But who’s counting? — UPDATED

But who’s counting? — UPDATED November 6, 2011

A commenter in another post noted that his parish keeps track of how many confessions are heard on any given weekend, and then publishes the tally in the Sunday bulletin.

Color me surprised.

This is something new to me.  Parishes routinely announce other sacraments — baptisms, weddings, even confirmations — but I’ve never heard of one keeping a count, and actually publishing the number of confessions.  The weekly collection?  Sure.  Confession?  No.

I asked a priest in my parish what he thought;  he furrowed his brow and wrinkled his nose and uttered one word that summed it up for me:


I just don’t know.  Do they think this encourages people to go?  Do they see this as a moral barometer?  It just strikes me as odd — and, in a way, it’s an exercise that reduces the sacrament to mere numbers on a page.  It’s a little like publishing the number of people who receive communion on Sunday. And it may well be misleading, anyway; people will often go to confession wherever and whenever they can, depending on when it is convenient  — or where they can find a priest who doesn’t know them personally.  (I’ve heard that this is one reason why cruise ships are popular places for confession.)

I’m curious to hear what others think.  Have you heard of this practice before?  Do you think it encourages more frequent celebration of the sacrament?


UPDATE: The pastor who does this left the following comment on another thread:

This is a practice that was instituted by the former pastor of Holy Rosary. I always look upon it as a great tool and something that, in its way, could be used to persuade priests, who might not have confessions very often, to do a bit of re-evaluation. No one has ever made any objection to its inclusion in the bulletin. It’s there with Mass attendance and with collection totals. I look with pride on it, actually. It tells me that confession IS useful and that people, despite the “oh, there’s no such thing as sin” that we hear these days, WANT to go to confession.

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26 responses to “But who’s counting? — UPDATED”

  1. Never heard of it before but perhaps it will make people realize that some people still DO go to confession. It may stir up the desire to be counted in that number. Can’t hurt.

  2. The bottom line here is what we use the sacrament for:

    –Church teaching has always said that if a person has a mortal sin — one that condemns their soul to eternal punishment — on their conscience, they must be absolved by a priest before they can receive Holy Communion.

    –Canon Law also states that each person must make their “Easter Duty”: that is — sometime during Lent and the immediate time after Easter, one must go to confession and Holy Communion at least once to perform the minimum required.

    Both of these requirements were culturally conditioned. That was the era when one’s First Communion did not occur until you were a teen-ager and that regular and frequent Holy Communion was considered an oddity rather than the norm.

    Now, during the immediate pre-Vatican era, there was a serious crisis in the practical teaching of moral theology in that many parish pastors — and even bishops who should have known better — over-reacted to what was — in fact — a mortal sin. There was a tendency to identify all sorts of failures to disciplinary items of the church as mortal sins. Thus: violation of the “from Midnight forward” Communion fast was considered a Mortal Sin; as was failure to follow fast and abstinence laws during Lent; as was reading the King James Bible; as was attending a non-Catholic Church for any reason (including funerals and weddings). A lot of laity, in the post-Vatican II era when the absurdity of that insight became evident, lost an interest in Confession because they knew their own failures did not impose an eternal punishment on them as all mortal sins were supposed to. That punishment was not eternal because the disciplinary law of the church had CHANGED. If the punishment was eternal — as the logic went — then the “sin” had to be eternally evil as well.

    The other thing that post-Vatican Catholics learned very quickly is that non-Mortal sins, which all of them readily admitted they were responsible for, could be forgiven without an auricular confession to a priest and thus did not require formal absolution. For instance, the Penitential Rite in every Mass (presided over by a priest) and also which is supposed to occur in every Communion Service (presided over by a deacon) did, in fact, act as an informal but very real rite of forgiveness. If folks in the congregation meant it, repented of their sins, and they orally replied to any of the three variations of the Penitential Rite, their “non-mortal” sins were forgiven. REMEMBER, Canon Law says you only have to go to a formal “confession” and receive formal “absolution” if your sins are mortal.

    That post-Vatican insight dried up the REQUIREMENT for regular confession. The average pew-sitting Roman Catholic realized that they did not commit mortal sins in anywhere near the high number pre-Vatican priests and bishops assumed.

