Months ago, I somehow got in an online argument defending the sacrifices Roman Catholic priests make for their parishioners. At one point, I mentioned the amount of time devoted to hearing confessions. At this point, a woman on the thread as much as laughed at me through the computer. She insisted that Roman Catholic priests no longer take confession seriously and barely offer it.
I paused. In my little corner of the country near Washington, D.C., parishes offer ample opportunities for confession throughout the week, not just the paltry half hour that existed when I was growing up in New England. Then I began to wonder, “Was I erroneously projecting the reality of my thriving Arlington, Virginia, diocese onto other dioceses in the U.S.?”
Luckily, I had an easy way to check—Masstimes.org. If you are a traveler, Masstimes.org is a handy tool in which you can plug any diocese in the U.S. and find out their Mass and confession schedules. I plugged in U.S. dioceses in the east, west, north and south.
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As it turned out, I had only been engaging in a partial projection. The situation regarding the availability of scheduled confessions is, quite literally, all over the map. You can find plenty of confession times throughout the week in Madison, WI, the diocese of the late great Bishop Morlino. Further east in Saginaw, Michigan, most churches only offer a half hour on Saturday. My childhood diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts, remains a confession desert as does much of the once Catholic stronghold of New England. Out west, some parishes believe in sin while others resemble Newark, NJ (home of “Nighty, night baby” Tobin).
Sometimes availability is all over the place within an individual ecclesiastical territory. In the diocese of Springfield, Illinois, headed by the orthodox Bishop Paprocki, you can walk into certain parishes at a multitude of times and cleanse your soul. In other parts of the diocese, however, you will find no more than fifteen minutes for confession the entire week. (Can’t they even offer a half hour?) And I have no doubt that if you are a penitent in a fifteen-minute parish, you had better hope that a chatty sinner in front of you does not take up the fifteen minutes before the priest bolts out the door.
“But,” you protest, “I’m sure the priest offers confessions by appointment.” This is irrelevant. Somebody who has not been to confession for many months or years will be reluctant to cold call a priest for an appointment or reveal to the receptionist the need for one. Sometimes even trying to make an appointment through the ladies in a church office is its own form of penance.
No, the lack of scheduled opportunities for confession in some dioceses or parishes is a signal. It is the churches way of communicating: “Here we do not emphasize the reality of sin or the need for repentance.”
I understand that this is a rough time to be a Roman Catholic priest and that priests are overwhelmed. It is not my intention to heap another serving of criticism on their plate. Sin is fundamentally boring and I personally would rather pull out my fingernails than listen to people regularly tell me theirs. The devil always plays the same hand in our lives and human folly is painfully predictable.
But apart from celebrating the Eucharist, absolving sins is one of the most important roles a priest can play in parishioners’ lives. We need priests in the confessional even if nobody shows up. Their very presence is a sign. It is telling the world, “This matters. The world may no longer call ‘sin’ by its name, but we will.”
Of course, this brings up another problem Catholics can face in trying to receive absolution: those disturbing occasions of priests not absolving sins and instead telling penitents that a sin is not a sin at all. Many people who grew up in the 1980s or 90s could tell a story or two of a priest dismissing clear violations of the ten commandments as not sinful. These stories are not mere cases of sinners being over-scrupulous. So, what is a Catholic to do in dioceses or parishes where opportunities for confession are limited, or, worse, the confessor does not do his job and recognize the sin as needing absolution?
And now I can hear non-Catholics saying, “Yeah, right. Like anyone in the Catholic Church should talk about sin! Look at the state of your own corrupt Church.” But I would argue that the decline in opportunities for confession and the sad state of our institution are of one piece. Too many bishops do not want to emphasize sin and repentance because of the reality of their own lives. Too many priests have been poorly formed or harmed in seminary. Those who do pull through formation with their faith still orthodox receive no support from their bishops when they emphasize the reality of hell and the need to get our souls right with God.
So if you are a priest or run a parish that only provides fifteen minutes or a half hour a week for confession because that is how it has “always” been done it is time to an add an extra hour or two during the week. And mention it in your homily. Maybe a casual Catholic in the pew will hear you and say to themselves, “You know, it’s been a while. I should go.” Maybe a teen who never hears about confession and whose faith is in early formation will wonder about it.
Christ told his apostles, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them.” Nowhere did he say, “But only absolve them between 3:30 and 4:00 on Saturday.”