The Seal of the Confessional?
What’s wrong with the picture above? At first glance it looks like a confessional of the sort you used to be able to find in any Catholic church. A closer look reveals that the doors through which the penitents were accustomed to enter have been replaced by plain panels. There’s no way in for those who might wish to confess their sins.
Fortunately, the church which houses the sad looking retired confessional above does still offer the Sacrament of Penance. More often, in fact, than many other Catholic parish churches. I’ll return to that in a moment. I include the picture above because it’s a graphic illustration of much that has gone wrong in the Church over the past half century. Not only have we de-emphasized confession, we’ve closed down, boarded up, and often even removed the visible evidence of its importance in the life of the Church. No such thing could have happened unless we had first lost our sense of Sin.
The reality of Sin is a foundational concept in Christianity. It goes back to the very beginning, to the rebellion of Satan. The Church has traditionally understood (quite reasonably) that the sooner we turn away from sin, and toward God, the better. That’s why one of the Precepts of the Church is to “Confess your sins at least once a year.” We also had a concrete reminder of the importance of confession, the confessional. This distinctive structure was usually in plain sight, often prominently visible in the nave of the church building. Every time we entered the church it was there, urging us to bring our sins to the Lord.
Unfortunately, in the decades after the Second Vatican Council much of the institutional Church has forgotten its traditional wisdom. We seem to have lost the understanding that, just as we are both body and soul, we need concrete things, images, sacramentals, and sacraments, to help us apprehend spiritual realities. Isn’t that, in fact, at least part of the reason for confession? God could simply forgive any and all sins any time we ask for it in prayer, but instead he tells us through his Holy Scripture: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (James 5:16) There is a reason that the Word chose to become Flesh.
Our leaders do not only seem to have forgotten this fundamental feature of traditional Catholicism. They also seem to have forgotten, or to be ignoring, something even more important. Too many bishops and priests seem reluctant to warn of the dangers of sin (unless it’s abstract and politicized “systemic” sin). When they mention confession at all, it is often under the kinder, gentler sounding name “reconciliation.” This term emphasizes the happy reunion at the end without reference to the hard work of first acknowledging and repenting of our sins. It’s not wrong, but it’s only part of the story, like Easter without the Passion. Consequently, confessionals sit abandoned, often used as storage closets, or sealed off, or removed altogether.
The Confessional Strikes Back
That’s the bad news. The good news is that there are signs of improvement. I can’t say I’ve done a systematic study. It could be the churches I’ve been hanging around in more recently. In any case, I’m seeing much longer lines at confession today than I was thirty years ago. To tell you the truth, there was often no line at all when I first came back to the Church in the early 1990s. Now I can no longer count on getting into (and out of) the confessional quickly.
There are two things in my experience that go along with greater numbers of penitents. The first is priests (and bishops) who talk about sin and confession often. When the teachers in the Church don’t mention a teaching, many people naturally assume that it’s just not that important (see: contraception). Nobody likes to think about sin, sin in general, but most especially our own sin. We’ll avoid thinking about it if we can. We need reminders.
The other factor is availability. Just as placing confessionals clearly in public view sends a message, so does offering (and publicizing) frequent opportunities for people to confess. The churches that offer confession for only half an hour on Saturday afternoon still don’t seem to have long lines. The churches I know that set aside more time (in one case, an hour each on Saturday and two week nights. The cathedral church in our diocese offers confessions twice on Saturday, and after every weekday morning mass) are never lacking penitents. At any of those times, plan on getting there early or you risk a long wait. It has happened more than once that I have been left waiting when father had to leave to say Mass.
Don’t Fear the Confessional
You might have noticed that priests who are too young to have been formed during the full flowering of what Fr. Richard John Neuhaus used to call the “silly season” in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II tend to be more forthright in talking about sin and in emphasizing sacramental confession. The pastor of the church that houses the sealed off confessional pictured above is one of these young, enthusiastic priests. He’s not responsible for closing it up. He does, in fact, offer confession several times a week in a clearly marked room where we can confess behind a screen. I’ve never been the only person in line there.
Where does this bring us? Lent is a time when we pay particular attention to our own need for repentance. We might also want to give some extra encouragement and support to those bishops and priests who are not afraid to remind us of the dangers of sin and the need for sacramental confession. There are some clerics who are afraid that talking too directly about these “negative” topics will drive people away from the Church. We should pray that the Lord gives these men the courage to be bolder in speaking the Truth. We can also point to real life examples of priests who draw more people in precisely because they are willing to talk about sin and repentance.
Sin is a reality. If that weren’t the case, Christ had no reason to suffer and die on the Cross. If we don’t need salvation from sin, then Christianity is pointless. That promise of savation from sin is the reason why countless martyrs have willingly given their lives over the past two thousand years. We shouldn’t be afraid to proclaim it as loudly and as often as we can. Let’s keep the confessionals open.