    Somehow, we have to break into that old mind-set and encourage the idea of confession as an important devotional practice which is done not out of PUNITIVE NEED OR FEAR but out of a desire to be nearer to the Risen Lord Jesus. Apparently, those places mentioned in this BLOG posting have done that.

  3. Deacon Norb, two questions and a further point:

    1.) Where is it written that there is an Easter Duty of sacramental Confession? Canon 920, which imposes the Easter Duty of Communion, says nothing about Confession. Canon 916 only imposes Confession before Communion if one is conscious of grave sin; and Canon 989 imposes yearly Confession only for serious sins.

    2.) Why must the gravity of a sin involving violation of a law depend on post facto revisions of the law? If someone ate meat on Friday freely, and fully believing that he was committing a mortal sin, it seems to me that he did commit a mortal sin, even if ten years later, because of changes in the law, he would not have thought that the same act was seriously wrong.

    As for forgiveness of venial sins at Mass, my understanding is that venial sins are remitted by the worthy reception of Communion.

  4. In the old days some dioceses had parishes keep track of confessions and report them along with the Mass counts. Never heard of them published in a bulletin: a waste of space to put the information there.

  5. I know a priest to whom counting the number of penitents, to say nothing of publishing those numbers to parishioners, would be anathema, akin to violating the seal of confession. He would be OK with approximations as a way to determine scheduling of individual confessions vis-a-vis penance service but never, ever would publish such.

    Yes, I’m guessing Deacon Norb was thinking of Canon 989 when he stated that there is an obligation to confess once a year. It applies to grave sins. The text says, “After having reached the age of discretion, each member of the faithful is obliged to confess faithfully his or her grave sins at least once a year.” And, incidentally, Canon 988, section 2 says, “It is recommended to the Christian faithful that they also confess venial sins.” The Catechism states, “Venial sin weakens charity…Deliberate and unrepented venial sin disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin” (1863). “Without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church. Indeed the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit. By receiving more frequently through this sacrament the gift of the Father’s mercy, we are spurred to be merciful as he is merciful” (1458).

    As to the forgiveness of [venial] sins in the Eucharist, here is the quote from the Catechism, “As bodily nourishment restores lost strength, so the Eucharist strengthens our charity, which tends to be weakened in daily life; and this living charity wipes away venial sins” (1394) [here on the Catechism references the Council of Trent]. The Catechism also goes on to say, “The Eucharist is not ordered to the forgiveness of mortal sins–that is proper to the sacrament of Reconciliation”(1395).

  6. Naturgesetz:
    Last issue first: I agree. Venial sins can easily be remitted by a worthy reception of Communion because, before we receive, we orally actually ask for forgiveness reciting the words of the Roman Centurion: “Lord, I am not worthy . . .”

    The middle point you make is best understood in my explanation. In order for some evil action that a sinner willingly performs to have enough serious evil attached to it to condemn a sinner to eternal punishment, then the action itself must be eternally evil.

    I’ll defer a response to your first issue because I neither have my 1984 Code of Canon Law nor my copy of the current Catechism of the Catholic Church at my fingertips. I am, however, not sure they would be helpful. I may have to check my file copies of the “Baltimore Catechism” and my copy of the “Pastoral Companion” — a compendium of the 1917 Code of Canon Law for Clergy. In this situation, however, I believe I am accurately describing consistent teaching of the church prior to Vatican II. I was alive then and have some memories of those times from a first hand basis.

    My point here is that one cannot be condemned to eternal punishment unless the action performed was seriously evil yesterday (or 1,000 years ago or 10,000 years ago) is evil today and will remain evil for all time and eternity.

    Disobedience to church laws and discipline do not fit that explanation. Violations of those laws — if serious enough — can cause you to be removed from our church — “excommunicated.” BUT those laws are conditioned by time and place and culture — thus they are not objectively eternal. NOW, if you do believe that “excommunication” from our church is an automatic condemnation to eternal punishment, then my argument does not carry any weight with you at all anyway.

  7. This entire list of comments has been fascinating and I really do not think that anyone who did post a comment in this stream is all that far off what the others were also saying.

    I do agree with Deacon Norb in that we need to change the attitude of folks in the pews toward auricular confession but I really do not know how to do that. I do, however, have to note that while there are not hordes of penitents coming to private confessions at the regularly scheduled weekly times, Penance Services are very popular in our area. It is not at all unusual to have seven or more priest/confessors and 250-300 penitents at these events. There are a minimum of two a year in our area and often as many as four.

