I Confess (but not frequently enough)–UPDATED

Over at The Deacon’s Bench, Greg Kandra has shared a piece by John Cornwell from The Tablet on the decline of confession among Catholics worldwide. It’s a fascinating article, reflecting the research Cornwell has done for a forthcoming book. For reverts of a certain age, like me, there’s much that resonates.

Among the reasons Cornwell posits for the decline (which in itself is more a presumption than a matter of fact, as statistics aren’t tracked for confessions the way they are for Baptisms, Confirmations, First Communions, and Catholic marriages, which are also falling off):

It’s not really a decline. For much of the Church’s history, confession was a rare, often once-in-a-lifetime ritual for the average Catholic. Though Trent’s reforms boosted that to once a year, in order to make possible the annual “Easter duty” to receive Communion, it wasn’t until the 20th century that frequent confession began to be first encouraged (by Pius X, who lowered the age of first confession to enable younger children to receive First Communion) and later made de facto mandatory for Catholic school children. If you grew up in the 1950s and early 60s, as I did, at the height of frequent confession, you remember being marched once a week over to the church by S’ter and lining up, out of earshot of other fifth-grade penitents no matter how hard you strained, outside the box. No generation of Catholics has ever participated in the sacrament of Reconciliation so frequently, before or since. We’re the confessional doughnut hole, and when the pressure eased up we left the practice behind along with other childhood trappings.

Sin is out of fashion. I think there’s a good bit of truth to this. For us Confessional Boomers, sin—not forgiveness—was the focus of catechesis on confession. We bought the Baltimore Catechism’s milk-bottle soul analogy (soul free of sin = pure white milk; soul with venial sin = milk with ugly black spots; soul with mortal sin = BLACK MILK!; I see now that the milk is actually grace, and what looked like black milk is an empty bottle, but that’s not what it looked like at the time). Scrupulous little prig that I was, I was delighted that my 8th birthday chalkboard came with black chalk as well as white, so I could illustrate for my sister the sour-milk error of her ways. We were expected to—and could—enumerate a list of sins as part of our weekly confessions, naming not only the precise infraction, but the number of times and with whom. (“Alone or with others?” the priest would prompt.) I fought with my sister 10 times (because she hid the black chalk), I disobeyed my parents 3 times (I mostly made those up, because I was too goody two-shoes to think of ways to disobey), I watched a monster movie on TV, but just once (my mother had warned me against this, because of a tendency to nightmares, but I thought anything discouraged had to be a sin, and not only confessed it but told my friends, who dared me to watch it, that they were Going to Hell). Later there would be I had impure thoughts, I went to a movie rated Objectionable In Part for All, I cursed. We had Examination of Conscience booklets with sins listed like grocery items, grouped like groceries by type—produce, dairy, meat; dishonesty, disobedience, impurity. Cornwell notes the obvious downside of such an emphasis, especially with impressionable young children:

A girl I once knew inadvertently broke the fast on the morning of her first Communion by taking a sip of water (in those days the fast began at midnight). Realising her lapse on approaching the altar rail, she was plunged into a waking nightmare, convinced that she had committed a sacrilege. It took five years of mental agony before she managed to broach her aggravated “wickedness” to an understanding priest.

Too much emphasis on sin clearly drove many away from confession, as soon as they were out from under S’ter’s reign. But the other direction is just as problematic. If there are no sins anymore—no itemization, just sin as an amorphous unlovingness—why go to confession? It would be like going to the grocery store to buy unspecified groceries. Not, seemingly, worth the bother of getting in the car and going through the ritual. I’ll eat what’s in the fridge. I’m sure God knows I’m sorry.

The connection between confession and clergy sex abuse. Cornwell offers evidence of at least coincidence, very likely causality, between the peak years of childhood confession and the peak years of clerical abuse of young people, if for no other reason than that predators could use the enforced intimacy of the confessional—and the 1960s and 70s practice of hearing confessions informally outside the box, in sacristies and priests’ homes and on retreats—to gain victims’ trust. Disturbing as this is, there are wider consequences of placing children and priests not well formed for lives of celibacy in intimate proximity.

