Thursday, March 10, 2011

An open letter to priests about confession

Since it is Lent, chances are good that, if you are Catholic, you will soon hear or read an exhortation written by a clergy member--possibly even a bishop--advising you to receive sacramental confession during this liturgical season. Which, of course, is a good thing to hear from clergy, and not just during Lent.

Our family recently made it to confession. We used to receive this sacrament once a month, but in recent years it's been more like once every six weeks to once every two months. Sometimes it's our fault that it takes us longer to get to confession, but sometimes, we're more impeded by the reality of how hard it can be to get a one-car family to confession on a regular basis in the year of our Lord 2011 in the Fort Worth diocese.

I've written about this sort of thing before, and this post isn't meant to be a rant. I know that we have relatively few priests available to serve a large local church, and that the demands on our priests' time are many and exhausting. But I do want to address a few things, especially since so many of us laity will indeed soon hear exhortations to get ourselves to confession--and that's why I've written this open letter to priests about confession:

Dear Fathers,

Let me begin this letter by saying how very grateful I am for the gift of sacramental confession, and for your presence and service which makes this gift available to me and to all Catholics. There is truly no peace like the peace encountered in the confessional, when an honest and attentive examination of conscience before seeking the sacrament results in a straightforward self-accusation of my worst sinful failings, and when the advice so many of you offer is followed by a due penance, the listening to my Act of Contrition, and the beautiful prayer of absolution: “God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His son, has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” What a great and profound moment that is--and what a comfort to know that though I am weak and sinful God has forgiven me, and given me the grace and strength to try harder to do His will and to please Him! There is nothing else like it on earth.

Unfortunately, like many Catholics today, I have sometimes experienced strangeness in the confessional. I have had times when priests were clearly in a hurry and suggested I mention only one or two things; I have had no real penance assigned, or very bizarre ones; I have been told that Father doesn't have time to hear the Act of Contrition so please say it outside the confessional; and I have many, many, many times heard only the words "I absolve you from your sins, etc." instead of the whole of that lovely prayer (and have been told by priests in this area that that prayer is purely optional and that they can omit it any time there is a line of penitents). It may be that the prayer is optional--I honestly do not know!--but isn't it worth a couple of extra seconds to say the whole thing?

Perhaps the reason priests feel rushed in the confessional is that the times permitted for this sacrament are so brief, and so often scheduled once a week for the thirty minutes before the Saturday evening Mass is to begin. Really, in those cases, Fathers, you only have twenty to twenty-five minutes at best to hear confessions, so I can't blame you for feeling rushed! Even if you keep each penitent to a mere 90 seconds from start to finish, you can only hear the confessions of about fifteen people in that time. And if your parish has three to five hundred registered families--well, it would take you a few years' time to get to everybody even once, wouldn't it?

Of course, most parishes advertise that they will also hear confessions by appointment. I think this is a very good thing, especially for those who might be returning to the Church after some years' absence and who presumably might have a longer confession to present. But I'm not sure that families with several children old enough for the sacrament are going to avail themselves of the invitation to make an appointment on a regular basis; nor are most of those who wish to make a confession of devotion, being blessedly unaware of any grave sin but still seeking the graces and strength provided by the sacrament.

I'm sure that the laity don't make confession as easy as they should, too. Some show up late for the scheduled time and are annoyed if they can't be heard; some expect their priest to be available whenever they feel like confessing; some make appointments and then don't keep them; some monopolize the priests' time because they mistake confession for spiritual direction or even therapy; some show up vainly to confess the sins of everybody else (e.g., bless me Father for getting irritated with this person who does this and that and even this other thing whilst I try so hard to remain patient and saintly!); some come haunted by true scrupulosity, absenting themselves from the Eucharist for weeks at a time because they are convinced that the swear word that crossed their mind once but remained unvoiced, or some such thing, was still a mortal sin; some come out of a vague idea that they ought to, but disagree so much with the Church's idea of what is or isn't sinful that they are probably wasting their own time and everybody else's; some have no idea how to start, or what to say, or when to stop; and so forth.