    Then, also, one day I was at our local Retreat Center “walking” the Stations of the Cross when I saw — in two separate places — penitents obviously from a Retreat (which was going on at that time) walking with what could only be a priest/confessor.

    What was that 1960’s song entitled? “Different Strokes for Different Folks ” ?

  8. Deacon Norb,
    Is it your position that even if one’s conscience tells one that certain activity is mortally sinful and one freely undertakes it, fully believing that one is committing mortal sin, it is not a mortal sin for that individual if objectively the matter is not serious?

    As for the Easter duty, I learned about it pre-VatII also, and I have no doubt that we were told that there was an obligation to go to Confession as part of the Easter duty. It is highly likely that the Baltimore Catechism said so and that this reflected the 1917 Code of Canon Law. But hasn’t the 1983 Code replaced the 1917 Code — meaning that provisions of the 1917 Code which are not in the 1983 Code no longer have force of law? When I asked “Where is it written …” I meant “in something which is valid today.”

  9. Take a look at my 7:39 post below, where I quote the Code of Canon Law and the Catechism in reference to some of your earlier questions.

    God bless!

  10. Deacon Norb–I posted some quotes from the current Code and current Catechism below in my 7:39 post. I do have both on hand.


  11. I think numbers can be instructive. In my parish we have over 5,000 families registered, yet when I go to confession on Saturday, there can’t be more than 50-60 people. Either the rest of the parish knows something that I don’t and are doing it right, or we have a major problem.

    On Sunday, everyone receives communion.

    There is a major disconnect here. Regular Eucharistic reception without regular confession? It points toward an ignorance of the very nature of the Eucharistic reception and its role in our lives. All of that said, with the numbers disparity between those receiving Eucharist and reconciliation so great, one needn’t count and report. The numbers only serve to point the pastoral staff in the proper direction, which is a return to teaching the fundamentals: condemning sinful lifestyles, and preaching the mercy of God in a realistic and sobering manner.

  12. On Sunday, everyone receives communion.

    One of the priests in our parish has been watching this phenomenon, and he told me today it’s not really true. By his estimate, 20-25% of the people in the pews do not receive. Some leave mass early. Others choose to sit it out. That’s the story, at least, in my parish.

    Maybe people are going to confession elsewhere. Or maybe they’re going to odd times; we have the sacrament available at my place six days a week. (I suspect, too, that many who take advantage of it aren’t from the parish, and probably work in the area.)

    Or maybe they aren’t committing as many mortal sins as we think.

    Dcn. G.

  13. Deacon Greg,

    I doubt that it’s a matter of people going elsewhere. On Staten Island, we have 34 parishes and nobody’s is spilling over with penitents on Saturdays. If it WERE true that people were going to different parishes, then we would have decent numbers of penitents, albeit visiting from elsewhere. That NOBODY is doing the sort of numbers that we see at St. Francis in NYC says something.

    My church holds over 1,000 people and has seven packed masses per weekend. Even if 25% don’t receive, that leaves over 5,000 who do compared to less than 100 people receiving reconciliation. That’s about 1% of the communicants on any given weekend. If we were to multiply that 10x by assuming many go elsewhere, that still only brings us to 10% of communicants.

    I’m not sitting here in judgement of them or their worthiness to receive. I honestly believe that much of this has to do with little to no catechesis. It’s ignorance of what the Church teaches.

  14. Because we don’t have the old confessionals at my neighborhood parish, I see many, including the Deacon at another about 10 minutes away, which is more traditional and they feel more anonymous.
    I think counting heads is silly and makes the confessional not a private matter, but something to be published. What’s next, how many men vs women?

  15. I notice the typical blogosphere judgmental attitude in regards to confession. “We have people going to mass, but they aren’t going to confession. Something is wrong. They must be ignorant of Catholic teaching.” Get the log out of your eye. This judgment call is all out of focus. Don’t do it!

