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The church has a confession to make.

THE U.S. CATHOLIC CHURCH HAS A SECRET. It's not an ugly little secret because it's hardly ugly, and it's certainly not little. To call it a secret at all is probably misleading because while it is known to many, just as many are willing to pretend that it doesn't exist. The secret is the crippled, disheveled, and possibly broken condition of the sacrament of Penance/Reconciliation/Confession in the U.S. Catholic Church. It's a mess, and none of us--bishops, priests, religious, laypeople--seem to know what to do about it. The sacrament of Penance is, after all, one of the seven sacraments and one of the four "basics" along with Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. So what happened to it?

The trouble began when the pre-Vatican II church that many of us grew up in held on too long to the ossified rituals of Confession, which presumably served a largely immigrant Catholic population well. Long lines of people waiting to confess every Saturday were considered evidence of a healthy and vigorous church despite the fact that many, if not most, penitents were popping into "the box" with their habitual laundry list of sins and popping out to say the assigned "three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys." Despite the limitations of this ritual, some penitents unquestionably were truly shriven and emerged joyously with a clearer conscience. But for most, Confession in those days was something done because it was prescribed.

So in the wake of Vatican II's new openness, the U.S. church decided to "fix" the sacrament. Oh, boy! Penitential rooms were called for with space set aside for a couple of comfortable chairs, sometimes a table, and even a potted plant. Here, in a relaxed atmosphere, penitent and confessor would be able to put the sins of the former in context with the help of scripture readings and nondirective counseling by the confessor. A noble idea but one fraught with problems, both religious and practical.

First, the room itself. Many parishes didn't have such space available and in some that did, the space was a revamped storeroom or closet, a windowless venue that even a potted plant could not redeem. So some pastors understandably shrugged their shoulders and fell back on "the box."

Others conscientiously tried to make a go of the reconciliation room (some, in fact, may still be doing so). But many penitents were uncomfortable with face-to-face confessing. No longer could the confessor simply say, "Go and sin no more"--a lot more was expected of him. He was warned not to be a psychiatrist or a social worker, but what was he to say when a penitent spilled out the problems of a dysfunctional marriage? He could use the Ann Landers approach and direct the penitent to seek counseling, but that was likely to leave the latter asking, "What did I come here for?"

Finally there was the remedy of public Penance services, usually in the parish church. Many Catholics have found these to be extraordinarily helpful. Together with their parish or other community, the faithful pray and are counseled generally to help them examine their consciences privately. Knowing the state of their souls as no other human can, they are admirably positioned to ask God's forgiveness. But, alas, what many Catholics consider a very good thing was considered too good to be true in the rarefied chambers of the Vatican.

"General absolution is permitted only when there is danger of death, as in war," these tightly laced rule makers proclaimed. Even if private Confession after a public Penance service is mandated, public services might give participants the idea that their sins were forgiven there, which the Vatican watchdogs say were not.

In my parish we have had a highly popular Penance service several times a year. Last Advent, after the service was announced and scheduled, a new bishop ordered it cancelled. Our pastor bent his knee in submission, but it was plain that he was not persuaded of the wisdom of the cancellation. In the two parishes that he singlehandedly pastors, approximately 400 people took part in these services. And he was asked to hear private Confessions for these 400 following the two services!

In the 1970's when the late Bishop Carroll Dozier invited Catholics in his Memphis diocese to a public Penance service, approximately 15,000 assembled in a local stadium to pray and (to the horror of nervous Nellies in high places) receive general absolution. Bishop Dozier was forthwith ordered to cease and desist which, of course, he did.

From heaven, where the saintly man surely is, he must be shaking his head sadly to see that we continue to waste golden, salvific opportunities.
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Title Annotation:sacrament of Penance in disrepair
Author:Burns, Robert E.
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Column
Date:Oct 1, 1994
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