When I was in 6th grade, a troubled and alcoholic new curate began questioning girls in explicit and obscene detail about their sex lives during confession, suggesting things—masturbation, oral sex, even incest though why this would be our occasion of sin is difficult to fathom—that some in those more innocent days had not even read about. Individually sickened, but terrified of violating the seal of the confessional and believing our word would not be trusted, we endured the lewd catechizing for weeks, not even telling one another. I, the erstwhile scruple girl, broke first. I saw a friend crying as she left the confessional, and dared to ask her if the priest “said anything funny to her.” Relieved to know she was not alone, she shared similar awfulness, which we soon determined was widespread. At first we just stopped going to confession, inventing excuses, hoping our hearts out not to be struck by a truck in the crosswalk on the way home and die unshriven. Finally, on the eve of a First Friday (no getting out of that one!), I went to our teacher, a no-nonsense ex-Marine laywoman, who had the grace to believe us. Within days, Fr Troubled was packed off to detox and counseling. But I did not enter a confessional ever again, except to nurse my infant son during a funeral. I received the sacrament only a few times between 6th grade and when I drifted away from the Church in my early 30s. And I have always wondered if there were other Fr Troubled’s out there, whose psychosexual immaturity fell short of clearcut abuse (certainly as it was defined in those days), but who came very near to ruining the experience of Reconciliation for so many.

Humanae vitae fallout. There is probably a lot of truth to the notion that even as emphasis on sin declined, Catholics remained conscious that they were living in what used to be preached about as sin. Catholics who used artificial birth control, or who divorced and remarried, or who were partnered (straight or gay) without benefit of marriage, or who stopped attending Mass with any regularity at all could tell themselves—and could, I think, truly believe, since no one was going to any great lengths to challenge or form their consciences—that what they were doing was just fine. Yet they stayed away from confession in ever-increasing droves, either because there was still some consciousness of sin but very little commitment to the firm purpose of amendment that would require a complete change of life, or because if these things that had once been such grave matter were no longer worth confessing, what on earth would be?

Discomfort with the revised form. Cornwell doesn’t go into much detail on this, other than to say that some sacramental theologians are concerned that face-to-face confessions concentrating more on general ethical pep talks or pop psychology than on sin might be verging too closely on talk therapy, not Penance. As a Confession Boomer, I have to say that in spite of all the baggage of the past, I really miss the tidiness of a memorized ritual, generic responses and prayers, and anonymity. I have only gone to confession a few times since my reversion at Christmas in 2010, and I must confess that I always feel much like I did when going to talk therapy—nervous that I’m not going to do it right, or say the right thing. I like my pastor (most especially for the way he almost managed to hide his terror when, in my eagerness to make a full confession as part of the requirement for returning to the Church, I tried to Tell Him Everything), but I find it hard to talk to him without my grocery list. And for a Sunday or two afterward, I can’t quite look him in the eye; it’s like meeting your therapist in the dry cleaners.

I know I can request a screen, or confess at another parish (I’m looking forward to opportunities for this on pilgrimage in September), but I bet I’m not the only one who’d find it so much easier if I could just slide back into BlessMeFatherForIHave SinnedItHasBeenThreeWeeksSinceMyLastConfessionAndTheseAreMySins. None of this picking a Scripture reading or making an Act of Contrition in my own words. And I like the idea of more creative means of satisfaction, such as volunteering to work in a soup kitchen when I’ve let gluttony make a god of my stomach, but I still need to go kneel in front of the Blessed Sacrament and say 3 Our Fathers and 3 Hail Marys to feel like the absolution really took. Am I alone?

Lack of opportunity. Finally, as some penitents Cornwell interviewed note, frequency goes both ways. I like to think I’d go to confession more often if my chances weren’t limited to an hour on Saturday morning (which hour I can never remember correctly until it’s gone by) or—horror!—by appointment. Really, other than in case of death, can you imagine hauling Father away from whatever 15 minutes a week he gets to practice his golf swing or post his blog or have lunch with his mom, just to listen to my (unenumerated, amorphous, boring) sins? And does anybody ever do anything—view a house you’re not really going to buy but are dying to see inside, buy an antique, have the junk hauled out of the garage—that’s limited to By Appointment Only? Not to mention that it would require Making a Phone Call, which I don’t do if I can at all avoid it. (Hey, we all have our phobias. Give me public speaking to a hostile crowd of 5,000 strangers over initiating a phone call any day.)

