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Posted October 7, 2003

Confession Rite Evolves To Meet Changing Need

By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 5, 2003; Page C01

Fifty years ago, when Monsignor Thomas A. Kane was a freshly ordained Roman Catholic priest, he'd sit in a confessional booth each Saturday for four hours and listen to people list their sins. The scores of faithful seeking the solace of forgiveness, he recalled, "were lined up down the aisle to the front doors of the church."

Nowadays, when the 76-year-old pastor of St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Rockville schedules weekend confessions, "no more than half a dozen people" show up, he said. He is usually finished in 45 minutes.

Gone are the days when it was customary for Catholics to confess frequently, even if they had no serious sin to declare. Gone, too, is the sense among Catholics that they cannot take communion at Mass unless they have recently been to confession.

There are many reasons for the decline in confession-going. Many Catholics find the ritual too formulaic or say they are too busy. But the major reason, experts say, is a changed sense of what constitutes a sin.

"This may be a little philosophical, but I don't think there's a sense that there's intrinsic evil," Kane said. "A kind of moral relativism has taken over: You can't say killing is wrong because we have war and that's okay. . . . Nothing is really wrong. If I have a good reason to do it, it's not a sin."

At the same time, some priests and scholars say they have seen a modest revival of interest in confession, especially among young people whose spiritual searches are drawing them back to the traditional religious practices that their baby-boomer parents left behind.

"I think the Roman Catholic Church, both the clergy and the laity, are in the process of rediscovering a sacrament that was almost abandoned," said Jim Forest, author of "Confession, Doorway to Forgiveness."

"In one or two generations, we certainly won't see the return of everyone going to confession every Saturday night," Forest said. "That was probably not a good idea anyway. But we're going to see people going to confession two or three times a year."

Some Protestant scholars have observed renewed interest in the practice of confession in their denominations as well. Mark Dyer, a professor of theology and director of spiritual formation at the Episcopal Church's Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, said he has noticed "a measured increase in interest in the sacrament" among seminary students who come for spiritual counseling. "Should I recommend that we move into the sacrament," he said, "without hesitation, they'll say, 'By all means.' "

In recent years, some Protestant and Catholic churches have experimented with communal penance services. They are popular, some priests said, because the group experience reinforces people's determination to change their behavior.

Among Catholics, surveys have documented a "dramatic decline" in going to confession, Catholic University sociologist William V. D'Antonio noted. During the 1990s, he said, polls found that 46 percent of Catholics in the United States had not gone to confession over the past 12 months, even though it is one of the church's seven sacraments. "Today, private confession on a regular basis is down to less than 25 percent," he added. Purdue University sociologist James D. Davidson has estimated that 57 percent of Catholics go to confession "never or almost never."

The decline has occurred even as the church hierarchy has altered how the sacrament is conducted, taught and named. Today, the Rite of Reconciliation, as it is now known, often takes place in a brightly lit "reconciliation room" with penitent and priest face to face, rather than in the old-style dark booth where they were separated by a screen.

Catholics are also increasingly inclined to look to their own consciences in deciding whether they have sinned, experts say. Polls have shown widespread rejection among Catholics of the church's teachings on birth control, homosexuality and divorce.

"There's a different attitude toward conscience -- both a greater respect for it on the part of the church hierarchy and a greater sense among the laity that they have a right to their own conscience," D'Antonio said. "And that leads them to thinking they haven't done anything wrong."

Priests also say that many Catholics no longer see confession as the only way to get forgiveness. Instead, in an echo of their Protestant brethren's conviction, they believe they can obtain forgiveness -- at least for sins that are not serious -- through private prayers of contrition or through the communal prayer of confession said at the start of every Mass.

Still, some priests are trying hard to revive confession as a regular practice and claim to be having success. "The numbers continue to rise here . . . because we preach it here," said Monsignor Peter Vaghi, pastor of St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Northwest Washington.

At Easter and Christmas, a group of parishes put up posters in Metro stops along the Red Line advertising special extended hours during which priests were available for confession. "This is a way of reeducating people to the importance of the sacrament of penance," Vaghi said.

The Rev. William Byrne, Catholic chaplain at the University of Maryland's College Park campus, also promotes confession. As a result, "we have pretty solid lines, probably 30 kids on Sundays before Mass," he said.

"The thing that makes me mad is hearing 40- to 60-year-old Catholics talk about 'Catholic guilt'" in the context of confession, said Byrne, who is 39. "I say that's baloney. We're the only ones who have sacramentalized the system of offering absolution and forgiveness for sin. Our emphasis is forgiveness."

Byrne, who goes to confession every two weeks because it "helps keep me honest and on my toes," said that many Catholic students at U-Md. are "tired of this subjective sense of right and wrong. It doesn't match what their hearts are saying." But since many have not been to confession since they were 7 or 8 years old and preparing for their first communion, he passes out a "confession cheat sheet" that explains, step-by-step, what to do.

He hears confessions in the Catholic Student Center's "reconciliation room," which has a kneeler and a screen for those who want to use them. Some students like the anonymity of the screen, while others prefer to sit in a chair and talk face to face, he said.

Senior Tamara El-Khoury, who had been to confession only once a year during her teens, recalled that the first time she decided to go to confession at the center, "I was very frightened: 'Where's the screen? Oh no, Father Bill knows who I am!' "

But the journalism major went through with it and now goes to confession every two months. "Just like Father Bill said, it's this wonderfully liberating feeling," she said. "And if you go regularly, you become more aware of yourself, of your actions."

Protestant denominations approach confession in a variety of ways. Many congregations recite a prayer of contrition at their communal worship services, and some, such as Baptists, stress God's forgiveness once people have committed themselves to Christ. Episcopalians, on the other hand, have kept the concept of individual, sacramental confession, but have not promoted its regular use the way the Catholic Church does, said Dyer, the professor at Virginia Theological Seminary.

Diedra Kriewald, professor of teaching and formation at Wesley Theological Seminary in Northwest Washington and an ordained United Methodist minister, said Protestants "are reluctant to say" that they have a sacramental confession because "it was attacked so vigorously in the 16th century." But many ministers are doing a form of sacramental confession under other names, she said.

When she leads healing rites, for example, "a lot of what people ask me to pray for are confessional things -- maybe they have a broken relationship with their spouse. That's the same as sacramental confession, but we don't call it that."

Communal penance services in Catholic churches usually include scripture readings, a homily and an extended examination of conscience by participants, who may then approach the altar for a priest to put his hands on their heads as a sign of the coming of the holy spirit.

Most parishes comply with Vatican directives that participants in communal rites must also make an individual confession during or after the service to receive absolution for their sins. Group absolution, the Vatican has said, should be done only in emergencies.

Although most Catholics don't regularly go to confession, they seem content that the sacrament is still part of their tradition, Kane said. "We talk of peace of mind, the blessing, the relief of conscience and of being at harmony with God," he said. "I think that's something Catholics don't want to let go of, even if they're not there that often."