I heard eight confessions this morning. For one hour, facing a small crucifix in a spartan room, I listened to the ordinary transgressions of exceptionally good people. In the early church, these penitents would not have gone to confession. A devout participation in Eucharist would have eased their consciences, assuaged their guilt. I had ample time for breviary and meditation. Thirty years ago I would not have had time for a single decade of the rosary. I know when I return to this room in a few hours that I will have time for more prayer. People are busy with other things. While I enjoy the extra prayer time, I do wish more people appreciated the richness of this sacrament.
Why are the lines outside our confessionals so short, even when good confessors are available? Last fall the Wall Street Journal (September 21) reported that only 26 percent of American Catholics went to confession during 2005. What is going on with the other 74 percent? U.S. Catholic reported in October 2005 that the most common reason Catholics give for not going to confession “is that they feel uncomfortable confessing their sins to a priest.” Contrast that with self-help groups, where members readily seek out the help of others who “know what I’m going through” and can offer concrete advice or support.
When I began hearing confessions forty-nine years ago, our downtown church had nineteen confessionals. We were “state of the art.” Two confessors began hearing at six in the morning. Three, sometimes four, priests were needed during lunchtime and in the evenings when offices were letting out. We were often busy until 9:00 p.m. During Advent and Lent, twelve priests were kept busy throughout the day. These days, one priest is usually sufficient.
For some time, church leaders have been asking where the lines have gone. Instead they should have been asking why people went in the first place. To borrow an expression from the warden in Cool Hand Luke, maybe there has been “a failure to communicate.” I suspect this is what has happened. When we fail to listen, we fail to communicate.
We so easily look to authority for guidance, as well we should. But sometimes we fail to realize how much our leaders need grass-roots input. Because we ordinary priests work where life in the church is happening, our experience ought to be considered along with what theologians and bishops are saying. We listen not only to our leaders and to theologians, we listen to ordinary Catholics and to one another.
I suspect church leadership sometimes acts like the generals who took over after the death of Frederick the Great. The generals lost the battle of Jena twenty years later because they thought the tactics Frederick had prepared were so well conceived they didn’t need to change them.
It is helpful to remember that the ritual is not the sacrament. The sacrament is reconciliation. The ritual has changed over the centuries. Without going into a long history of how the rite has evolved, we should look at how it has formed people’s perspectives. Many of us were instructed with the Baltimore Catechism, a work based on the shared wisdom of generations. We learned that to be guilty of sin one must act with both knowledge and freedom. It was an easy, comprehensible presentation of what Thomas Aquinas called “impediments” to human acts. For some reason, the wisdom of Aquinas did not take root. Instead, many people confessed more than what they were really guilty of doing. In the minds of many adult Catholics, sufficient knowledge and freedom were no longer active parts of the equation. If you broke the law, you had to confess it. Confession before Communion became something akin to taking a Saturday night bath before going to Sunday Mass. After all, St. Paul had warned about those who receive unworthily.
I recently read a pamphlet on confession. In only seven pages, the author outlined fifty-five things to feel guilty about. Do we really believe this is what Jesus had in mind? This pamphlet was not published for the benefit of my grandmother in the days of Woodrow Wilson. It was published only a few years ago. Whatever happened to all those wonderful insights provided by today’s behavioral sciences, insights that would bring us into a deeper understanding of what the catechism meant when it spoke about the need for sufficient reflection and consent? Today, many Catholics understand that they do not need to mention acts for which there is little or no subjective guilt. They focus less on isolated acts and more on attitudes and patterns of behavior. While they realize they cannot be indifferent to their everyday transgressions, they don’t experience an urgent need to stop by the nearest confessional before they get to work. As Fr. Joseph Chinnici has argued, Catholics have started thinking of sin in categories such as social sin and the sinful attitudes behind one’s individual actions; the classical categories of mortal and venial sin are no longer as important to them. The Prodigal Son did not confess a list of specific infractions. He expressed sorrow for the results of a pattern of behavior. Imperfect though it was, it was a start—and that was enough for his loving father.
