Getting More from the Forgotten Sacrament
By Brian O'Neel
For those of us who want to become saints, the Church tells us to “frequent the sacraments.”
What does this really mean, though? There are, after all, seven. Should we become regular “wedding crashers”?
No. “Frequent the sacraments” means regularly receiving Eucharist and confession—not just once a year around Easter as canon law requires.
But while lines for Communion are usually long, the same can’t be said for the confessional. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), only 12 percent of Catholics confess once a year and a mere 14 percent do so more than once a year. Forty-five percent never go at all, and another 30 percent say they go less than once per year. That means that in any given year, three quarters of the faithful are not frequenting reconciliation.
This is not just an American problem; it is a global Catholic one. For instance, according to Fr. Bonnie Mendes of Caritas Asia, “In Pakistan, in a few places I see priests sitting for confession and rarely a queue of penitents to confess their sins.”
Healed by Christ
Perhaps today’s Catholics don’t go because they think they only need to confess mortal sins. However, while this is technically true, the Church throughout history has urged us to confess even venial sins. Venerable Pius XII explained it this way:
“Venial sins may be expiated in many ways…. But to ensure more rapid progress…in the path of virtue, we will that the pious practice of frequent confession…should be earnestly advocated.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:
“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” (CCC, 1458).
This echoes Venerable Pius, who also taught that confession in general increases self-knowledge, helps us grow in humility, corrects our bad habits, makes us more spiritually diligent and less lukewarm, purifies our conscience, strengthens our self-control, and—last but certainly not least—gives us graces, tons and tons of graces. In other words, it increases our faith, and what could be better in this, the Year of Faith?
Begin life again
Benedict XVI put it beautifully when he said in 2006, “[Confession] offers us the possibility to begin our life again, and this new beginning is realized in the joy of the Risen One and in the communion of forgiveness that it gives us.”
So, the Church’s Magisterium certainly encourages confession, and more than once-per-year at that. Still, 75 percent of us evidently aren’t convinced. What can be done to change this situation?
First, we need to understand confession’s enormous positive value, which praying to Jesus alone in our rooms can never replicate. Second, we as individuals need to take responsibility by ensuring that we make each confession a good one. The best way to do this, says Father Aftab James Paul, who serves in the Diocese of Lahore, Pakistan, is to “come well prepared and be ready for the counseling from the priest.”
The initial step here is to pray that God opens our hearts to know and be honest about the sins we need to confess. One way a respected layman I know starts this process is by reading the Catechism’s section on Penance, beginning with no. 1422.
Examination of conscience
It is also important to make a thorough examination of conscience (see resource section).
In case you aren’t familiar with the examination of conscience, it is basically an expanded list of the 10 commandments that allows us to measure our lives against them.
Now, if it was simply, “Have I violated the fifth commandment, ‘Thou shalt not murder?’” of course most of us would regularly answer, “No.” The same holds true, probably, with most of the commandments. The key, then, is to find a good examination that will help you dig deeper and bring out each commandment’s nuances.
For instance, let’s continue to use the fifth commandment as an example. Sub-questions for this commandment might include, “Did I gossip (i.e., kill someone’s reputation)?” “Did I get angry or lose my temper?” “Did I endanger someone’s life by reckless driving?” “Did I lead people into sin by telling scandalous jokes, disparaging religion, dressing immodestly, lending harmful books or magazines, etc.?” Notice that each of these questions has something to do with killing either the soul or the body.
Father Mendes says that the importance of making a good examination of conscience can’t be overstated. “Before Vatican II, the people in many parts of our diocese were not well trained to make a good examen, so confession was just routine. [After I was transferred to] the Philippines, I experienced a completely different reality. People were taught to make their confessions well, and they were serious.” Croatian priest Father Bozidar Nagy, SJ, reports a similar situation in his nation.
Next, we need true contrition. Each of the priests interviewed for this piece agreed that the penitent must be “really sorry.” After all, if you’ve sinned and aren’t truly contrite, not only will your confessor sniff that out, but more importantly, it’s not like you’re fooling God. So prayer, examination, and authentic contrition are essential.
What about the confessor?
Andrea West of Brea, California, says, “He needs to listen.” That seems pretty basic. However, several people interviewed for this article reported experiences where the priest seemed disengaged.
On the other hand, there are priests who are maybe too engaged. Echoing a common frustration, a California physician says, “On many occasions I’ve waited in line for well over an hour with only a few penitents ahead of me, only to have the priest leave with everyone still in line. I would humbly ask priests to remember that oftentimes numerous people greatly need the sacrament’s graces, and they won’t get them because of the in-depth counseling.”
Pat Beno of Green Bay, Wisconsin, feels this is a particular hazard wherever churches use “rec” (short for reconciliation) rooms in place of traditional confessionals, since face-to-face encounters can encourage greater extra-sacramental conversations.
Kathleen Nurt of Buffalo, New York, finds that being too attentive or too inattentive is less of a problem with older priests—especially “old-school” Jesuits. She says older priests tend to be “more fatherly and understanding. They really have heard it all, and it shows.”
This brings up a good point. We might be afraid to approach the confessional because we can’t believe the priest has heard a sin as bad as ours. However, ask any priest, and most will say shock over people’s sins ends a few weeks after ordination. Many also report forgetting the particulars of a confession as soon as absolution is granted, even if they know the penitent well. Furthermore, most priests are simply happy that the penitent is confessing in the first place. Priests serve as unfailingly gentle icons of Christ, in whose name they give absolution. One head of a religious order shows servant-like humility by always ending his confessions with, “Please pray for me, a sinner, too.”
What else can the Church do to promote this sacrament?
Interestingly, laity and priests from all backgrounds proactively suggest making reconciliation available before and even during each Mass. Why? Father Evaristus Eshiowe, FSSP, says, “If a priest makes himself available for confession in any church—even while Mass is going on—people will line up [to confess]. This [I know] from experience.”
Even where confession during Mass is not possible, however, Father Tim Finigan of Blackfen, Kent, England, asserts that “priests [being] there, in the box, at specified times, available to the people” will go the furthest “in encouraging the use of the sacrament of confession.”
Father DeCesare believes the Church needs to “have more time for confession” and also schedule more “convenient” times for the sacrament. Indeed, is Saturday at 3:30 p.m. really the best time? Think of all that happens on a typical weekend at that hour. Then again, maybe, as Father DeCesare says, if people come “to see [confession’s] value, that it is worth going frequently,” they will make an extra effort to go. Part of that, everyone I interviewed seems to agree, will come with clerics preaching confession more from the pulpit.
Go to confession as a family
“Parents need to teach at home by example,” notes Andrea West. “[Mom] would have us at [church] every Saturday at 3:30 whether we needed it or not. If we did not go to confession, we did not receive. She taught us to see reconciliation as a gift—that to forgive and be forgiven is a gift of love.”
That is great wisdom, whether it’s coming from Ma West or Mother Church.
Resources for confession
Been away from the sacrament of reconciliation for months, years, or even decades? Don’t worry—anyone still breathing still has time. But what if you’ve forgotten the ins and outs of the rite? Never fear, here are some resources:
- Go in Peace: Your Guide to the Purpose and Power of Confession by Fr. Mitch Pacwa, SJ (Ascension Press)
- The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: Rediscovering the Sacrament of Penance.
- Knights of Columbus: A Guide to Confession
- NCRegister: Examination of Conscience for Adults and Children