Penance Preaching Do’s and Don’t’s

Lent is off and running. We had a full church for our 5:15 and 7:oo evening Masses. I hope your parish also had good crowds. I told our pastor that some genius needs to come up with 362 other giveaways to match things up with Ash Wednesday, Christmas, and Easter.

Though not as well-attended as Ash Wednesday, we offer a weeknight reconciliation (form I) primarily for students. Last semester, it was on Wednesdays. Since mid-January, it has been Thursdays.

I notice the Worcester diocese in Massachusetts is promoting the sacrament strongly this Lent. The good:

Beginning Feb. 23, a priest will be available from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in every church in the diocese to hear confessions.

(CNS missed telling you it was Tuesdays only.)

And not so good, this comment:

Citing a recent survey of U.S. Catholics, (Bishop Robert J. McManus) noted what he called an unsettling statistic — 45 percent of Catholics who attend Mass weekly never receive the sacrament of penance. He said the reasons for this are varied, but “an explanation of this disconcerting pastoral situation has to include to a significant degree a loss of the sense of sin among contemporary Catholics.”

Does it have to? Bishops are having a huge struggle coming to grips with their own culpability in the sex predator cover-up scandal. Indeed, many bishops seem to think they deserve a free pass–it happened to the other guy! comes the protest. Or: we’re victims too! Does it have to? I think not.

People no longer confess to the clergy in the numbers they may have had fifty years ago. It may be because of the human avoidance of admitting guilt. It may just as well be due to a loss of confidence in the clergy. Somehow I find it hard to believe that previous generations lived in a sort of Garden of Eden of sacramental practice, that some snake came along in the 60’s and it’s been hell ever since.

If Bishop McManus persists in harping on the loss of a sense of sin in others, he may miss the person who needs the most attention from his preaching on this score.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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13 Responses to Penance Preaching Do’s and Don’t’s

  1. crystal says:

    Most of the people I knew at church didn’t go to confession, but I’m not sure why. I only went once myself, not because I thought I was without sin but because the one time I went it was very uncomfortable. I guess I hoped that I could just ask God to forgive me himself.

  2. Gavin says:

    I would disagree with you, from talking to people on the ground. Generally it is a lack of understanding of the nature of sin, and as Crystal displays, a lack of knowing the necessity of the sacrament. The general attitude is “I don’t REALLY have to go to confession to be forgiven” and “Confession’s only necessary for REALLY bad stuff like murder,” the latter of which is what I learned in 12 years of Catholic school and Catholic catechesis. I’d say the abandonment of the confessional hurt as well, as it adds the element of personality to the confession, rather than at least an illusion of anonymity as with the confessional.

    I’ve never heard anyone cite the sex abuses as a reason to not attend confession.

  3. Liam says:

    One problem with a lack of sacramental confession is that many can be left mired in subjective uncertainty: they hope that they are forgiven, but they are not certain they are forgiven. This uncertainty can lurk as a deep yet largely unseen drag on the spiritual and emotional life of people. One notable blessing of the objective dimension of sacramental confession is that it can lift this burden off people.

  4. Todd says:

    I don’t know that an aversion to admitting sin is a product of any particular generation. People say there is a loss of a sense of sin, but who can demonstrate it was any better fifty to a hundred years ago?

    Undeniably, people find the tough love of the 12 steps to be more fruitful than poor confessors.

    I applaud the bishop’s promotion of the sacrament. I think his editorializing in unhelpful. A question: did he assume his clergy are good confessors waiting for penitents, or did he make an effort to prepare his priests for this outreach?

    Crystal’s experience of discomfort is not uncommon. How are such pastoral concerns addressed in clergy formation?

  5. crystal says:

    Even the married couple who led my RCIA class went to a different church to go to confession …. I didn’t do that but maybe that would have made a difference in my perception of confession.

    As for people not being sure that God has forgiven them if they don’t go to confession, I remember reading in Ignatius of Loyola’s biography that at one point in his formation, though he went to confession, he was almost tortured by the thought that he wasn’t forgiven, and he confessed the same sins over and over. He eventually got over that, but his worry wasn’t due to not seeing a confessor, but due to his feelings about himself and God, I think.

    • Liam says:

      Yes, that was a form of scrupulosity, a spiritual illness. Not everyone who feels this way is scrupulous; in fact, going to sacramental confession in accordance with the direction of a stable confessor who is aware of the penitent’s scrupulosity is probably one of the better ways to confront scrupulosity.

      But I am talking about the non-scrupulous.

