights and implications of Vatican II began to sink in. Theologians began to mess with the theology of sin--emphasis was placed on the social nature of sin, and sin was viewed as both an offense against God and the community. As a result, everyone and everything became confused. One could no longer be sure of one's sins, of punishment, of purgatory, or even the eternal fires of hell. A Catholic who no longer believes in hell has lost a whole lot of motivation to keep going to Confession.

Adult Catholics began to realize that a theology of "dark spots and smudges on one's soul" wasn't enough to get them to the parish church on Saturday afternoons for a practice that began to mean less and less to them.

So the keepers of the keys to heaven and hell (see Matt. 16:13-23), in the Vatican and elsewhere, decided to rescue Confession. If the formerly fearful folks were no longer frightened enough by their sins to keep going to Confession, it was time for a whole new motivation.

Theologians thought, met, discussed, wrote, prayed, and finally decided to give Confession a new face and a new reason. The new name, of course, was the sacrament of Reconciliation, but I'm afraid it soon became the Edsel of sacramental theology. No matter how hard the theologians thought and wrote--placing Reconciliation in its proper relationship to the other sacraments--the formerly fearful folks in the pews pretty much ignored them and Confession. There was nothing really wrong with the sacrament of Reconciliation, but, like the Edsel automobile, it never attracted many buyers. Other efforts at modernization, such as face-to-face, more conversational encounters between priest and penitent, proved equally futile in stemming the exodus from the sacrament.

Slowly but surely the practice of Catholic sacramental Confession has all but faded away. The theologians may have simply missed the point. The folks in the pews may have missed, and may continue to miss, the boat.

The church is rather like a boat; it's even referred to as the "barque of Peter" by some theologians. We, the church, are packed into this crowded boat, afloat on the sea of good and evil, sailing slowly to our eternal reward or punishment. Some folks get sick and tired of the voyage and jump overboard. Some fall overboard and are never seen again. Some slip overboard and struggle to get back but sink beneath the waves. Most of us get knocked overboard sometimes by an unseen wave or a fateful misstep, but we call out for help and fellow travelers throw us a lifeline: Confession.

I'm not a theologian, but I like the image of Confession as a lifeline to the boat that is the church. It's one of the priest's jobs to tend to the lifeline and keep it handy and available. The lifeline can pull me out of the water when I slip overboard; it can also keep me from falling overboard in the first place.

From a layman's point of view, I see two strong reasons to keep my hand on the lifeline. First, if I don't discuss or confess my shortcomings--at all, anytime--to another person, I condemn myself to an earthly purgatory of always living in my own mind:

* I replay destructive tapes in my head.

* I justify and rejustify my unjustifiable behavior.

* I obsess over things I should release.

* I remain oblivious to things that disappoint those around me.

* I begin to forget that others fail too. Eventually it's just me against the world.

One could, of course, confess such stuff to a friend, but the church makes the priest the designated listener, and that's worth pondering.

The other strong reason to keep my hand on the lifeline is to stay right with God. I cannot continue to acknowledge my grateful dependence on my God, whom I don't see and cannot touch, unless I see other people both throwing and grabbing the divine lifeline. The boat truly is a lifeboat.

More literally, when I take the steps to avail myself of the grace of Reconciliation--to go to Confession--I tell myself, my God, and any interested onlookers that I do indeed have a God. And it's not me. As believing Catholics, it's not right to play God, even in our own lives.

Confession builds humility, in the best sense of the word. It keeps Catholics right-sized--not rulers, not slaves. It keeps Catholics connected to the God they long for through the designated ministers who seek the same God.

Catholics need Confession. Catholics need that God, that boat, that lifeline.


Absolution? It's absolutely needed say U.S. CATHOLIC readers. But, apparently, there are many ways for them to shed their sins. The preferred form of penance tends to vary with age. Those 26 and younger prefer to confess their sins in prayer; those age 27 to 55 and those age 75 and older prefer to confess to a priest face to face; and those age 56 to 75 prefer to confess to a priest inside a confessional.

The church obliges Catholics in a state of mortal sin to go to Confession at least once a year, and 66 percent of readers report going to Confession a few times a year. Still, readers like Patricia Houston from Venice, Florida worry that without a blanket requirement of First Confession before First Communion, "young people aren't learning to be comfortable with the process of going to Confession." Her concern isn't misplaced. Forty-three percent of those 26 and younger never go to Confession compared with 24 percent of those age 27 to 35, and 9 percent of those age 36 to 55. (Six percent of those age 56 to 75, and 2 percent of those age 76 and older confess to never officially confessing.)

There is another considerable--and interesting--gap when it comes to whether one's conscience is a good way to purge oneself of sin. Nearly 70 percent of those 26 and younger say examining one's conscience daily is not an adequate method of dealing with sin. While more than 70 percent of those age 76 and older say examining one's conscience is a good way to deal with sin. Maybe people get better at this with practice.

Readers were also split in their fondness for Vatican II's renewal of the sacrament--which put greater emphasis on the relational and social nature of Reconciliation. Father John Morse of Marthasville, Missouri is concerned that face-to-face Confession to a priest has now become the norm. "The option to confess anonymously is wrongly being taken away from us," he writes.

On the other hand, Marge Mattice, via e-mail, says: "Axe is not doing anyone a favor by perpetuating the paradigm of pre-Vatican II Confession. The old model does nothing to restore damaged relationships."

Readers overall appear to be uncomfortable with the topic--note the high number of respondents who withheld their names. John Walters of Bermyn, Illinois appears to express the sentiment shared by many: "I love the sacrament in theory but struggle with it in practice."

Each month, advance copies of Sounding Board are mailed to a sample of U.S. Catholic subcribers. Their answers to questions about Sounding Board and a balanced selection of their comment about the article as a whole appear in Feedback.

By Kevin H. Axe, a writer who lives in Evanston, Illinois.
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Title Annotation:practice of the sacrament of Confession
Author:Axe, Kevin H.
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Apr 1, 1998
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