Cliffs notes for confession

It’s time for the Catholic bishops to go to confession.

It’s time for all of the Catholic priests to go to confession.

Actually, with Easter a few weeks away, this is a time when all Catholics are supposed to go to confession.

But most of America’s 65 million Catholics no longer know or no longer care that their church requires them to go to confession at least once a year in order to receive Holy Communion. Confession is especially important during this season of Lent.

If bishops and priests want Catholics to go to confession, they must demonstrate that the Sacrament of Penance still matters, said Msgr. James Moroney, who leads the U.S. bishops’ liturgy office. The shepherds could, for example, start leading public rites that end with opportunities for private confession — including their own.

“Our bishops and our priests have to preach the practice of penance,” he said. “But they are also have to participate in the practice of penance. Then they have to make the practice of penance available to their people in a variety of ways. …

“We know that our people need this. Everybody in our culture is bleeding from the eyes. Everybody has pain they need to get rid of and wounds that need to be healed. Well, we know how to do that. We have the tools and we need to use them.”

Thus, the U.S. liturgy office has published a new brochure to teach Catholics how to do something that once was as familiar as breathing — confess their sins to a priest. The back page is perforated, so penitents can tear off an eight-step “How to Go to Confession” list and carry it with them.

Catholics used to line up for confession on Saturdays. But by the mid-1970s, surveys found that monthly confession among American Catholics had fallen from 38 to 17 percent in a decade, while those who never or rarely went rose from 18 to 38 percent. In the mid-1980s, a University of Notre Dame study found that 26 percent of active, “core Catholics” never went to confession and another 35 percent went once a year.

It’s hard to know how many confessions priests hear these days, said Moroney. Confession is a private matter. No one likes to discuss statistics.

But bishops and priests know that more Catholics need to go to confession. They know “The Catechism of the Catholic Church” still teaches “having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by an obligation faithfully to confess serious sins at least once a year.”

This may come as news to millions of Catholics.

“This Easter will mark my 10th year as a Catholic,” noted one convert, in an online discussion. “I have very rarely missed Sunday mass or a holy day of obligation. Sometimes I’ve even gone to daily mass. Point is, I’ve heard well over 500 sermons. Not once — not once — do I recall having heard confession mentioned. … For most American Catholics today, confession is almost as rare and exotic a devotional practice as donning a hair shirt.”

Sadly, these words ring true, said Moroney. Many priests feel overwhelmed and have fallen silent. Many doubt their parishioners will accept the need for confession. But clergy must grasp that there is no shortage of sin and guilt in the pews. The problem is that Catholics are “surrounded 24/7 by a culture that teaches them to either deny their pain or to wallow in it as victims,” he said.

Someone must take the time — Sunday after Sunday — to remind Catholics of the teachings of their church. Silence will not work.

“In some of our parishes there are enormous numbers of people who are going to confession. … Then there are many parishes where we’re talking about four or five people on a typical Saturday afternoon,” said Moroney.

“So what’s the difference? It’s like that movie says, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ If priests constantly preach this and if they offer a variety of times and ways for people to celebrate the sacrament, then you’re going to see people come to confession. But you have to give people a chance. You have to help them get over their fears.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

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  • Joyce Stolberg

    Per Canon 989, the faithful are required to confesss once a year only if they have committed grave (mortal) sin. It is recommended but not required for those commiting only venial sin. Keeo the facts straight.

  • Ben

    I totally agree. More people need to start going to confession, at least on a mothly basis. It’s true that the Church only prescribes it once a year (and this at no particular time; it’s recommended before Easter because Holy Communion is going to be taken on Easter, but if one goes at least once a year at any other time, Lenten confession is not mandatory; cf. canon 989 and others I believe), but I believe for most people once a month is more beneficial.


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