    The thing is, the theology of confession is much more complex than people realize. They are used to a way it has been put into practice in modern times, thinking people not following a rather modern application of the sacrament means something is wrong. Yes, the sacrament is good, useful; but we must remember, for most of church history, people don’t go to frequent confession (and at times, it was extremely rare!). They were not holier people — however, they understood that for general sins, there is forgiveness of sin in communion — we receive the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of our sins — and this continues to be the norm when people don’t go to confession often. Now, clearly, for major sins which cut one from communion, confession is necessary, and it still has graces for people who go to it more frequently for other sins, however, that is a different issue. How many receive the sacrament of the sick frequently, even if it is helpful?

  16. Pretty close. Keep in mind that (1) The pre-Vatican era tended to trivialize mortal sins and (2) One is never condemned to eternal punishment by accident or by ignorance. While the first century Judean community believed you could offend God by accident or without intending to, Jesus banished that mind-set from his followers.

  17. In the suburbs I continue to see about 100% participation in Communion week in and out. It definitely is different in New York City.

    I don’t see the point in counting confessions unless it is to “jump start” a renewed appreciation of the sacrament. Not sure if you’re right about frequent confession Henry. I’m fairly sure that Pius XII and many other popes have praised the practice not only of frequent, but daily confession, regardless of the ability to communicate with only venial sin present.

    The point is that people need to be catechized to see the connection between the two sacraments. They shouldn’t be viewed in isolation or as fungible.

  18. Kevin

    Pope Pius XII is quite modern. Yes, many modern popes have encouraged frequent confession since the time of the Reformation, but that is rather recent in the history of the Church. It is quite different from the earliest ages of the Church.

  19. The sacrament of the sick can be given more than once. But, it is not one that one generally receives frequently, as one would communion or penance. There are guidelines for its reception: serious illness, change in that illness, danger of death, etc.

    There is tremendous grace available through confession, even for venial sins. Why anyone would not want to avail themselves of this is sad, though not baffling. Some are embarrassed to confess to the parish priest. Some are afraid of what the priest will say to them. Some don’t think they’ve sinned gravely, though they may be using contraceptives or enjoying pornography on line (I know of a few examples). Some don’t think they will be forgiven. Some have attachment to their sins and don’t want to stop. Some don’t believe in it. Some have never been catechized (this is common with adult Catholics who came into the Church through the RCIA process and are never really taught about penance or afforded the opportunity to receive such). Some have been going to communion with mortal sins on their souls for so long, they think why bother?

    What does this all speak to? Catechesis, catechesis and more catechesis. We need to teach and newly evangelize people about this sacrament of God’s divine mercy. There’s a much greater sense of God’s peace knowing all one’s sins are forgiven, not just presuming they have been (presumption being, as one priest tells it, one of the greatest sins of our times). Once again, parishioners will put emphasis on what the pastor puts emphasis on, not just gives lip service. If the pastor does not preach often on the sacrament, or include it in his homilies, letters and bulletins, if the pastor doesn’t make priests available to hear confessions, himself included, then the people will not come. And, it’s not that we just want folks to confess just for the sake of confession. It’s a tool to amend our lives and to help us along the way to our heavenly homeland. It’s a fountain of grace, sometimes grace so tangible you can almost touch it! This is different from the grace in the Holy Eucharist, which is often ineffable.

    One more thing, the confessional needs to be somewhere in the main church building, or in the immediate vicinity. If the confessional is in a basement where “Sunday Catholics” never go, then they will not find it. Also, if people see the confessional in use, then they will be moved to use it. If they never see anyone going, then they may not think it’s for them! Make confession available before Mass, in the main church building, where folks can see and know it is going on, and slowly but surely people will again begin to receive this wonderful sacrament of God’s grace and mercy.

  20. The use of the sacrament of the sick, as you describe, comes from discipline, not the inherent necessity of the thing itself. Indeed, James, who is a major Scriptural source for the sacrament, suggests coming for it when one is sick — just that, sick. The East, indeed, practices the sacrament in more abundance — the West is slowly working itself out of the notion it is only to be used at the end of life. The fact that the sacrament itself is also for spiritual healing (not just physical), and so for the forgiveness of sins is also important. In this way, there is tremendous grace — why is there a limit to it?

    Again, confession as people think of it is rather modern; I am not saying people shouldn’t avail themselves of it (they should), but I am saying we need some perspective, one which does point out its use it not so frequent as people think it was in the history of the church.