The remedy for all of that is good instruction about the sacrament of confession--from the pulpit if necessary! But I think that some of the other things I mentioned, some of the sense of Father being rushed or skipping parts or limiting confession or forgetting to assign a penance etc. might also be addressed by a very simple remedy, once which I will propose below.

Fathers, could each of you consider prayerfully whether you could offer confession at your parishes for thirty additional minutes a week?

If you have no scheduled confessions, put 30 minutes on the parish schedule. If you have confessions scheduled for 30 minutes a week, add 30 more minutes and make it one hour. If you are already hearing confessions for an hour--why not make it 90 minutes (even if you place the additional half-hour on a different night of the week)?

[If you are Fr. Paul Weinberger of St. William the Confessor parish in Greenville, Texas, who is hearing confessions this week for at least six hours and forty-five minutes not counting any appointments or additional chances that come up during the week--please disregard this whole Open Letter--and thank you!]


John Thayer Jensen said...

Thanks for this, Red! I have, at least once, had a priest try to argue me out of my sin - which was, in fact, of a sin of anger. It was 'only natural' - did I really think God was unhappy with me about it? Etc. I said that I didn't know, but that I wanted God's forgiveness. I made my act of contrition. The penance was to "be kind to myself."

I am so glad I am a Catholic. When I went to my first Confession, as a convert - at age 53! - I was terrified going in.

When I came out, I wanted to go to all my Reformed friends and shout to them: "You don't know what you are missing! If you had any idea what God wants to offer you, you would run to the nearest priest asking to be received into the Church!"


Anonymous said...

Looks like you could use a center like ours!

melanie said...

Yes, I have had some great confessions and some truly awful ones. But it is such a beautiful, and grossly under utilized I might add, sacrament. I always leave, always, feeling redeemed and healed and usually, no matter what, the priest manages to say something helpful to me. The funniest one to me was when I got chastised for saying too many sins! Ha ha! Next time ma'am keep it to just three. (If only!). My absolute favorite was when a priest from Africa layed into me (gently) about a sin. I mean he cut me no slack and I so deserved it and left really edified by it. It's a sacrament I am so deeply grateful for.

Red Cardigan said...

Wow, Sleeping Beastly! Franciscans at a shopping mall, hearing confessions. That's truly amazing!

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Perhaps a confessional blog could take some of the pressure off the priests, and some of the scheduling constraints off of large families.

JMB said...

We have a Carmelite chapel at a mall that also hears confessions one hour before each daily mass (9am, 12 and 4 pm) and on Saturdays as well. It's a screen room and there's a red light above the door when it is occupied. Green light says go! I love it. I've sent some friends there too.

Patrick said...

The extra half hour at least should be the rule during Lent, right? Honestly - I feel like I'm bothering the priest when I ask him to hear my confession in the half hour before Saturday Mass, especially if I'm the only one in the line.

Has anyone heard a good "rule of thumb" for being too scrupulous? Nobody is "worthy" to receive the Eucharist, so it doesn't make sense to confess *weekly*, does it? And yet, if you get angry one time, or have one lustful thought; well those *are* mortal sins. But you'd spend your whole life in the confession booth with that type of attitude.


Patrick said...

Oh - when I say I feel like I'm bothering the priest: it's always subjective. The priest never minds - I'm just a very anxious person. We've got terrific priests.

John Thayer Jensen said... doesn't make sense to confess *weekly*, does it?

Depends. I started going to Confession weekly about ten years ago, because a priest suggested to me that Confession isn't only about forgiving your sins - it is to strenthen you against future sin - and my temper was ... a problem :-)

I thank God that now my temper is not much of a problem. Is that the cause? I don't know. And I thank God that (usually :-)) my Confession is about sins that once would have seemed little to me - but, somehow, no longer seem so little.


Red Cardigan said...

Patrick, one quick thought: perhaps you should seek the counsel of a good priest on this. For instance, it's true that deliberately entertaining a lustful thought or acting in anger can be mortally sinful under the usual conditions, but it is also true that impure images can rise up unbidden and that *feeling* anger isn't sinful in itself (we must control our emotions, but we can't stop ourselves from having feelings in the first place).

