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Confession: Thanks, But I’d Rather Blame the Priests | Catholic Life

Confession: Thanks, But I’d Rather Blame the Priests

I have often seen people (especially priests) lament the fact that Catholics “don’t go to reconciliation” and that the lines for communion are long while the lines for confession are short. The implication is that nothing has changed with the priests, but that since Vatican II–the bishops–changed everything, the laity now feel free to ignore the sacrament of penance and go for years without reconciliation.

Perhaps that is true, but even if it is, the solution must be as much the work of the priests as the laity whom they insist should be more frequent penitents.

I once waited in line for almost 3 hours for a chance to confess at a penance service. It is typical for the local priests in small New England towns to help each other out by coming to each other’s parishes for penance services, but apparently not enough were willing to come this evening. There were at least five priests there, but presumably either the pastor did not think it worth risking a low turn-out and “wasting” his brother priests’ evenings by having them drive half an hour to hear 5 confessions, or else not enough priests were willing to respond to the request and show up for a penance service at a parish that was entirely out of their official responsibility. In any case though, anyone who had hired a baby sitter for the evening, or was sick, or had other good reasons to limit their time either had to get one of the first few spots in line, or else was unable to confess that evening.

There have been many more times when I would show up at 3:05 when confessions were scheduled from 3-4pm on Saturdays, only to find the line so long that after waiting for almost an hour the priest would have to apologize and leave to celebrate mass, while several people still waited for confessions–many of whom were presumably looking forward to receiving the Eucharist, but would now have to wait another week. Did you read that sentence? Look at it and imagine confession lines 10 times longer and twice as rambling, and you’ll have the right idea.

Yesterday I arrived at church just as confessions were scheduled to start. There were already 5 people in line in front of me. A few minutes later there were two more people behind me, and another man who had walked out after he realized how long this would take. The pastor walked by with decorations in his hands. He saw the situation, went to the back of the church and got the priest who was supposed to be hearing confessions. I hoped that the pastor would pull up a chair the way did sometimes during Advent and Lent, and hear a few confessions. But he left without ever saying a word.

By the time I walked into the confessional at least 6 people had left the line  without having their confessions heard. Based on the number that were in line behind me, and how soon mass started, I suspect that at least 10 more were turned away without their confessions being heard.

I have no idea what the pastor was doing that day. I have no idea what the other priests in residence at the parish were doing. I have no idea whether the priest hearing confessions was caught up in something supremely important and really could not have come sooner.

All I know is that somewhere along the way, perhaps starting with the archbishop himself, many pastoral decisions were made. And these pastoral decisions made it so that many people approached confession, but had to leave without receiving the sacrament.

The pastor and priest hearing confessions are not young men. Undoubtedly they have been through a lot and are rightly jaded. They know that balance is important, and that God isn’t actually going to condemn anyone to hell for not being able to confess due to long lines. But I sincerely wished that a younger, rosy-eyed priest with visions of sainthood had been there in order to at least volunteer to return to the stuffy confessional after mass and hear the remaining confessions for anyone who could stay.

The truth is that sometimes the lines for confession are as long as the lines for communion, and it is a lot more work for priests.

People don’t just fail to go to confession because they don’t value it. The truth is that many of us value confession exactly as much as priests do, and that balanced value of confession means that we are willing to put in the equivalent amount of work. In my mind, an hour once a week for a priest (you know, the uber-religious person whose actual job is showing up to run church-stuff) is pretty much the equivalent of 20 minutes every 5 years for a lay person (you know, the person whose job is something other than religious stuff) when it comes to confession.

Yes, there are many priests out there who place great value on the sacrament of confession. But there are also many who don’t think that it is worth sitting around in an empty confessional for hours a month just to catch a few more souls that can’t make it to the standard confession times.

The lines for confession may be “short” but in my experience the lines of faithful priests willing to hear confessions are often disproportionately shorter.

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10 Responses to “Confession: Thanks, But I’d Rather Blame the Priests”

  1. Jackie 03. May, 2011 at 4:56 pm #

    I think people don’t go because you never ever hear it mentioned during Sunday mass. And the reasons for it haven’t been explained to most people since before they got their first communion. I don’t go often (once a year?) but my husband hasn’t been in several years. I want him to go, but he doesn’t really see the point in telling a priest his sins. Sure, he knows all the reasons behind it, but unless the priests make it worthwhile, then people still won’t see the point. Like the time a priest lectured me after I said I missed mass occasionally. I had missed a handful of masses that year, and I was confessing it, so obviously I already knew it was a problem and felt sorry. It’s the sins we don’t confess they should be worried about!

