Skip to comments.Catholic confession has evolved over time
Posted on 11/25/2003 7:54:28 AM PST by Land of the Irish
Catholic confession has evolved over time Fewer attend, and emphasis now is on spiritual guidance
By VANESSA HO SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
In the late '60s, when the Rev. Jan Larson was a new Roman Catholic priest, he would sit in a dark confessional for hours and listen to people rattle off a "grocery list" of sins. They had impure thoughts, said "damn" three times or chewed gum during a fast.
Today, he's lucky if two people show up for confession at his Snoqualmie parish, and the sins he absolves are more complex. Yet, he sometimes hears about the small stuff, especially from older people who might say they skipped Mass.
Scott Eklund / P-I Nick Coffman, 19, prays near the entrance to the Chapel of St. Ignatius at Seattle University yesterday. University officials say they've noticed that more students are going to Mass and confession than in the past. "I do find a healing and a merciful forgiveness," Coffman said. "I always ask why, and they say, 'Oh, well, I had pneumonia.' And you want to snap, 'Why are you bringing that here? It's not a sin if you have pneumonia. God wants you to stay at home.' "
In the span of a half-century, the sacrament of penance, as confession is officially called, has evolved drastically, from a rigid, foreboding ritual to a looser, therapeutic practice. Instead of a fearful cataloging of sins, it now emphasizes spiritual guidance and mercy. And it no longer occurs in the booth.
"I'm just waiting for Hollywood to get it right. They always have the dark box, and the gangster gets in, and the grill slides open," said Roger O'Brien, a retired priest who is writing an article about the sacrament for the Archdiocese of Seattle.
Confession, which is often called "reconciliation," now takes place in a quiet, well-lighted room or chapel, in which a parishioner faces a priest. (If they want to remain anonymous, however, they still have the option of kneeling before a screen).
The changes have occurred as the number of Catholics attending regular confession has declined. In 1965, nearly 40 percent of American Catholics said they went to confession monthly, according to the National Opinion Research Center. Today, sociologists estimate that fewer than 25 percent of Catholics regularly go to confession, and that nearly 60 percent never or almost never go.
"One thing you hear about confession vanishing is if Catholics have lost their sense of sin. Well, I don't think so," said Larson, who also ministers to parishes in Duvall and Carnation.
He noted that communal services on forgiveness, similar to those offered by many Protestant churches, are often packed. He said Catholics have more options for absolution, because church officials now say forgiveness can come through Mass or private prayer, instead of only through one-on-one confession.
And some religious experts say there is a resurgence in confession-going among young Catholics, who are praying the rosary and doing other devotional acts that their baby-boomer parents abandoned.
"Most Catholics who grew up in the '50 and '60s would rather go to the dentist than confession," said Greg Magnoni, Archdiocese of Seattle spokesman. "But today, that's changed, and the sacrament of reconciliation is a celebration of God's grace and mercy."
On a recent Saturday, the traditional day to confess, Keith Abrahams let in a gust of cold air as he rushed inside St. James Cathedral to wait for a priest. He joined about 10 people, who sat in silence, bundled in coats.
A retired mental-health therapist and former Army first sergeant, Abrahams said he goes to confession every two weeks and that it helps him understand and forgive himself. He likes the modern way of facing a priest, viewing it as a spiritual therapy session.
"It helps me to avoid doing the same things over and over again," said Abrahams, 62. "I feel relief and forgiveness."
Nick Coffman, a 19-year-old Seattle University student, waited his turn nearby. Longhaired and dressed all in black, Coffman plays guitar, studies philosophy and would be right at home in a hip coffeehouse.
He grew up Catholic, but was an agnostic for a while in high school. Now he works as a sacristan, or a chapel assistant, and goes to confession every two weeks.
"I do find a healing and a merciful forgiveness," Coffman said. "Really, it speaks to my whole person." But he recognized that going to confession is difficult.
"It really requires looking at yourself and asking where you can be more virtuous, where you can positively embrace God's love," he said.
At Seattle University, administrators say they've noticed that more students are going to Mass and confession than in the past. Many of the students grew up with parents who offered a "smorgasbord approach" to religion or told them, "When you're old enough, you can choose for yourself," said Sheila Barnes, the school's faith-formation coordinator.
Those students are now searching for more meaning in their faith, she said.
"For a lot of young Catholics, there's a feeling that Catholicism has been watered down, and it's gotten really confusing what it means to be Catholic," said G De Castro, the school's chapel coordinator.
He said going to confession and doing other traditional religious practices are "kind of an attempt to solidify the Catholic identity in an external way."
Religion experts say the overall decline in confession-going stems from a broader notion of sin. In the past two centuries, Catholics were less educated and didn't distinguish between small and big sins. So, in order to avoid going to hell, they confessed often and to everything.
Now, "people are more likely to make personal judgments about their sinfulness, rather than going off and running to confession," Larson said.
He said many people who go to confession tend to be at a crossroad in life and need both forgiveness and counseling. In the past, when a parishioner said, "Father, I drink every other day, and I'm drunk at home," a priest would give him penance for committing "the sin of drunkenness," he said.
Now, Larson would help him find community resources to fight addiction. Priests also advise parishioners to do acts of contrition, from saying prayers to contributing to a charity.
In a few weeks, when Advent, the penitential season before Christmas, starts, parishes will prepare for their communal absolution services. The Vatican wants priests to offer one-on-one confession time as part of these services. But many priests, particularly those of large parishes, say they can't accommodate everyone.
One local priest says that tension between the Vatican and some parishes is a "landmine." And some hard-liners say the communal services -- without individual confessions -- offer "cheap grace."
But O'Brien said the services are powerful, with songs, homilies and prayers.
"They're healthy," he said. "That's an encouraging thing for us to experience that sacrament that way."
Amchurch doesn't obey Rome.
FWIW. A lot of Catholics think that attending one of the Reconciliation Masses equals going to Confession. An assumption that is not clarified from the pulpit.
Since when is a mortal sin "small stuff"?
I don't believe that this is true, I might be wrong but If i remember this can only be used when there are extenuating circumstances
And some hard-liners say the communal services -- without individual confessions -- offer "cheap grace."
I don't believe that it offers any grace.
Sounds to me like the lines to get into heaven in the future are going to be very short. "I didn't know" or "it wasn't my fault" just isn't going to hack it. Purgatory is going to have a waiting list and the other place is installing more entry gates for the larger crowds.....
This statement just about sums it up in my opinion. Too many younger Catholics do not go to Confession often enough if at all. The fault lies mainly with their parents, but also with whatever religious education they might have had. I know of at least three Catholic churches in my area where the children receive their first Reconciliation a year AFTER they receive their First Communion. This is nuts because you have a whole generation of youngsters who have no sense of sin.
My mother (God bless her) brought us to Confession once a month whether we needed to go or not. She always left the door open for frequent Confession for her children which is one of the many wonderful things she instilled into our religious upbringing. To this day I have such a sense of what "sin" is, even the venial sins. I have such guilt when I do something wrong and always feel the need to ask Our Lord for forgiveness. Today's youth may have some guilt associated with their wrongdoings, but they feel like all they need to do is say a prayer and God will forgive them.
Lastly and in trying not to judge, I am always saddened to see so few people at Confession on Saturdays. Even worse is the emptying of pews at Mass on Sunday for Holy Communion.
However, in a grave emergency a group absolution could be given.
Think of the priest who was on the scene at 911.
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.