Early last month Pope Benedict XVI addressed participants in a course on the internal forum (the realm of conscience concerned mainly with the sacrament of penance).
In his remarks, the pope focused on the administration of the sacrament. “What is needed today,” he pointed out, “is to ensure that people who confess experience the divine tenderness for penitent sinners which so many Gospel episodes express with intense emotion.”
Acknowledging “a certain disaffection” with the sacrament of penance nowadays, the pope indicated that “when we insist only on the accusation of sin … we run the risk of relegating to second place what is, in fact, essential, in other words the personal meeting with God, Father of goodness and mercy.”
Pastors and confessors must emphasize the “close link” between the sacrament and conversion so that “the grace of the sacrament may support and nourish the commitment to be faithful disciples of the Lord.”
Otherwise, the pope concluded, the celebration of the sacrament “risks becoming a formality which does not penetrate the fabric of everyday life.” However, he also expressed a concern for those who do not confess regularly.
The pope is surely well aware of the sharp decline in the number of confessions over the past few decades. According to a report last fall in the Wall Street Journal (09/21/07), only 26 percent of U.S. Catholics went to confession during 2005.
One wonders if anyone has brought to Pope Benedict’s attention a provocative article on the subject that appeared recently in Commonweal (02/29/08).
The article, entitled “The Empty Box: Why Catholics Skip Confession,” was written by Father Raymond C. Mann, a Franciscan friar, who has had long experience as a missionary in Bolivia and almost 50 years as a confessor, ministering currently at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston.
Father Mann began his article by noting that he had heard just eight confessions at the shrine all that morning. By contrast, when he started hearing confessions 49 years ago, his downtown church had 19 confessionals.
Confession as we know it today did not even exist for the first six or seven centuries. By the 20th century, however, Catholics were confessing “more than what they were really guilty of doing.”
“In the minds of many adult Catholics,” Father Mann observed, “sufficient knowledge and freedom (two necessary requirements for the commission of a sin) were no longer active parts of the equation.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.”
Catholics today “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.”
What mature Catholics seek is not a quick cleansing rite but the experience of reconciliation and the hope of shaping a better life through a long-term commitment to conversion.
For many the experience of reconciliation occurs in conversation with friends, consistently with James’s advice to “confess your sins to one another” (5:16), but more commonly through active participation in the Eucharist.
Father Mann suggested that perhaps people are realizing what the pope himself pointed out, namely, that God is forgiving and merciful. They are sacramentally confessing less often, but receiving Communion more often.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.