PRACTICED, WHEN PREACHED
In “The Empty Box” (February 29), Rev. Raymond Mann gives his view of why the practice of confession has fallen off. I have a different take on the matter. In the parishes where my priests promote confession, there are no empty lines. Where there is good catechesis as to the reality of sin and the importance of the sacrament of reconciliation, there are large numbers of people receiving the sacrament.
Also, I think that when priests don’t encourage the sacrament and when they give the impression they really aren’t interested in hearing confessions and don’t want to bother with it, people catch on quickly.
The church clearly teaches that Christ entrusted to his apostles the ministry of reconciliation (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church §1461 and John 20:23) and every Catholic is bound by an obligation to faithfully confess serious sins at least once a year. Fr. Mann says that “some Catholics don’t seem to appreciate the richness of the practice.” I believe that we need to teach clearly, in homilies and elsewhere, the beauty of this sacrament. The Catholic Church is unique in having this opportunity for reconciliation. In addition to being forgiven our sins, whether large or small, we have the opportunity to be humble before God and to recognize that we are sinners needing Christ’s redemption. Certainly in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe the sacrament is hardly dead. I believe that we must do a better job of teaching and encouraging our people to partake of this great sacrament.
Those who never go to confession and who go to Sunday Mass only when they feel like it are risking losing their Catholic faith and their immortal souls.
(MOST REV.) MICHAEL J. SHEEHAN
Santa Fe, N.Mex.
The author is the archbishop of Santa Fe.
NO LONGER CREDIBLE
In response to Raymond Mann’s article on confession, I would like to suggest a deeper reason for the decline in the practice of the sacrament. As a hospital chaplain, I am often in situations where the sacrament of penance is possible. I find that many do not request it or desire it because it is no longer a credible practice for them. It doesn’t fit into their vocabulary of Catholic practice. Confession is a difficult discipline that thrives with a high authority possessing the keys of the kingdom. Given their experience of the church over the past few decades, many no longer find it credible to go to a priest to have their sins forgiven. This is not necessarily faith lost, but it is faith changed. We need to find more credible ways to provide the mercy of God.
KENNETH SMITS, OFM CAP
A GOOD PREPARATION
When I saw the cover of your March 14 issue, I thought to myself, “That’s College Church!” And reading Dennis O’Brien’s article (“The Saga of St. Joseph’s”) brought back fond memories of my time at St. Joseph’s from 1955 to 1959.
I was part of the “quiet generation,” though the academic life at St. Joseph’s was anything but quiet. If any college could prepare us for what was to happen in the ’60s, it was St. Joseph’s. Even then it had a “core” of sorts, and an approach to education that, while recognizing modernity with all of its specialization, honestly presented a truly liberal curriculum. Everyone had to minor in philosophy, and though the curriculum was Thomist to the core, Plato and Kant were not ignored. I even made my first attempt at Wittgenstein there. Unsurprisingly, St. Joseph’s is also where I began reading Commonweal.
JOHN C. NEFF
A LOST GENERATION
I read with great sadness your editorial on the results of the recent Pew Forum’s survey (“The Missing,” March 14). If the church were an individual facing an annual job-performance review with such dismal numbers, it would be placed on probationary status with strict instructions on how to improve. A corporation with a similar record of plunging numbers might be facing imminent bankruptcy proceedings.
Many factors figure in this membership decline. One of them, I think, is a profound lack of imagination on the part of parish and diocesan leaders about how to meet the needs of teens and young adults, who are in the most formative years of their lives. The vast majority of the church’s resources go toward Catholic schools and the needs of families with children. Older teens and young unmarried adults not in Catholic schools or Catholic universities are woefully neglected. Many of their most important life decisions are undertaken without much attention or meaningful assistance from the official church. Will church leaders give any serious attention to this failure to evangelize our own younger generation?
MARIE D. HOFF
CATCHING THE DRIFT
According to your editorial on the Pew survey, one in three Catholics has “drifted away.” In the same issue of Commonweal there was an article by Dennis O’Brien about successes in Catholic higher education. Among my family and friends one can find evidence for both these realities. Many of us have been educated in Catholic universities and we typically hold those institutions in high regard. The problems begin when we move from a university environment into our local parishes. Many pastors simply do not know what to do with an educated laity.
Maybe people should not leave the church because of poor homilies by priests who are not as well educated as themselves. But attempting to function in a parish run like a little fiefdom with no forums, no listening, and no participation in decisions is just too much for many of my family members and friends. Many parishes are driving people away (they do not “drift”; they are driven). On one occasion, my wife, in a rare moment of utter frustration, told a pastor: “I bring them in the front door, and you run them out the back!”
It is true that young people are not “acculturated” into the church the way earlier generations were, when pay-and-pray was the rule. But, as O’Brien says, we are doing a good job of educating Christians at our colleges. How vital that is! Many educated Catholics I know make major contributions to their communities, but many of their pastors feel threatened by a talented laity. Any parent will tell you that once you begin to educate your children, they will expect to be invited into family conversations. The church has not learned this simple lesson.
OBAMA & RACE
Just when I feared that the sentiments expressed in Robert Bellah’s fine essay (“Yes He Can,” March 14) had been eclipsed by the fracas over Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s incendiary remarks, Barack Obama gave a masterful and daring speech about race. At this moment, it appears that the electorate is uneasy with such candor. But letting this opportunity pass will only compound the American tragedy that inhibits real dialogue. We still seem to prefer sound bites to conscience-rattling analysis.
My hope is that Bellah is correct—that Obama has appealed to the “better angels of our nature,” which will triumph in this test. Can we finally speak about the ubiquity of “white privilege” without getting lost in controversies about affirmative action? Our anxious souls are currently focused on the economy and the four thousand U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq, but we owe it to our children to face the challenge of racial division, a challenge we’ve mostly ignored since someone gave another great speech about race forty years ago.
DAVID E. PASINSKI
FAITH WITHOUT REFLECTION
People attend college to learn to think. Yet letter-writer Robert Ramser (“Defending the Flock,” March 14), who supports Bishop Edward Braxton’s refusal to let Luke Timothy Johnson speak at a Newman Center, believes college students should accept Catholic teaching without reflection.
This is a dangerous mistake. An unexamined faith is a weak faith, easily lost when challenged. To prepare young people for a difficult lifetime of discipleship, we should help them ask and answer reasonable questions—with humility, but also with courage. By silencing voices we do not like at college Catholic centers, we risk sending young men and women out into the world with a feeble understanding of their faith.
OF POEMS AND POGO STICKS
I loved John Savant’s wonderful “‘You Come Too’” (March 14). Its delicious use of language (the bishop on a pogo stick, images lying about like empty luggage), coupled with its elegantly built argument for understanding poetry’s “formal elements,” make it an essay to read, reread, and pass on to friends. What a teacher he must be! How I would love to take a class with him!
ASKANCE BUT NOT DOWN
In my review of Patricia Hampl’s The Florist’s Daughter (“Tale of Two Mothers,” February 29), I wrote: “As her mother looked down on the Czech relatives, so young Patricia looks down on her chain-smoking, self-dramatizing mother...”
Overreaching to maintain the parallel actions of mother and daughter “looking down,” I did not accurately capture Patricia Hampl’s account. She has kindly, and helpfully, written me to make the following clarification: “While I don’t think I ‘looked down’ on my amazing mother, I did surely look askance at times as a girl and later.” “Askance” is exactly the right word. Why didn’t I think of it?
MARGARET O’BRIEN STEINFELS
New York, N.Y.