Over the centuries, as more sins were added to the big three (adultery, apostasy, and murder) the ministry of reconciliation became too burdensome for bishops, so they prepared others for the task. I am convinced there will always be a need to hear confessions, just as we do today. People will always need a safe place to unburden themselves, a place where they can be assured of God’s loving forgiveness. A Methodist minister told me, “You people have a valuable asset in the confessional, something that we have lost.” He added that some Catholics don’t seem to appreciate the richness of the practice. But while the Reformation churches may have lost something we have held onto, we seem to have lost something they value. They tend to ritualize reconciliation in ways that are more in keeping with the practice of the early Christians, when believers assembled to celebrate the return of a sinner to full participation in the community. It was not an anonymous whisper in the privacy of a small room or even the brief ritual acknowledgment of unworthiness before worship. It was a public proclamation of God’s loving forgiveness. We occasionally provide for communal reconciliation services, but generally this happens only once or twice a year.
How can we make this sacrament more appealing to the 74 percent of Catholics who seldom approach a confessional? Does the current ritual speak to people’s own experience of reconciliation? In a 2006 pastoral letter, Bishop Michael Pfeifer of San Angelo, Texas, raised the question of why we ought to confess to a priest if God has already forgiven us. He noted “that good confessors often help people find the peace and tranquillity that people often seek from psychologists and psychiatrists.” But that kind of healing rarely happens in a two-minute confession or in a twice-a-year communal penance service. The fact is, most American Catholics understand reconciliation as something much more encompassing and demanding than a quick spiritual cleansing rite. They see it as part of a healing process that our present ritual does not seem to provide.
Many people now experience reconciliation through twelve-step programs, counseling, psychotherapy, and spiritual direction. In A.A., the examination of conscience in step 4 is much more detailed than what generally takes place before your average confession, and the firm purpose of amendment is not a perfunctory wish that behavior will somehow take a turn for the better. It is a long-term, concrete commitment to shape a better life. Steps 8 and 9 go beyond that. They involve an effort to undo any harm we may have done. It strikes me that the focus here is much more in keeping with the practice of the early church: people doing penance so that they might be reformed in the image and likeness of God, the image in which they were all originally created.
Who is to say no sacrament is present when this reconciliation happens between baptized people? St. James wrote to the early Christian communities, advising them that the sick should be anointed by presbyters, those who have authority in the church (James 5:16). In the next verse he tells the same Christians to “confess your sins to one another.” This suggests that the baptized were encouraged to confess to one another—and not only to the specially ordained. The early church recognized that forgiveness also happened through a devout participation in the Eucharist, in alms-giving, pilgrimages, and any number of other activities. Can we imagine the sacrament happening outside the walls of our churches—or even within them but beyond the confessional room? Chinnici was on target when he asked, “Are we seeing a decline in confession or an expansion of forgiveness?” Perhaps the real expansion is in the laity’s awareness of just how expansive God’s mercy is. Significantly, Catholics are visiting confessionals less frequently but receiving Communion more often.
Boston College historian James O’Toole asks if confession has a future. He finds it difficult to believe that the long lines at confessionals will ever return. O’Toole writes, “For many Catholics, myself included, the disappearance of the traditional form for seeking reconciliation, with God and with our neighbors, has left a gap that has not yet been filled....We stand in the same position as Christians of the early Middle Ages: the older form of confession and absolution is dying out, and what the newer form will be is not clear.”
Sometimes when sitting in the confessional with no one coming, I think of my own past, of unloading freight cars on the New York Central on cold winter nights. I recall the safety signs: Stop–Look–Listen. This is what our religious leaders need to do. They seem very good at listening to their peers, but less good at listening to the people in the pews. Today’s Catholics are still confessing their shortcomings, but in different ways, some of which facilitate real change. Something is happening outside our confessionals. While Rome and the bishops draw up new liturgies and encourage people to take part in them, when it comes to confession the people are ahead of them. It is time we learned from the example of Jesus. Like all good teachers, he was both a keen observer and a good listener. For him, the real issue, the real sacrament, was reconciliation.