April 1, 2011


Go to confession this Lent

We encourage you to go to confession between now and Easter.

There was a time within the memory of a high percentage of our readers when such encouragement wasn’t necessary. Most Catholics went to confession at least once a month, many every two weeks.

Today, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, only 2 percent of Catholics in the United States avail themselves of the sacrament of reconciliation once a month or more. Seventy-five percent say they go to confession less than once a year or never.

It is not that priests are discouraging confessions. On the contrary, many priests preach about the importance of the sacrament, and try to make it as convenient for parishioners as possible.

The list of Lenten penance services still scheduled for this Lent can be found on page 10 in this week’s issue of The Criterion.

There is, of course, that precept of the Church that says that we must confess our serious sins at least once a year. The trouble is that many people seem to no longer believe that they have committed a serious sin. We have lost our sense of sin.

Perhaps all is not lost, though.

In this era of the Internet and smartphones, there is a software application—commonly known as an “app”—for everything, including one designed to help Catholics prepare for the sacrament of reconciliation. “Confession: A Roman Catholic App” for iPhones, iPads and iPods has the imprimatur of Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. Reports indicate that it is a top download from Apple’s app store.

This should definitely not be confused with another app called “Penance.” Released for the iPhone last December, it supposedly allows users to absolve one another’s sins. We fail to understand why anyone would confess their sins over the Internet.

The sacrament of penance and reconciliation has been around ever since Jesus said to the Apostles, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20:22-23). God has forgiven sins through priests ever since.

The Didache, a first-century document sometimes called Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, taught those early Christians who assembled for the Eucharist, “First confess your sins, so that your sacrifice may be pure.”

There was a time when Christians confessed their sins publicly and received severe penances. However, Pope Leo the Great, who was pope from 440 to 461, said, “It is sufficient that the guilt which people have on their consciences be made known to the priests alone in secret confession.”

The present century isn’t the only time when people were lax about receiving the sacrament. The ninth and 10th centuries were a particularly dark period for the Church. Then, though, came an era of reform, including the matter of confession.

In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council stated: “Let everyone of the faithful of both sexes, after he has reached the age of discretion, devotedly confess in private all his sins at least once a year to his own priest, and let him strive to fulfill to the best of his ability [the] penance enjoined upon him.”

Confession, of course, is only part of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. It has also been called the sacrament of peace.

Christopher Buckner has written, “In short, the action performed by the penitent is called confession; the sacrament is called penance; and rite [or ritual] is called reconciliation; the effect of the sacrament is peace. In one sentence: We confess our sins in the sacrament of penance by using the rite of reconciliation, and are brought to peace as a result of this.”

The penitent has three responsibilities when receiving the sacrament: to repent of his sins, known as contrition, which also includes a firm purpose to amend one’s life and sin no more with the help of God’s grace; to confess those sins to a priest, the actual confession; and to have a will to make satisfaction, that is, to accept whatever penance the priest may impose.

Most priests and bishops set a good example when it comes to confession. New York’s Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan recently wrote that on Saturdays he puts on street clothes and walks to one of New York’s churches to receive the sacrament, his identity unknown to the priest behind the grille.

“In I go, contrite I am, forgiven I leave, gratefully I pray, renewed I walk back home,” he wrote.

We should do the same this Lent.

—John F. Fink

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