I’d like to confess more often, I really would. I envy my sister Patheos blogger Calah Alexander, who manages to get to confession weekly in spite of having a gabillion toddlers and being pregnant with number gabillion-and-one. (Of course, Calah lives in Ave Maria, Florida, which is kind of the Disney World of Catholicism, so I imagine she doesn’t have to make an appointment. I tend to envision confession chapels taking the place of Starbucks in Ave Maria.) Calah is a lot of things I’m not (besides Mother of Gabillions)—young, a convert, devout in a completely practical and nonsmarmy and totally-without-scruples way, so I wonder if she is the future of confession, a new boomlet of sorts. I’d like to think so.

If you’ve stuck with this all the way through (reading this required as much time as St John Vianney used to put into hearing confessions, I’m afraid), what are your confessions about confession? If you’re a post-Boomer, without the baggage of the confessional box, what does the sacrament mean to you? Do you have reasons for decline to add to Cornwell’s list? What, if anything, would draw you to the sacrament more frequently?

UPDATE: Fr Michael Duffy, one of the newest members of the Patheos Catholic Channel blogging bench—not to mention a new member of the clergy—responded to this post with insight from the other side of the screen, as it were. Fr Michael also wonders if it might not be time to initiate a new Catholic tradition, one of praying for one’s confessor as we approach the sacrament. I think it’s an inspired suggestion, in the literal sense, and I’m in.

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  • Gia

    The last time I went, I confessed having uncharitable thoughts about someone who said something absolutely beastly in front of me. (Translate “uncharitable” as “wanted to thwack with a rolled-up newspaper.”) The lovely Paulist father asked me to pray for him as my penance. Thought that was a good idea. Then he asked me whether the Jesus portrait on the wall was a Rembrandt reproduction. I may be a miserable sinner, but at least I look like I know about fine art. (BTW, it was)

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  • MJ

    I converted in 1978, so I have no memories before that (despite my advanced age). What I do is travel to another church to confess, if I have no chance at confessing in a private confessional. We DO have to see Fr. every week and be able to look at him without feeling strange. I used to do face to face back in the 70′s, but with age, wisdom. I would confess more often if confession times were not once a week on a Saturday morning, and that’s all.

  • AMSF

    I miss the old confessional. Kneeling in the dim light.alone with my thoughts, guilt, remorse and need to get it all out. I miss the feeling of getting it off my chest. I miss the relief and lightness of heart upon leaving “the box”. I miss walking out of the church into the bright sunshine of a Saturday afternoon confession and the feeling of relief, the sense of well-being restored. I do not confess as regularly as I should or would like to because I just feel more truly penitent and genuinely absolved via “the box”. In spite of this I do feel a great relief after receiving the Sacrament. Yes, im a boomer, 12 years of Catholic schools, strict. Devout family and extended family, never left the faith but miss the simple Faith of my childhood.

  • ace

    Not 1x week, but maybe every 3 weeks to something less than 2 months…

    Yes, I pray for my confessor. God Bless him! He hears confessions after daily Mass at least 1x week, sometimes more, but you never know which day he’ll be saying Mass (we have 2 daily Masses, and 2 priests). That’s in addition to the scheduled times. And, at the scheduled times, he stays beyond the designated time frequently if there’s a line… sometimes, over an hour later, so I hear… And, I’m not sure, but if someone calls for an appointment, I think both priests tell folks to come to daily Mass and they will hear confessions afterwards, because I see people come and stay in the pew during communion and then head for the box after Mass (or go to communion but cross their arms over themselves to indicate they are not receiving but desire a blessing like a kid who hasn’t made First Communion).

  • Flo

    Growing up in a more traditional parish (traditional european countryside), confession with a screen was (or actually still is) the norm (I am only in my early thirties…) and I still strongly prefer that. Actually my current parish as well as one or two others I have seen give you the choice between face to face or with screen (and you don’t have to request it, they remodelled the ‘box’ such that one side has a screen and the other allows for face to face).
    My preference for the screen as well as going to confession with a priest I don’t know is that otherwise it feels that I am confessing to that person rather than to God, i.e. the screen makes it easier for me to focus on asking God for forgiveness rather than another human.
    About penance, one confessor gave me as penance to pray for the person who confessed before me (obviously without specifics and told me that he does that with everyone, so the next person would be asked to pray for me), which I really liked since it is a very simple way to retain the tradition individual prayer penance with charity for other persons and the consolation that somebody else will pray for me.

