That green light is on

Come home to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness 

For those of us old enough to remember, the saying “Mass on Sunday — confession on Saturday” is, in large measure, no longer true for many Catholics. 

But prior to the Second Vatican Council, this was the way the sacraments worked; there was no such thing as a “Saturday vigil” Mass, so Mass was always on Sunday only, and the sacrament of Penance (confession) was usually — and only — on Saturday afternoon.

That dichotomy had a nice, centuries-long run, but even by the time I made my first Holy Communion (in 1978) it was beginning to fall into desuetude for several reasons. 

First and foremost, what had once been “mortal sins” had been reassigned. Most notably, the prohibition of eating meat on Friday could now be substituted by some other penitential practice. And for clerics, the praying of all seven of the liturgical hours was no longer mandatory under pain of mortal sin, unless stipulated by their religious congregation or society. 

Second, the institution of the vigil Mass on Saturday began to usurp the pride of place that Saturday afternoon confession once held. Finally, everyone seemed to be working more in the 1970s and 1980s, so having Saturday afternoon off to receive the sacrament of Penance was no longer a given.

Then there was confession itself. What had once been a purely anonymous affair between the priest and penitent now had the option of being a face-to-face encounter. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it did and still does lead to some generic confusion. Particularly, is the penitent also attending confession for some spiritual counseling and guidance (which is a very different discipline) or even what amounts to spiritual psychoanalysis?

True, confession, pre-Vatican II had been criticized for being too rote, too remote, and too formulaic to reach people. It had, critics complained, become a bit too automatic, even impersonal. However, its replacement, often known by the misnomer “the sacrament of Reconciliation” seems to have suffered from a sort of sacramental identity crisis. 

Today, dioceses and Catholic colleges seem to have identified the problem and have begun to deal with it head on. Using the ubiquitous symbol of the red light/green light above the doors to the confessional, we see the words “The Light is On For You” (Boston), “The Light Is ON” (Washington and Arlington, Virginia), and in Paterson, New Jersey, where I lived for 15 years, simply “Welcome Home to Healing.”

The concept of bringing more people back to the sacrament of Penance has less to do with theology than perhaps with timing. For example, in the Diocese of Paterson (New Jersey), all Catholic churches and chapels have mandatory confessions from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. every Monday night during Lent. For those of us who were using the defense of “I work on Saturday; I can’t make it to confession,” this Monday night option opened up a more realistic time frame.

According to Msgr. Edward Kurtyka of St. Paul’s Parish in Prospect Park, New Jersey, he’s seen an uptick in the number of penitents on Monday nights. “However, the people who do come to Monday night confessions are mainly non-parishioners. I think they appreciate the anonymity of coming to a church that is not their parish.”

Monday night confession in other parishes also started to take on a life of its own. In the Paterson diocese, St. Gerard Majella church — which is staffed by the Vocationist Fathers — was not only opened for confession on Monday nights during Lent, but Eucharistic Exposition, Adoration, and Benediction, along with Vespers, were included, as well. Further, this Monday night practice didn’t stop with the end of Lent. The Vocationist Fathers now make it available year-round. And whenever I have attended it, there are always at least a dozen people present, including priests, sisters, and the laity. 

In addition to these “The Light Is On” initiatives, most parishes now have confessions not only on the obligatory Saturday afternoons but “at any time, by appointment” simply by calling a parish’s rectory. 

Pope Francis goes to confession during a penitential celebration at St. Peter’s Basilica on March 28, 2014. Photo: CNA

Says Msgr. Kurtyka: “It’s hard to find a parish in any diocese that does not have the option of confession by appointment. While it is not technically obligatory, I think that most priests realize that working with a penitent’s schedule is just good pastoral planning.”

So why go to confession? Remember that this is a sacrament. You are going to confession because you’re going to experience the loving and merciful God. Penance is not a sacrament for great sinners, but for great saints. Even the pope goes to confession. We could do worse than imitate the Holy Father in this regard.

Fr. Philip-Michael Tangorra, the former chaplain of Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace Chapel at William Paterson University in New Jersey, uses this analogy: “What happens to your laundry when you don’t wash it for a week, let alone two weeks? It begins to stink! The same is true of our souls: They need to be cleansed in confession, so that we are made clean.”  


HOW TO MAKE A GOOD CONFESSION

So you’ve been away from the sacrament of Penance for a long, long time? You’re afraid that if you try to go to confession now, you’ll make a mess of it, that you don’t know where or how to begin, that the priest will yell at you, that the Church itself will fall down on your head … 

First and foremost, the key to making a “good” confession — and to be clear, the only “bad” confession I can think of is one where a person deliberately conceals a sin or, worse, lies to the confessor — is to be truly sorry for the sins you have committed and to try your best not to commit them again. Paradoxically, this is also the most difficult part of confession. However, St. John Paul II put it perfectly when he said:

To those who have been far away from the Sacrament of Reconciliation and forgiving Love, I make this appeal: come back to this source of grace; do not be afraid! Christ himself is waiting for you. He will heal you, and you will be at peace with God!” (Homily, Sept. 13, 1987, San Antonio, Texas)

However, instead of “just showing up” for confession, it is good to prepare yourself for the sacrament using these simple tips:

  • Make a thorough examination of conscience. What sins have you committed freely and with full consent of your will? Recall them and, if possible, the number of times committed.
  • In addition to the Ten Commandments, have I sinned by omission by not actively contributing to the Eight Beatitudes?
  • Say the Act of Contrition slowly and deliberately to yourself, using these or similar words:

O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend you, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love. And I firmly resolve, with the help of your grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.

  • Upon entering the confessional, consider yourself at the foot of Jesus himself, who wishes to forgive you if only you return to him. He wants not to humiliate you, but to have you imitate his humility. Beginning with the Sign of the Cross, say, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been [amount of time] since my last confession. Since then I have … ”
  • At this point simply list the sin which has most dogged you or most plagued your conscience. After that, most of the other sins — pride, greed, sloth, lust, gluttony, envy — will fall into place. But it’s always helpful to take several minutes before entering the confessional to recollect yourself.
  • Once you are done, answer any questions the priest may see fit to ask. He will then assign you a penance and ask you to recite the Act of Contrition again, though there will be a card with it right there from which you can read.
  • Upon leaving the confessional, give thanks to God and perform your penance as soon as practicable.

WHAT IS THE SEAL OF CONFESSION?

No exceptions! No priest can ever repeat anything said to him in confession. Ever. The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, chapter 18, states:

The Church declares that every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about petitiants’ lives. This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the “sacramental seal,” because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains “sealed” by the sacrament.  (See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1467.)

Unlike the attorney/client or doctor/patient privilege (which allows for certain exceptions), the Code of Canon Law is ironclad. Or to use the juridical language itself in Canon 983: “The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.” 

Canon 984 drives the point home: “A confessor is prohibited completely from using knowledge acquired from confession to the detriment of the penitent even when any danger of revelation is excluded.” 

So never be afraid to confess your sins to a priest. Even Pope Francis goes to confession! 

The priest is the instrument for the forgiveness of sins … bestowing on us the boundless love of God the Father. Priests and bishops, too, have to go to confession: we are all sinners. Even the pope confesses every 15 days, because the pope is also a sinner. And the confessor hears what I tell him, he counsels me, and forgives me, because we are all in need of this forgiveness. (Pope Francis, General Audience, Nov. 20, 2013)

ConfessionKevin T. Di CamilloPenance and ReconciliationSacramentsThe Light is ON
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