In search of "the lost sacrament"

In search of "the lost sacrament" March 13, 2011

That would be confession, or the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  With Lent now upon us, many places are offering it more frequently, with some dioceses even publicizing it.  But are people buying what the Church is selling?

The Catholic Anchor in Alaska takes a look:

Like lancing a boil or going to the dentist, the thought of going to confession stirs up powerful emotions in Catholics.

Some fear it. Others feel embarrassment. A great deal of anxiety seems to accompany  most Catholics before they enter the confessional. That anxiety keeps 45 percent of Catholics away from the so-called “lost sacrament,” according to a poll conducted in 2008 by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate or CARA.

Yet for Catholic priests, including many in the Archdiocese of Anchorage, hearing confessions and giving absolution is one of the most rewarding aspects of their priesthood.

According to Dominican priest Father Vincent Kelber of Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage, confession is a sacrament many do not truly understand.

“People are afraid to go to confession,” he admitted. “We allow ourselves to have misconceptions about it.”

The pastor of St. Nicholas of Myra Byzantine Catholic Church Father James Barrand thinks the misconceptions are due to in part to a lack of proper teaching.

“There is a lack of formal catechesis on the types and serious effects of sins. Priests are afraid to discuss sins for fear of offending individuals, so our people’s understanding of sin or transgressions is formulated by pop culture,” he explained.

Father Kelber agreed and stressed the urgency of educating Catholics about the importance of the sacrament — breaking down false beliefs and fears.

“If you make it available and preach it, people will use it,” he said.

The biggest misconception Anchorage priests say they hear about the sacrament is the idea that people need only go directly to God for forgiveness and skip the confessional. The error in this belief lies in the difference between forgiveness and absolution, Father Kelber explained.

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13 responses to “In search of "the lost sacrament"”

  1. One of the reasons that children and youth should be invited to attend the Sacrament during RE Classes WITH parents is to take away the fear and educate the parents.
    I offer a workshop that parents are required to attend with their child for both First Reconciliation/First Eucharist, RCIA as adapted for Children (or Youth) and Confirmation preparation that focuses solely on Reconciliation. I also offer the Sacrament for Children with their parents, and also encourage the parents to receive the Sacrament after the children…same for Confirmation Candidates and Adult RCIA Candidates. (Of course, Catechumens- the Elect after today-receive the Sacrament about 1 month after Easter)
    I also automatically ask several priests to attend the Confirmation Retreat and ask all the students to go in and either receive the Sacrament, or ‘ask for a blessing’. When encouraged, they all receive the Sacrament and afterward, say what a blessing it was for them!
    Additionally, I ask students to receive the Sacrament several times during the year when it is offered on Saturdays at the parish, and at both of the Parish Reconciliation Services. Parents have told me that it makes a difference! One lady told me that the workshop helped to resolve some issues with her husband in marriage and both received the Sacrament the same day as the workshop!!
    If priests and deacons would talk more about the blessings from the Sacrament, and the psychological advantages of freedom from uncertainty about forgiveness, I think more people would attend.
    I have provided my parish with a handy-dandy business card sized ‘cheat sheet’ with the steps to the Sacrament on one side, and an act of Contrition on the other. It takes away a lot of anxiety for children, youth and adults…many who say, “I don’t go because I have forgotten HOW to go’.
    Let’s give them the tools to be successful and to feel that wonderful blessing of forgiveness and absolution!!!

  2. Some good news. I was asked to hear confessions at a local Catholic High School after their morning of recollection. I have often celebrated mass at this school. I went with stole in hand and was told, “You won’t get that many.”

    After one confession, the person in charge came in and said, I don’t know what to do, there are about 50 kids outside who want to go to confession. You are the only priest we have.

    We moved the site of the confessions to the main chapel and did a bit of catechesis about the need to confess one’s serious sins. Each student was asked to come forward with the most serious sins only. Even as short as the statements were, they got to the heart of the matter. For the most part, the students took it seriously and spoke about true sin.

    As time went on, more students got in line. I believe close to 75 students went. All in all the availability and seeing others make use of the sacrament encouraged many students to go.

    I promised I would be back for those who needed more time to talk. Let’s hope the spirit will move them again.

  3. Although I can’t speak for others I do know why I don’t receive this sacrament anymore. There are two primary reasons. The first is the encounter with priests who were harsh and cold and made me feel more guilty rather than forgiven. Certainly, not every priest was like that, but there were enough to make me not want to go back. The second is priests who feel a need to turn reconciliation into a counseling session and pry into all kinds of things that aren’t pertinent to my confession. For instance, I was once asked what my occupation was when none of my sins had anything to do with my occupation. Let me confess my sins, give some spiritual words of encouragement and penance and absolution and I’ll return to the sacrament. Be harsh or play pop psychologist and you won’t find me coming back anytime soon.