    • Rae 03. May, 2011 at 7:13 pm #

      I don’t think that I have heard more than one good homely on confession (and even then it wasn’t on “confession” per se, it was on God’s forgiveness and mentioned confession in relation to that, which may have been part of why it was actually good). I don’t know if priests actually know why confession is good, or how to talk about it. Seriously, this one priest has brought it up several times in homilies and I knew that I really didn’t want to have him hear my confessions because of how he preached about it.

      I completely agree with you that priests shouldn’t say stupid things and lecture you on what you have just confessed! I kept my confession as short and direct as possible yesterday, and the priest still felt the need to tell me that I “couldn’t make it up to God” twice, and that I could only show God that I was sorry by doing my small penance. Which may be perfectly true, but I’m sure that it wouldn’t have been good to hear had I been feeling vulnerable.

      That said, I have run into some amazingly wonderful priests, but that is a post for another day.

  2. Sarah @BeatenCopperLamp 03. May, 2011 at 5:10 pm #

    That is so true, Jackie. I rarely hear about confession from the pulpit.

    As parishes near my parents have shown, if you make confession more accessible people will flock to it. 4pm on a Saturday is not a convenient time, but I’ve seen huge lines for 8:30pm or on Sunday after Mass.

    Another issue is that people need to hear about confession etiquette. If you have several pious old ladies in a row each take 20 minutes, that line is never going to move. Simcha Fisher had a great post recently about the aggravation of confession lines. http://www.ncregister.com/blog/confessions-from-the-confession-line

    • Rae 03. May, 2011 at 7:20 pm #

      Agreed on all points. Though I do hope that they actively teach seminarians how to handle the lengths of confessions. Some priests seem to be good at getting through long lines while giving the appropriate pastoral care, others not so much. Again, I just wish that there were *more* times available, then everyone could have their preferred style. I know I’m dreaming, but it’s so nice to wish…

  3. Michelle 03. May, 2011 at 7:44 pm #

    This post helps me feel so blessed. We have a priest who was assigned to our parish at the beginning of last July. The next month, our parish schedule went from ONE scheduled confession time per week (Saturdays 3:15-4:15) to FOUR times per week (FIVE on first Friday weeks). During Holy week, I think our priest LIVED in the confessional. I was there for the HOly week masses and he was hearing confessions before the Masses/services and he made the announcement that he’ll be in the confessional after Mass/service until everyone that wishes to go had gone. He is amazing and I pray often for him and thank him so many times for being there in that confessional. He preaches about it, too…

    oh yeah…and the lines are always there…so one might even say, he could add even more times for confession. I think confession is a lot like the premise of the movie Field of Dreams. You know where they say, “If you build it, they will come.” Well, with confession…if you provide it…they will come. I truly believe that.

    You’re right…there are priests out there putting in the work, but unfortunately, there aren’t a plethora or anything.

    • Rae 21. May, 2011 at 9:38 am #

      That is so very wonderful!

  4. Tina 04. May, 2011 at 4:39 am #

    I wasn’t around for pre-Vatican II but through various conversations with people who were, we lost a LOT of respect, reverence, awe and understanding of our faith when Vatican II came into effect. It’s sad to see the church essentially “decaying” from the inside out because of the lack of awe and reverence. People don’t understand how rich and amazing our faith is – mostly because parents and priests are too busy trying to make God all “love and sunshine” instead of the fire and brimstone attitude that used to occur. I feel there needs to be a major reformation of our Church as we know it but I’m afraid I will never see that in my life time.
    I long for the day when I can walk into Church and see people actually praying and respectful – to see the awe and reverence that Jesus so very much deserves – and to see the priests with the same awe and reverence too.
    And I realize I just went off on a tangent that had absolutely nothing to do with confession – LOL!

  5. Salome Ellen 04. May, 2011 at 5:56 am #

    At a (very good) parish I know of, the “regular” time for confession is “after Saturday morning mass until we’re done”, which can take all morning. There are also confessions before most masses, but the parishoners know that those times are for those who “need’ the sacrament — i.e. have a mortal sin to confess — and are not for “routine spiritual maintenance.” I would bet that everybody in this parish goes at least once a month. (There are also special times for teens, etc., or you can make an appointment.)

  6. Chris 05. May, 2011 at 4:29 pm #

    The life of a parish priest has a lot of duties, the sacrament of Reconciliation is only one and there is a shortage of priests who have to cover a lot of ground. I would recommend talking to your pastor to voice your concerns and bring some suggestions to try and make things better for everyone. Walk ins are important, but maybe there is a chance for some appointments or an easier way to make an appointment?

  7. Marc Cardaronella 09. May, 2011 at 8:36 pm #

    You know that is sad that people were being turned away like that. I’ve often thought there are too few confession times and they’re not long enough. I mean, one hour a week? I know confession probably isn’t that much fun, but come on! I wonder how many of those that walked away won’t come back?

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