Wednesday, March 21, 2007


"That is what I imagine the average church's signboard could advertise, so few are those who go to confession any more," writes Karl Keating in his E-Letter of March 20, 2007. While acknowledging that, like himself, most of his readers probably go to confession regularly, he admits that most Catholics today go rarely or not at all.

But wait! This isn't one of those negative posts about how Catholics today are all going to hell in a hand basket. There's more -- some of it good news, as you'll see in due course. Keating does go on to cite some alarming statistics (from Religious News Service) that only 14% of Catholics go to confession yearly, and 42% never go, and so forth -- in contrast to 50 years ago when penitents lined the aisles outside confessional booths on Saturday. Gone with the wind, those days. What happened?

Keating cites (from RNS) the reasons commonly offered by way of explanation -- "changing notions of sin, opposition to the Church's stance on birth control, widespread changes after the Second Vatican Council, ignorance about the sacrament, and busy lives." But, Keating observes, "I think the real answer may be simpler than that. Let me tell you a true story":
Some years ago I was invited to dinner at the rectory of the most populous parish in the Los Angeles Archdiocese. When I knocked on the door, the housekeeper admitted me. It was evident at once that no one else was there. Had I shown up on the wrong night? Oh, no, said the housekeeper. All four priests were still in the church, hearing confessions.

On a Thursday night?

When the priests finally returned to the rectory, the pastor apologized for keeping me waiting. They had had fifty more penitents than usual for a Thursday. I remarked that Thursday evening seemed an odd time to have confessions. "Oh, we have confessions every evening," said the pastor--hundreds and hundreds of confessions each week.

I wondered how that could be possible. The pastor chuckled. He said that neighboring pastors asked the same thing--and they proffered answers. "Many of them say, 'Well, you're just getting our penitents because you have such convenient times for reconciliation,' but that's not so, you know. We can tell that these are our own people."

But why, I asked, were the four priests in this parish kept busy with confessions each evening, not to mention on Saturday afternoons, when in neighboring parishes only a handful of people showed up at the once-a-week slot for confessions?

"Easy," said the pastor. "It's so easy that other priests don't believe how we do it."

Okay, I said. What's the secret?

"From the pulpit we tell our people that they are sinners, that they know they are sinners, and that they need to go to confession. We tell them that God loves them and wants to forgive them. We tell them that we will be waiting for them in the confessionals each night and on Saturday afternoon. We tell them this often and always gently, and so they come to confession. Lots of them."

That's it? I asked. No fire and brimstone? No bribes, spiritual or otherwise? No threats?

"Not necessary," said the pastor. "If you tell people the truth that they already know in their hearts--that they are sinners and need forgiveness--they will respond to that." And so they did.
No matter what changes have occurred since Vatican II, says Keating, no matter how poorly catechized today's Catholics may be, no matter how put off they may be by scandals or banal homilies, one thing has remained constant: human nature. People today commit the same kinds of sins that people committed fifty or a hundred or a thousand years ago. Those sins have the same effect on them as sins have always had on people. In this regard, at least, there is nothing new under the sun.

Keating suggests that this suggests why most parishes have so few penitents: "The fault is found not so much in the wider culture but in the narrow pulpit. When is the last time you heard a priest, even a good one, say clearly that those listening to him were sinners, knew they were sinners, and needed to go to confession--and that he would be waiting for them and would give them as much time as they needed?"

Many priests -- good priests -- mention confession, says Keating, but that's not good enough. What's the last time you remember hearing even one of them discuss confession the way it should be discussed? These are the good priests. But then what about priests who would rather not have Saturday afternoons so inconveniently interrupted, "those who have never uttered the word "confession" from the pulpit, who think they are doing their parishioners a favor by not trying to burden them with guilt?"

"I have news for such priests," says Keating. "Their parishioners already are burdened with guilt. They struggle with guilt because each person over the age of reason is a sinner. That is something called a Brute Fact. What a pity that so many priests fail to understand what is so obvious to the people they preach to each week!"

Keating makes a very important observation about priestly psychology here, which reminds me of familial analogies: priests are perhaps reluctant to talk about sin in this simple and frank way with their congregations much in the same way, perhaps, as parents these days often seem reluctant to discipline their children or even to withhold from them anything for which they express a desire. I wonder whether parents are not so motivated by the narcissistic desire to be liked by their children that they inadvertently fail to attend to the moral and spiritual formation of their offspring's souls. The fact is that children who grow up without loving discipline do not feel loved and do not respect their parents. Children ultimately grow to respect and love parents who set boundaries, who tell them the truth about themselves and what they need, and don't simply indulge their inclinations. The same, I dare say, with parishioners and priests.

The good news, as far as priests are concerned, is that the answer is simple: "If you preach it, they will come."

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