I was invited to Thursday dinner at the largest parish in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Arriving right on time, I was disconcerted to find the rectory empty except for the housekeeper.
“I’m sorry,” I said to her. “I must have marked the wrong date on my calendar.”
“No, you have the right date,” she replied, “but dinner will be a bit late. All the priests are still hearing confessions.”
“On a Thursday?”
When the four priests returned to the rectory, the pastor apologized for keeping me waiting. “We had fifty more penitents than usual.” I asked whether there had been a parish mission or some other special function. “Not at all,” he said. “It’s like this many evenings. We have confessions every day of the week, you know.”
“Every day?” I did a quick mental tally and told him I was astounded that so many people would go to confession during a month. I said it was almost like the old days, when confession lines were longer than Communion lines.
He laughed. “Neighboring pastors say we’re mainly getting their people because we offer convenient weeknight confessions, but that’s not the case. Nearly all of the penitents are our own parishioners.”
“But how do you get them to show up? The average parish has confessions once a week, on Saturday afternoon, and so few people come that the lone confessor has plenty of time to read his breviary.” (I could have used the line I sometimes use in lectures: “At most Catholic parishes, the sign says confessions are on Saturdays from 4 to 4:05 p.m.”)
“Getting them to show up is easy. We tell them they’re sinners and that they need to go to confession, and we tell them that we’ll be waiting for them. So they go.”
“What a novel idea,” I said, “telling them they’re sinners.”
I concluded it was no coincidence that this parish not only had more confessions each month than any dozen neighboring parishes combined but that it also had an extraordinarily involved congregation. The bulletin boards listed activities ranging from adult education classes and teen programs to hospital visitations and outreaches to the poor. Hundreds of parishioners were apostolically engaged. They didn’t show up just on Sunday for an hour. They weren’t drive-thru Catholics. They stuck around, many of them, and did Catholic things throughout the week.
“What is the attitude of your parishioners when you tell them to go to confession?”
“Of course, we tell them in many different ways and always with a smile. We don’t scold. But we’re frank with them. We tell them that all of us—priests included—are sinners and that sin is an offense against God. We tell them that, if we really love God, we should want to not sin and that we should be repentant when we do sin. We say one of the worst things our culture does is to convince people that they don’t sin and—”
“—that they only ‘make mistakes,’” I broke in. The pastor nodded.
On late-night comedy shows a common shtick is to talk about the way the Catholic Church used to make people feel guilty. Since guilt is a Bad Thing, that wasn’t a nice thing to do. The comics and their knowing audience have had that unfair burden lifted from them—they have transcended guilt by transcending Catholicism.
Or have they?
My sense always has been the opposite. I don’t think such people have escaped guilt at all, though they may have sublimated it. Beyond that, I believe guilt is a Good Thing. Think of it as analogous to bodily pain. Why does your thumb hurt after you crush it with a hammer? The pain is there to get your attention. It lets you know something is wrong with your body so you can attend to a bodily cure.
Likewise, the chief purpose of guilt, which is a kind of moral pain, is to let you know that something is wrong with your soul so you can attend to a spiritual cure. Such a cure comes through absolution, which follows repentance and confession.
You can’t escape bodily pain, and you can’t escape feeling guilty when you sin. But if you deny the reality of sin, you need to find a way other than absolution to get rid of the guilt. It is no coincidence that societies in which there is frequent recourse to the confessional are societies with few psychiatrists. It would be interesting to see a graph that overlays Catholics’ frequency of going to confession with their frequency of going to shrinks. I’ll bet that the rise of the latter has been directly proportionate to the decline of the former.
One of the great things about confession—something that no psychiatrist can promise—is that your guilt actually falls away because your sins actually are forgiven. You transcend them through absolution. Unless you suffer from scrupulosity, you leave the confessional absolutely sure that your past sins are—past. They’re gone, and now you have a fresh start. What a deal!
Why aren’t more parishes successful in getting people to go to confession? The answer is so deceptively simple that many miss it. All that needs to be done is to preach the reality of sin and the consequent necessity of confession. This preaching needs to be unambiguous and frequent, because people in the habit of limiting their religious observances to one Mass a week spend almost all their conscious hours absorbing the notion that God (if there is a God) loves us so much that he loves everything we do, including our “mistakes.”
This is the message American culture gives. It is a Big Lie that can be countered only by repetitively reminding Catholics that true happiness comes from conforming ourselves to God’s will, not to our own will, and that such conforming begins with a frank, transparent, and always painful examination of conscience—but it’s a pain that ends in the joy of knowing that our sin is gone, replaced by the sanctifying grace that makes us, once again, friends of God.