  • http://www.thewinedarksea.com MelanieB

    I always use the traditional form: “Bless me, Father, I have sinned. It’s been x long since my last confession.” AndI always say the Act of Contrition I memorized as a child. And I’ve never been asked to do anything different. Nothing about choosing my own scripture passage. And most of the time the penance I get is Hail Marys or Our Fathers. I’ve been asked to pray for other mothers in our parish or that kind of thing too, but mostly it’s the usual set prayers.

    I agree that I’d go often if there were more times available. Every parish in all the surrounding towns has confession in the same one hour block on Saturday afternoons. It would be nice if they could get together and stagger the times for better availability. I am likewise phone phobic and find it impossible to call for an appointment for confession.

    I was born in the mid 70s and went to Catholic school in the 80s. After I made my first confession I might have gone once or twice more but then didn’t go again until I was in my late 20s. No one ever took us. I think there might have been opportunity in Lent at school penance services but I don’t think there was much encouragement to take advantage of it. My parents never took us to confession. I don’t know if that’s because they never went themselves, because there weren’t any times available, they assumed we went at the school. Whatever the story was, I never developed the habit of going and still have a phenomenally hard time getting past the anxiety. This almost-paralyzing anxiety was the case even when I lived five minutes away from a chapel that had confession in the traditional box all day on Saturday. Just making myself get into the car to drive there was a phenomenal task. Then getting out of the car and into the chapel was another struggle.

  • Mary

    I still confess with old tried and true formula and I go to different parishes for confession. Almost all have the old confessional “box” which allows for that anonymity that some us really need. I hope you have other parishes, too, that you can seek out for a better confession experience.

  • B Y

    I’m a boomer and rarely go to confession. We are given 15 minutes for confession before our Sat. evening Mass. Since there are only 3 priests in our entire county, where can one go. We are given the choice of being anonymous or facing the priest. I’m afraid I try to go to confession when I’m out of town, and I mean way out of town like Sac which is 350 miles south of us or even LA which is 640 miles south of us. As a catechist, the emphasis is on God’s love for us and His infinite mercy for all of us. But 12 years of catholic school has taken its toll on my basic gut reaction to confession…High Anxiety. After going to confession, I’m ready for a drink or tranquilizer to steady the nerves. I know I have to rethink my reaction to confession and learn to let the Lord help me with this issue.

  • Bill M.

    I drive a bit out of my area to confess every month at a parish with old-fashioned boxes. I love the old wood, the lack of distraction. And while the old-fashioned form of Confession seemed a bit infantilizing, at first, when I returned to the church in 2009 after a lapse of decades (My first and up-to-then last Confession was in 1966, as a second-grader!) it gradually became a comfort to me, as Holy Communion is, and made me feel like a child before the Lord, as Holy Communion does.

    The hardest part of Confession: the times I have to sit out Communion, as a daily Mass-goer, since I haven’t had time to make Confession. I’ve come to consider those lonely moments in the pew a part of the sacrament of Confession — a kind of prelusive penance, if that makes sense (and doesn’t put me in error).

    • http://jscafenette.com Manny

      I feel the same way when I have to sit out communion. Good observation Bill.

  • Rose

    I am fortunate to live in a diocese that has frequent confessions. I have at least five opportunities throughout the week in two parishes near me, even more chances outside of the summer months, when two of our local priests are away here and there. We here in my area, are never asked to do anything but standard childhood form as MelanieB says. None of this pick a scripture stuff here in Virginia. Lines for confessions are always long, long around here. And always a screen! A few years back, the parish priest used to preach that a good confession should take no more than five minutes! Amazingly, all his flock complied and the holy man must have heard hundreds of confessions a week, this in a parish of some 1500 families. Now that speedy priest is gone, and we have a priest who recounts the reasons why my familiar sins are sins and on and on. Don’t get me wrong, I love him to death, but the line is SLOW. *sigh* I still go at least once a month, but his long-windedness makes me sure I arrive early so I can be first in line! (I mean, don’t those of us of a certain age already KNOW why our common sins are disordered?) After reading these comments, I see we are very lucky indeed to have these opportunities for confession. St. John Vianney and St. Pio would be proud of our hardworking priests, but I still subscribe to the idea that if one grew up with the Baltimore catechism (or even the new catechism) a good confession need not be traumatic…

