We often hear that the sacrament of confession is dead. I don’t buy it. I think it is like a local restaurant that I like that has inconvenient hours and even when I make it a point of going to their horrible hours it is closed on that particular day or the owners are on vacation and have a sign tacked to the door. I show up with friends only to be turned away. After a while it falls off of my radar screen and I don’t even think to go until some bazar thing happens like finding myself in front of the store just when I happen to be hungry. Thank goodness the wait staff is good and they don’t run out of my choice (too often.) How they stay open I don’t know. Likewise it is amazing that the sacrament of confession is still in use for these same reasons! There must be something about it that it still survives at all! We’ve done just about everything we can do to kill yet it remains more resilient than Godzilla.
I don’t claim to have all of the answers, but here are 15 suggestions on how (in the long term) to take the sacrament from being Wall Flower at the dance (there but not very popular) to at least being the punch bowl attendant (still not overly popular, but most will at least stop by when they are thirsty.)
1) If you are in an area with parishes in relatively easy driving distance, don’t have confessions at the exact same time as everybody else. If someone can’t make it to one, they can’t make it to any of them.
- Have more than one scheduled opportunity to go to confession and at different times of the day. Once again, if someone can’t make your Tuesday night confessions because of work, they will never have the opportunity. Or if they work nights and you only have night time confessions . . .
- Don’t rely on “confessions by appointment.” I didn’t even go to see my doctor when I thought I was having a stroke because it seemed like such a bother. (I know, I know.) And this is much more important. “By appointment” is largely for trauma cases, the super comfortable person, and 5th steps.
- When starting a new confessions time, it takes months of getting the word out for people to really start taking advantage of it. It has to enter their consciousness. That takes a while. Commit for at least half of a year (part of it in a penitential season) before deciding if it is a poor time to have the sacrament.
- Do NOT cancel confessions. Think of the poor soul hanging on the faith by their fingernails that FINALLY worked up the nerve to go to confession only to show up and find out that there are no confessions that day for some mysterious reason. But if there are times that you must cancel, make sure that it is well announced and advertised and that there is a sign on the door explaining the extraordinary circumstances.
- Nothing will work if you don’t preach it. There are great events that I want to attend in my own area of West Akron - BIG ONES - and I miss them because they don’t cross my mind. I get on with life and the next thing I know I’ve missed them for another year. You don’t have to beat people over the head with sin - but we do need reminding.
- Advertise. Make sure that the bulletin, the parish signs and the web site all list confession times clearly and that the information is accurate.
- Pray for those who would benefit from going to confession. Ask their guardian angels to get them there.
- Even if you are a lion in the pulpit, be encouraging and merciful in the confessional. Your reputation will proceed you.
- The biggest and most common complaints that I hear in the confessional are: The priest talks too much, the priest didn’t let me finish, the priest told me I don’t need confession for one reason or another (my sins weren’t big enough). I’m sure there are grave deficiencies in my methods that this or that person does not appreciate. That’s why it’s good to have other priests available when possible.
- Find ways to stop someone who is at confession more for counseling than confession. Can you imagine showing up early for confessions that only lasts for a half an hour and the person two people in front of you being in there for 20 minutes? Sometimes I will say to such a person, “This sounds like it needs attention outside of the sacrament. Let’s continue this conversation later in the rectory.”
- Do what you can to make confession obvious and welcoming. Make the church look open. (Have the lights on.) Have confessions in an obvious place (not a side room that people should just know to go to.) Make it as private (sound proof) as possible.
- Let people know that if they have not been to confession in a long time and are afraid that they forget how to go or don’t remember prayers that you will talk them through it. It will be just fine. In this case getting to confession is more important than remembering how to do it exactly correctly.
- Let people know where they can find an examination of conscience. (There are oodles of them on line for various persons and vocations.)
- Advertise the times of surrounding parishes (if there are any close) for people to go to if they are ashamed/embarrassed/uncomfortable/just-plain-not-of-a-mind to go to their parish priests.
- When handling large groups of confessions such as for a school, do not rely all the time on the rite for group confessions. From the start, people need to learn how to and be comfortable with going to confession on their own.
Yes it’s a pain. Yes, it’s time consuming. Yes, there are more and more things required of priests. Yes, it can be trying sitting in the box on a day that is slow on confessions. But really there are few things more important than for the father of a congregation to be with his people when they need healing.