  4. I hear what Tom is saying, especially about the effect of a priest chewing one out even as one is in the midst of expressing sorrow for sins committed. I haven’t experienced that much, but the few times it’s occurred, it left me with a desire to never to celebrate the sacrament with that particular priest.

    I go to the sacrament perhaps three or four times a year. In contrast to Tom’s second point, however, I find that I get a lot more out of the sacrament — in terms of helping me to “convert” away from my sinfulness and toward a better, more faithful walk with God — when the priest does have an actual conversation with me. We’re all sinners, obviously, and we are each in need of God’s mercy; beyond that, however, we’re not all the same, and the roots of our sin and our struggles are not always the same. I would much rather have a priest talk to me as an adult — back and forth, not just in the form of a friendly lecture — because I’m more likely to reflect on that conversation over the next several hours, days, or weeks. Yes, it’s God’s mercy I seek when I go to the sacrament, but I’m also trying to grow, or on occasion, figure out how to make a good U-turn. A good, thoughtful priest can be a true help in the process. (Thank God for those priests who are blessed with that gift.)

  5. I found a Carmelite chapel at a mall in NJ that hears confessions for an hour before each daily mass (3 times per day). There is a red/green light in front of the confessional. People line up on the last pew. Inside, there is a screen and laminated on the kneeler is the Act of Contrition. I go there fairly frequently.

    I stopped going to my local parish because I don’t want to face a priest during confession. I find it very distracting and uncomfortable. I want to be anonymous. I also think parishes should print out the Act of Contrition and instructions and leave it in the confessional, or somewhere nearby where it can be used. If I’m nervous, I will forget the words. Then you feel like more of an idiot.

    Lastly, I don’t think many people my age (early 40s) have any idea of what serious sin is. Most of my friends (who claim to be Catholic) can’t be bothered to take their children to Mass on Sundays. Our catechesis in the aftermath of Vatican 2 was abysmal.

    I have changed by receiving the sacrament more frequently. I think if parishes made a few tweaks to the Confessional and did some catechizing to adults, you may get more people in the box, so to speak.

  6. Actually , the ” lost sacrament ” solution has been in I JOHN
    chapter 1 for a very long time.
    Why confess sin to a priest when you can go to the
    1 JOHN 1: 9 says : ‘ but if we confess our sins , HE is faithful
    and just , forgiving our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness.” And further down in 1 JOHN 2 : 1-2, it says: ” but if anyone does sin , we have an advocate with the FATHER ( GOD ), JESUS CHRIST , the RIGHTEOUS ONE , and HE himself ( JESUS ) is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sins but the sins of the whole world .”

  7. Dear Jim,
    Not to get into a text-match, but:
    John 20:22-23
    ‘When he had said this, he breathed upon them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit; whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.”

    Jesus does the forgiving, of course- the priest is the channel of his grace.

  8. Lack of priests is another factor. The local parish has one, with an occasional assistant, for nearly a thousand people.
    Fr. has one hour on Saturday for confessions and it’s get there early or don’t get in. He also does confessions by appointment, but judging from the giant crowd that shows up at the parish penance services in Lent and Advent, few take advantage of that.

    We now have two priests at our parish (E.F.) and they offer Penance after every daily Mass and before all Sunday Masses. In fact, one says Mass while the other hears confessions, until he needs to help distribute communion.
    (Our confessionals are in the back of the church, so those in line are actually at Mass.)
    Frequent confession is stressed, not only for the grace of the sacrament and its help in our sanctification, but also as a requirement for gaining plenary indulgences, for the poor souls in Purgatory. I would estimate that except in case of serious sin, most of us receive the sacrament about every two weeks.
    The Act of Contrition is posted in the confessionals, which are old-school, with the sliding panels and grilles.
    And while it may seem to you, on one side, that the person on the other side is taking hours, the Frs. are really very good at keeping the counseling out of the box and in the office.
    Sorry for the long post- just wanted to add to the mix of experience.

  9. For years I’ve read of the decline in the numbers of people celebrating the sacrament of reconciiation. The “numbers” part of it will have to belong to another conversation.
    While not disputing the accuracy of experience or observation, I can only be grateful that it hasn’t been my experience. In 25 years of hearing confessions at the prescribed parish times, I can honestly say that I have never not been “busy” the entire time. I confess there have been more than a few times when I went in almost kicking and screaming, but all those hours have been humbling, grace-filled encounters. To watch years – or days – of fear, trembling, guilt and tears turn into peaceful smiles and reconciliation as visible as such an intangible can be is, indeed, a gift. I continue to recognize, perhaps as nowhere else, the grace of Orders in sharing those moments with “the Father of mercies” and his people.

  10. You might be interested in this:

    Our two teenagers have entered the i-confess contest, and it has been a true blessing.

    Not only did we have fun making the video – talking about the ideas, driving the kids to the church to film ect, we have also enjoyed watching ALL the videos. The little kids especially are really cute but then there are some who are really thinking deeply and they present very profound ideas about what it means to go to confession.

    If you havn’t already, you should check it out!

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