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:
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!]