  21. Well, to do another piece of arithmetic…

    50 people X 52 Saturdays in a year = 2600 confessions/year.

    That doesn’t count the people who only go to penance services (common in Advent and Lent).

    The comparison of 50-60 people at confession with 5000 at communion seems to be arguing that there is some problem with people going to confession less frequently than once per week — is that really what you are arguing?

  22. You’re right that James is the scriptural warrant for the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders [presbyters] of the Church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] 1510 referencing James 5:14-15). CCC then goes on to state that “The special grace of the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick has as its effects…the forgiveness of sins, IF THE SICK PERSON WAS NOT ABLE TO OBTAIN IT THROUGH THE SACRAMENT OF PENANCE” (CCC 1532, capitalizing mine as I can’t underline here). So, the forgiveness of sins comes into play if the sick person can’t obtain it through confession.

    In general, to receive a sacrament, other than baptism or penance, the recipient must be in a state of grace. So, for Holy Communion, Confirmation, Matrimony, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick, one must have confessed all mortal sin prior to receipt of that sacrament. If one has not, one is receiving the sacrament sacriligeously. So, Anointing, in the West, doesn’t give one a pass on confessing one’s sins. The priest is supposed to give the sick person the opportunity to confess, if needed. There are, however, special circumstances in which the sick person may receive the pardon of sins through anointing of the sick, chief among them is when the person is unable to confess such as someone gravely injured at the scene of a serious car accident, someone with severe dementia, in a coma and the like. In those cases, then, Anointing does forgive sins…all sins.

    Both Aquinas and Trent say that Anointing remits sins. And, paragraph five of canon 998 in The Commentary of Canon Law says, “Parallel to but different from canon 998 is the introductory canon in the Eastern law on anointing (CCEO 737). The defining description of the sacrament (section 1) expresses more expansively the effects of anointing: forgiveness of sins and strengthening ‘by hope of eternal reward.” So, you’re right that the East has a different outlook. But, for the rest of us, we adhere by these requirements. In the West, the Anointing of the Sick is not to be used as a kind of general confession with general absolution, for which very specific criteria must be met . Regulation of the sacraments is under the authority of the bishop. And, that’s the way the Bishop of Rome, together with the College of Bishops, in the present time, has determined it will be administered.

    Yes, the sacrament of penance has changed quite a bit over time. But, right now, we fall under these rubrics and so that’s the way it’s done. It’s possible that, over time, it may yet change again. But, I doubt it will happen any time soon. I could be wrong, though!

  23. I don’t know if publishing the numbers on confession makes sense, but I can tell you that from my experience both professionally and personally if you want to improve on something, understand the dynamics of what’s going on, and the first thing in understanding comes from generating the statistics. Keep measuring what works and what doesn’t. I can see value in counting the numbers of penitents and what makes them come.

  24. Dcn. Norb, to be excommunicated one must commit a “human act”, that is, one that proceeds from the will with a knowledge of the end. Thus, one must commit a mortal sin to be excommunicated. However, usually one must also know that the excommunication is connected to this mortal sin.

    Meanwhile, Church law can bind one under the pain of mortal sin, for example, the obligation of abstaining from meat during Lentan Fridays. (This of course does not carry an excommunication.) It is the deed may not be something evil in itself, but it is evil for that person in that time because the Church has authority to make laws. A human act which violates such a law of the Church reveals a bad will.

    Finally, this untraditional practice of recording confessions is untraditional for a reason. It makes the sacrament odious. Although names and sins are not revealed, it can be embarrasing to people to be counted that way. Confession is a sacrament that can and should be repreated, even for venial sins unlike state of life sacraments and sacraments of character.
    A priest should forget the confession as soon as he gives the absolution, except to pray for and himself do penance for the penitent.

  25. What is your point? You realize that the Church today is the same as the so-called ancient Church.
    Or are you saying that Church official teaching and practice does not develop?
    In any case, you do admit that the constant magisterial teaching recommends frequent confession and frequent Communion, but of course, only if one is not conscious of a mortal sin.
    So, let’s not pretend human nature, afflicted by conscupiscence as it is, has changed. And although temptations have changed over time, and I’d argued that temptations have become more prevalent in the modern de-christianized world – human beings are still weak and in need of the sacrament of penance.

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