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Posted November 28, 2005


February 1, 2002 Episode no. 522 http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week522/feature.html

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: Now, a major change in Roman Catholic practice. Whatever happened to confession? In 1965, a survey reported that 38 percent of Catholics went to confession at least once a month. By 1995, that number had fallen to 8 percent.

Judy Valente examines the sacrament of confession, the drop in confessions, and the new sacrament of reconciliation.

JUDY VALENTE: It is a fixture in almost every Catholic church -- the Confessional -- "the box." Forty years ago, priests would spend hours on Saturday afternoon and evening, hearing the sins of penitents spoken through a screen to give people anonymity.

Father J. PHILIP HORRIGAN (Archdiocese of Chicago): It would not be uncommon for people to go to confession once a week, certainly once a month, pretty faithfully.

VALENTE: But Catholics aren't lining up to go to confession any more. Most of them aren't even showing up.

(to Leon Conlon): When's the last time you went to confession?

LEON CONLON: Well, it's been a long time -- and I'll take the fifth after that.

TED GORNIAK: Quite a long time ago, to tell you the truth.

DEANNA ROZYCKI: Probably 10 years ago.

RICHARD ORLOWSKI: Six years ago.

VALENTE: In the 1960s, for reasons no one could readily explain, the number of Catholics who went to confession on a regular basis began to drop. And it has continued to drop. As one Catholic writer recently put it, "Where have all the sinners gone?"

Bob Heidenreich is a pastor on the North Side of Chicago. His parishioners offer any number of excuses for not coming to confession anymore. Not long ago he printed some of their comments in the Sunday bulletin.

Father BOB HEIDENREICH (St. Benedict's Church, reading parishioners' comments): "When I'm troubled I talk to God in my heart. I don't need to talk to a priest", "I hate to admit to someone else I've been wrong", "Actually there is no hell, so we don't need to worry anymore", "I won't go until there are women priests who understand me", "Sin no longer exists."

Father HORRIGAN: Our sense of how to be good Christians changed. Our sense of what sin was, and what sin was for me, changed.

VALENTE (to Bernadette Libao): Do you think that people's concept of sin has changed?

BERNADETTE LIBAO: Part of me wants to say that it has. We probably have soft pedaled how we perceive sin, how we define sin.

MARNY ZIMMER: If I'm upset about something I'll pray for forgiveness. I don't think the formal procedure of going to confession necessarily does that much for me.

CONLON: I don't really find it meaningful to me, in my relationship with God. I really don't.

UNIDENTIFIED PRIEST: As we prepare to celebrate the mysteries, let us call to mind our sins."

VALENTE: Each mass begins with a brief acknowledgement of sin. For many Catholics, this is as close as they come to confession.

UNIDENTIFIED PRIEST: I confess to almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters that I have sinned through my own fault -- in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do.

VALENTE: In the early days of the Church, people made their confessions publicly and in groups. By the 14th century, priests were hearing confessions privately, one on one. Most Americans over a certain age remember confession as a brief recital of sins. Some called it an "assembly line." The priest would assign penance -- for most sins, it was a few prayers -- and then give absolution, or forgiveness.

Father HORRIGAN: I don't think in most cases there would have been much spiritual counsel or spiritual direction given.

VALENTE: The sacrament was closely tied to Communion. The Church taught that confessing sins made a person spiritually ready to receive the Eucharist.

After the second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the Church began de-emphasizing guilt and eternal damnation. The new emphasis was on God as a loving and forgiving deity. In 1973, the Church gave the sacrament a new title: "reconciliation." Some confessionals were reconfigured to give penitents an alternative way to confess.

Father JASON MALAVI (St. Benedict's Church): They can come on in and kneel down and use the screen as a form of anonymity. The second option they have is to move around the back of the room and come on back and continue with a face to face reconciliation with the priest.

VALENTE: As private confessions have declined, some parishes have begun holding communal confession services, usually before Christmas and Easter.

Father HEIDENREICH: It's only when we look into our hearts and see the pain and sorrow we have caused, it's only then that God's grace can come and heal us.

VALENTE: The priest stands at the altar. One by one, the penitents approach and confess their sins.

Father HORRIGAN: Just being able to say out loud, 'This is my brokenness, this is my humanity, this is what I've done, this is my sin' -- being able to say that out loud is tremendously healing. Being able to speak (of myself) with that kind of humility is really important. People who don't come to confession sometimes can't feel that sense of being free of the past.

VALENTE: Although the number of penitents is way down, those who do go to confession seem to be going because they want to, not because they're required to.

JAMIE BASSO: Just standing there at the front of the church, with everyone behind me, just kind of acknowledging that I'm a sinner made it a lot more powerful experience.

JEANETTE HEINER: There's someone you can talk to. You can also ask for advice and suggestions. It's a very positive reinforcement. I just feel it's like talking to God's representative.

Father HORRIGAN: Sin is a fracture. It's a fracture in the relationship that we have with ourself, the relationship we have with others and in the relationship we have with God and God has with us.

VALENTE: At the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Father Horrigan is lecturing these seminarians on how to hear confession, for those who still come to confession.

Father HORRIGAN (in classroom): Then the person begins to confess his or her sins, in whatever way that they choose to do that. The larger sin, if you like, the more serious sin is not the first thing that comes up. You have to lead up to these things sometimes, then you invite the person to express sorrow. Often you will detect at the point, it says, the kind of sincerity of sorrow, that maybe you suspected was in there. But when any of us have to come to that, to actually say those words, "I am sorry" that can call up an emotion you never knew was there in yourself. Or it can call up the emotion from the person. That's very real. That can be a time of tears. Don't be surprised.

VALENTE: Catholics in the U.S. may never again go to confession as frequently as they used to. But no one expects the sacrament to disappear altogether. Not as long as people have what is called "their sense of sin" -- and their "desire for mercy."

Father HORRIGAN: I think we are aware in ourselves when we're not whole. When we say something, do something, fail to do something -- and we say, "I wish that hadn't happened. That's not me."

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, this is Judy Valente in Chicago.