So, if I am angry with my neighbor and lash out in some way, even by deliberately but earnestly and honsetsly thinking "He's a no-good expletive expletive and I hate him and wish he would die and go to expletive," I may be guilty of serious sin (and, again, with the other conditions, namely full knowledge and sufficient reflection, I can be in mortal sin). But if my neighbor insults me or my family or steals my lawn equipment or otherwise provokes me and I *feel* angry about that while striving to remain in perfect charity with him--well, congratulations, I'm human, and not particularly sinful in that instance.

So, like I said--seek the counsel of a wise priest. While mortal sin is not as rare as some like to think it is, it's also not lurking around every corner waiting to bar us from the Eucharist.

Patrick said...

Thanks for the advice, folks.

"perhaps you should seek the counsel of a good priest on this".

Will do. There seems to be a large variance of opinion, sort of. My parish is the half-hour-before-Saturday-Mass kind, and there aren't usually a lot of people confessing. So I wonder if that is because *I'm* taking it too seriously. (I'm worried that I've inherited a lot of Jansenist tendencies from my mother's Irish Catholicism. Too harsh, too austere to be orthodox.)

Ok, off to Stations of the Cross. I need those indulgences.

Rebecca in CA said...

I think frequent confession is great, Patrick--my ideal is every week or two--because it really carries a special grace of protecting us against sin and giving us spiritual strength. But yeah, be careful of scrupulosity. Deliberate does not equal mortal, though we do want to avoid deliberate sin, and not all matters of anger are mortal; most probably are not. Lust is mortal in matter but would have to involve full consent of the will in entertaining thoughts.

Anonymous said...

"I absolve you from your sins, etc." instead of the whole of that lovely prayer (and have been told by priests in this area that that prayer is purely optional and that they can omit it any time there is a line of penitents). It may be that the prayer is optional--I honestly do not know!--

Well, I do know that "I absolve you..." is what makes the Sacrament valid. Whether ommitting other things is licit I don't know, but I'll bet it is allowed in the presence of a serious reasons, which in most cases there isn't one.

eulogos said...

I like what I have always thought of as the rest of the prayer "May the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, the merits of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of all the saints, whatever good you do and whatever evil you endure, be unto you for the remission of sin, the increase of grace, and the reward of everlasting life."

The Cistercians and Redemptorists I had as confessors always said this. Then I stopped hearing it for many years, until I went to confession with an Oratorian up in Toronto, when I was blessed to hear it again.

Whatever happened to this. It was very encouraging, I thought.

Susan Peterson

Anonymous said...

In God's confessional He is always ready and patient to hear my confession. I confess my sins only to God because only God can absolve sin. Jesus is my High Priest Who is always interceding for me.

Melanie B said...

Before we moved to the south side we had Cistercians in the shopping mall hearing confessions. Our parish's young adult group used to meet there one Saturday morning a month. We'd all go to confession then have lunch together at Bertucci's. It was a great way to feel like we were all in it together.

Now we don't have that anywhere nearby and our parish and all the parishes nearby have the same Saturday afternoon block of time. It would be nice if the parishes in an area all got together to at least stagger the confession times they offer so that say St Annes has Monday evenings and St Josephs has Tuesdays and so on so that people could find a time that is convenient. Saturday afternoon is the worst.

Anonymous said...

Are you from the Diocese of Ft Worth, TX? If so, you should check out the FSSP priests at St. Mary of the Assupmtion ( They perform the traditional Latin Rite rituals, and give hair-curling amazing homilies.

And their confessions ... oh, the time in the confessional booth with them is consistently a learning opportunity. I go to the Mater Dei Latin Mass parish (, and the priests hear confessions 1/2 hour before and 1/2 hour *after* every mass. They encourage frequent confessions, weekly or even more frequently if they are necessary. And they take time with each and every pentient, making sure that they answer questions and give suggestions on ways to truly turn away from sin and amend your life. They also do confessions on Sunday from 6:30a-7a, then from 8:30a until after the 11a mass is over. Yes, all morning long.

I like to go on Wednesday nights - I feel less rushed. But I've gone multiple days in a row when a particular problem was sticky, and gotten good advice every time.