  • http://jscafenette.com Manny

    Wow, what a blog. I could comment on every paragraph. Let me just throw a few thoughts out to you. (1) I had no idea that frequent confessions was a 20th century innovation. I guess I shouldn’t get so hung up on myself when I don’t go. But on balance I do think confession is a good practice. (2) I’m a little younger so I just missed that weekly confession era. Here’s my confessional history. I was a spotty Catholic growing up, so my confession frequency was also spotty. Then I became a lapsed Catholic and didn’t go to confession for 19 years. When I came back I started with an annual confession but have now increased to about once every three months or so or when I feel a sin is weighing on me. (3) I absolutely need a screen. In fact the priest at our parish even encouraged us to go to other parishes if that makes us feel comfortable. So that’s what I do, and I really need that anonymity. (4) The strangest confession I had was what I thought would be a face to face but the priest stopped me before recounting my sins and told me to just go through them mentally, and when I was done he absolved me. Now that was a long time ago. I think I would go more often if it were that simple! (5) Yikes on that Fr. Troubled. I can see how that can lead to abuse. (5) It does really feel good when I come out of confession.

    • http://jscafenette.com Manny

      Oops, too many fives. I meant (6) on that last one. ;)

  • Jo Ann

    OMGosh! I could have written every word (except the 2010 reversion and the 6th grade gross experience, of course – my reversion was just a matter of deciding to go back to practicing my faith once my first child was born). OK, but other than that! I have actually been lucky enough to find a local confessional box in use with no remodeled chair option:) and it’s not my parish, which is even better since I’m on staff there and cannot go to confession to my only priest who also happens to be my boss. Now, if only I would remember what time to go and actually do it more than 3 times a year…..

  • ace

    CCC 1847 “God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us.” [St. Augustine] To receive mercy, we must admit our faults. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” [1 Jn 8-9]

    CCC 1848 As St. Paul affirms, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” [Rom 5:20] but to do its work grace must uncover sin so as to convert out hearts and bestow on us “righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” [Rom 5:21] Like a physician who probes the wound before treating it, God, by his Word and by his Spirit, casts a living light on sin:

    “Conversion requires convincing of sin; it includes the interior judgment of conscience, and this, being a proof of the action of the Spirit of truth in man’s inmost being, becomes at the same time the start of a new grant of grace and love: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ Thus in this ‘convincing concerning sin’ we discover a double gift: the gift of the truth of conscience and the gift of the certainty of redemption. The Spirit of truth is the Consoler.” [John Paul II]

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  • http://Www.crooked-lines.blogspot.com Karen

    I made my first Communion in 1971 and First Confession in 1973. Not really sure the reasoning. It’s just how it was done. My parents made sure we went once or twice a year in our growing up years. As I entered the adult world, I thought you could go to confession and just confess the sins you actually planned on stopping, and just not worry about the others. Wrong! Then I stopped going at all for nearly a decade. When I returned 10 hers ago after 9/11, I sought out a priest I knew well. It was life-changing! I went from going once every year or so to every 3 months, to every 6 weeks, to monthly, sometimes more often. I always go face-to-face (dont like talking through walls) and since our pastor arrived 5 years ago, I have gone nowhere else. It has never made interactions outside the confessional awkward. I use the same bless me father formula that I used 40 years ago and the same Act of Contrition. Penance is never x Hail Mary’s, but that’s OK. Sometimes the penance really hits the target! I have phone call phobia, too, and I usually like to slide in during scheduled times, but a couple of times recently for various reasons I have resorted to email asking my good priest if he might have a few minutes after Mass to hear my confession and I did not vaporize (as I once thought I would if I ever had to make an appointment for confession!). L.O.V.E this sacrament. There is so much grace, so much wisdom.

  • Jane

    Thank you for this thoughtful article! I’m an adult convert to Catholicism, so I had my first confession at age 21 and had plenty to say (the kind elderly priest reminded me mid-sentence that I didn’t need to go into *that* much detail!) As a former Protestant, I appreciate so much having a Sacrament of healing for my soul. I love the quote attributed to Chesterton about coming out of the confessional as clean and pure as a just baptized babe. Confession is a great gift to my humanity, being able to actually hear the words of forgivness from an “alter Christus.”

    It’s funny – I started out confessing face to face and now prefer the behind-the-screen model. I think the latter reminds me more clearly that this is me, my sins, and Jesus and his forgiveness, not me and whichever Father happens to be there.

    I’m lucky to be near a Church with daily confession hours, but I still need to remind myself to go! It’s a sacrament that I don’t receive nearly enough, and I do wonder how the world would be different if confession was frequented more (by myself included). Anyway, thanks for a thoughtful piece.

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