Empty Confessionals

Where have all the sinners gone?

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been two weeks since my last confession, and these are my sins." Many American Catholics over forty can recall some of their most intense religious experiences beginning with those words, experiences that sometimes seemed equal parts terror and relief. Today, those cadences are generally unfamiliar to Catholics under forty and virtually unknown to those under thirty. Yet for generations the formula opened that distinctively Catholic practice: confession.

The sacrament of penance was once so commonplace that few Catholics took much notice of it. Young and old alike, parishioners trooped to their local church to confess, usually on a Friday or Saturday. After silently reviewing their lives since they had been there last, each entered the darkened confessional box and waited until the priest opened the slide between them. In a whispered voice, the penitent first recited the familiar phrases and then proceeded to list offenses against God and neighbor, itemizing particular actions and the number of times each occurred. The priest might ask a question or two, and generally he gave some words of encouragement or chastisement. Then, he assigned a penance to be performed, normally in the form of a few short prayers, and, as the penitent repeated the Act of Contrition, the priest said the prayer of absolution in Latin. The whole thing didn’t take very long, but believers were sure...

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About the Author

James O’Toole teaches history at Boston College.