A new appreciation of reconciliation
by Joe Bollig
firstname.lastname@example.org It wasn’t the most unusual question Msgr. Michael Mullen had ever heard in the confessional, but it was one of the funniest.
“Father, is an asteroid headed toward earth? There’s a line in front of the confessional,” said the penitent.
No, the Apocalypse had not arrived.
Rather, St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, Kan., was seeing a revival in the sacrament of reconciliation, also known as confession or penance.
CONFESSION MAKES A COMEBACK?
Forty years ago, long lines in front of confessionals were the norm. In fact, more people seemed to go to confession than receive the Eucharist.
Starting in the 1970s, however, the number of people going to confession dropped dramatically. In most parishes today, the line to receive the Eucharist is long, but the line to the confessional is short — if there is even a line at all.
If for decades now confession has seemed to be a neglected sacrament, there are indications that this might be changing.
Most of the evidence for this alleged comeback, however, is anecdotal. Curé of Ars pastor Msgr. Charles McGlinn said that the numbers of penitents are up at his parish in Leawood. And Father Steve Beseau, executive director of the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at KU, says that he’s seen an increase, too, but it might be due to frequent use of confession by a growing “core group” of university students undergoing spiritual direction.
WHY A ‘NEGLECTED SACRAMENT’?
Priests agree that confession has been somewhat neglected by Catholics in recent years and offer a variety of reasons.
Sometimes people simply drift away from an active faith life, suggested Msgr. Mullen, which includes confession, Mass attendance and prayer.
But if a “person opens his heart to conversion and reaches the point of humility [where he says], ‘I need God,’” said Msgr. Mullen, “he can come back and find [God] in the Mass, confession and the Bible.”
On the other hand, some people grow discouraged in the sacrament — and with themselves — because they feel like they are confessing the same sins over and over again. They stop coming, he said, because they feel as though they’re not making any spiritual progress.
But if they are faithful, Msgr. Mullen promised, they will make progress over time.
“Another reason folks don’t come,” added Msgr. Mullen, “is because they haven’t been to confession in a long time, and it takes a lot of psychological and spiritual energy to restart.”
“Also, they may say, ‘I’ve committed some pretty serious sins and I don’t know if God can forgive me,’” he continued. “So it’s important to stress what Jesus said: Come back to me, and I will heal you.”
Father Beseau believes that confession also have might been neglected for two additional reasons: Pastors have failed to preach about it, and the sacrament is misunderstood. He wonders, too, whether people have lost a sense of sinfulness.
Or have they merely lost their ability to recognize the power and grace of a sacrament that can lift them out of their sin?
Finally, several priests agreed, people seem simply unaware of the consequences of failing to go to confession.
THE CASE FOR CONFESSION
The reason to go to confession is simple.
“[We need confession] because we’re all sinners,” said Father Kent O’Connor, pastor at Sacred Heart Parish in Sabetha.
“‘I’m OK, you’re OK,’” is not enough,” he said. Just as it’s true that all people are sinners, all people are called to be saints — to exercise heroic virtues.
“The saints, almost across the board, recommend frequent confession; once a month, perhaps more often,” said Father O’Connor.
Four good things happen when we confess, said Msgr. Mullen. It helps us form our conscience and become more sensitive to sin. It fights evil within us. It brings Jesus into our healing process. And finally, it helps us progress in a life in the Holy Spirit. Almost invariably, people who want to grow closer to Christ begin to see that confession is integral to spiritual growth.
“It takes away sin and helps us grow in virtue,” he said. “By going to confession, we are brought closer to God.”
IT JUST GETS BETTER
Sally* hadn’t been to confession in more than 20 years.
When her husband decided to become a Catholic, however, she decided to go through the Rite of Christian Initiation process with him. The classes gave her a better, deeper understanding of the sacrament.
Her first three confessions since she decided to return to the sacrament weren’t easy.
But they were tremendously rewarding.
“Some of the deeper things that I was not conscious of really came up [the third time],” she said. “Part of it is the fear of telling someone you know things that aren’t necessarily the most pleasant about yourself, so it takes a lot of nerve to do that.”
Nevertheless, she went, strengthened by recalling Jesus’ words to the apostles in the Scriptures: If you forgive their sins, they are forgiven.
“You know, it doesn’t matter what [the priest thinks] of you when you walk out of the confessional,” said Sally. “That is not my problem. What matters is what our Lord [the] Savior thinks.”
The next day, “the beauty came,” and she felt refreshed, and cleansed, and closer to Christ.
Anna, a recent college graduate living in Douglas County, said it was difficult for her parents to get the family to confession.
“When I was young,” Anna said, “our dad would trick us into going to confession, because none of us kids wanted to go. He’d tell us we were going out to eat, and then he’d take us to confession — and then we’d go eat.”
She began to drift away from the sacrament as she got older. She didn’t know why she had to tell her sins to a priest and didn’t think she had any sins worth confessing (although she didn’t want to tell the priest about her wrongdoing). Anna’s ideas about confession changed when she began studying theology and undertook spiritual direction at a Catholic campus ministry.
“It was still really scary to go that first time while I was in college,” she said, “because I hadn’t gone in a while.”
“But after I went, it felt like the weight of the world had been taken off of my shoulders,” she said. “I loved that feeling. So after that, I just wanted to go back as often as I could.”
Richard, a mental health professional in Shawnee County, goes to confession every four to eight weeks. He understands what an obstacle confession presents to some people, but appreciates its benefits as well.
“It sometimes can be challenging to go to confession, when we have to reveal our faults — it’s very difficult for us to do that,” he said. “I think we’ve gotten away from focusing on what we do wrong.
“At the same time, I find that confessing one’s sins and faults is a way of working on them.
“In fact, in psychiatry we’ve always had the feeling that until you’ve identified your problem, you couldn’t work on it. . . . I think the same thing is true for confession. It’s a healing process.”
But confession wasn’t always a healing experience for him personally, said Richard.
“I remember as a kid going to confession, that our priest was kind of a crotchety, grumpy old man,” he recalled.
“He’d just slide the [screen] back, you’d say your sins, and he’d say, ‘Well, try to do better! Say three Hail Marys,’ and then boom, and that was the end of it,” he said. “It wasn’t a very pleasant or therapeutic experience. Today, I find it much different.”
WELCOME HOME, PRODIGAL
When people are preparing to go to confession, they should remember the parable of the prodigal son, said Msgr. Mullen. Christ eagerly awaits our repentance and return.
“Christ is calling you, and the very interest you have in going to confession is God’s love within you,” he said. “That’s Christ’s Spirit already moving in you. It’s a sign he loves you and wants to share his forgiveness in you.”
He recommends that the next time you go to confession, concentrate on the lessons taught in the act of contrition and meditate on the words of absolution spoken by the priest.
Few words are more beautiful, he believes, than these:
“I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
* For purposes of confidentiality, the names given for the laypeople interviewed for this article are not their real ones.