  6. Zach says:

    If the loss of the sense of sin in the Catholic faithful is not palpable to you, I think you are blind.

    This has been facilitated by some priests, certainly – just as it has been facilitated by some lay people. Especially priests who choose to remove the word sin from the penitential rite, and especially those lay people who believe that talking about sin necessarily entails the judgment of another person’s heart.

  7. Todd says:

    To be clear, I think that human beings suffer a *lack* of a sense of sin. I don’t know that this deficit is facilitated by priests and bishops so much as given as an all-too-frequent example by them.

    While acknowledging a possible decay in public sexual mores, I’m less prepared to excuse the racism, child abuse, and institutional secrecy of my parents’ generation than others.

    As for church leaders, the bypass of legal advice to render simple and honest apologies for shuttling sex abusers would have defused the crisis of leadership, saved hundreds of millions and given a clear how-to for observant laity and priests.

  8. Hawkeyefan says:

    Speaking from experience as a RC priest for a number of years before leaving, when the parish offered communal reconciliation with general absolution the pews were overflowing. When I sat in the confessional weekly for individual confession all I ever heard were the same sins from the same scrupulous people.
    Some on here may think a communal reconciliation service with general absolution was letting everyone off the hook regarding confession of sin. To those people all I will say is our celebrations were well received, participants knew that if they were in a “state of serious sin” they needed to see a confessor and that absolution must be accompanied by “righting the wrong” by the penitent.
    As I see it, there was not a lack of a sense of sin if gauged by the full church at the communal services.

  9. Liam says:

    As someone who goes to confession every 3-5 weeks in two different nearby parishes (my registered parish, 15 miles away, is not convenient for confession on Saturdays; if they had confession on Sunday mornings, I’d be there in a heartbeat), I can say that, while I see some regulars, I see lots of less regular people at each place. The confessionals at both parishes are often very busy, sometimes requiring two priests to accommodate. This is in the just-north-of-Boston burbs.

    As I’ve mentioned to Todd here many times, I think parishes should offer a monthly reconciliation service, not just once in Lent and perhaps Advent. There is good reason for people to seek the sacrament on a regular basis, even if they are not in a state of serious sin. I know it’s helped me and many others.

    The keynote is the emphasis the ready availability and abundance of God’s grace through the sacraments in all the ways the Church is gifted to offer them. (I would also recommend services for the sick to be more frequent than they typically are.) Not a minimalistic approach of “if you don’t have serious sin you don’t need to, communion will suffice”.

    • Hawkeyefan says:

      I would with you Liam that communal reconciliation along with the anointing of the sick should be celebrated more often than a seasonal ritual limited to Advent and Lent.

      Regarding your comment about the availability and abundance of God’s grace through the sacraments conveys to me that grace is something that can be measured and the more one gets through the celebration of the sacraments the better. To me, grace simply is and as one grows deeper in their relationship with God they become more aware how much their life is graced by God. And it is through the celebration of sacraments that one is celebrating grace which is and was always present. Like the parable of the forgiving father (which unfortunately is referred to as the Prodigal Son) the two sons come to realize that the parent’s love was always there for them to receive. Grace is simply experiencing that which has always been truth: God is love. And we spend a lifetime coming to know and experience it.

      • Liam says:

        What I mean by abundance is opportunity to be engaged by it. I’ve met too many priests who preach about God’s mercy but resent having to spend time actually giving his people the opportunity to accept it.

        For example, the priests who will only offer confession by appointment or who, during a penance service, try to limit the confessional matter of penitents to one thing. Et cet. It’s a penurious, Scrooge-like approach to the sacraments, treating the faithful as parasites on the priest’s own time. I’ve seen this dynamic too often.

  10. smf says:

    I would not be against more communal penance services, so long as the norms requiring individual confession and absolution are followed. In my parish the communal aspect consists in some reading of scripture, an examination of consience, brief homily, and the act of contrition. Everyone is then asked to go to one of the roughly dozen priest brought in for the purpose to confess and be absolved. For those that remain after, there is a final blessing. If this happening more often got people to go to confession more often, I would be in favor of it. I would also be in favor of more frequent and convenient scheduled individual confession times. The parishes that take confession seriously always seem to have a line no matter how often they offer it, while those that don’t have a lonely priest sit in a box for an hour each week at some time most people are either sleeping or bussiest.

    There is real grace to be found in the sacraments. This is basic Catholic theology. Yes, God constantly offers an abundance of graces, but that does not negate the fact that the sacraments offer grace in a real, important, and unique way.

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