COLUMBIA — Michael Flanagan still remembers his boyhood visits to confession with his family, the long line of penitents waiting half an hour or more to confess their sins before receiving the Eucharist at Mass on Sunday.
Between now and Christmas, Flanagan, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Columbia, will once again see large numbers of parishioners lining up before the confessional. It’s the season of Advent, the time of repentance for Catholics as they prepare to celebrate the Nativity. Parishes across the Diocese of Jefferson City are expecting similar increases in weekly penitents. Priests from churches in Columbia, Boonville, Marshall, Pilot Grove and Glasgow are hosting special penance services, in which priests from throughout the diocese will gather to hear confessions.
But, despite the huge draw of Advent, the Catholic sacrament of confession — also known as the rite of reconciliation — has been transformed significantly since Flanagan was a boy. In the 1950s, about eight out of 10 Catholics attended confession at least yearly, said Mary Gautier, senior research assistant at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. She said that by 2005, that number had dropped to just over a quarter.
According to Boston College professor James O’Toole, the number of people going to confession “just plummeted” in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “It was pretty dramatic,” said O’Toole, who wrote a social history of confession in America. “It was essentially a complete turnaround. People just stopped going to confession.”
In the early 20th century, parish priests generally set aside four or five hours every week to hear confessions, and would hear about 200 confessions on an average week, O’Toole said. Today, Our Lady of Lourdes — the largest church in the Jefferson City diocese — usually sets aside only 45 minutes each Saturday to hear the confessions of the 30 to 40 people who show up, Flanagan said. Even so, he sometimes finds himself sitting alone in the confessional, waiting for someone to come by.
Jim Forest, author of “Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness,” said that it wasn’t that long ago that Catholic churches had three or four confessionalsspread along the walls. “Now,” he said, “you go into church, and many are being used as closets.”
The rite of reconciliation starts with penitents recognizing and taking responsibility for their sins. They then come to the confessional, admit their sins and apologize to the priest, who stands in both as a representative of the community and in place of God. The priest then gives each person a penance and offers forgiveness.
Although this sacrament has been around since the beginning of Christianity, the process behind the rite itself has changed and transformed dramatically throughout the years. In ancient times, when a member of a Christian community committed a major sin, he or she would have to publicly confess and finish an assigned penance before being allowed to rejoin the community.
“There’s this metaphor of all of us a belonging to part of a human body. Each member of the church is a member of this body, and we walk together to build up the body of Christ,” Flanagan said, explaining that the reason behind the public confessions was not embarrassment, but a chance to reconcile with the “body” of the Christian community. “When a person sins, it’s an act of selfishness, of not working with the body and not carrying my weight. The whole body suffers.”
However, Flanagan said, after Christianity became the state religion under Constantine, Christian communities became flooded with followers, and with more followers came more sins and confessions. In the sixth century, priests began to stand in as representatives of the community to hear confessions. Screens to protect parishioners’ privacy were added in the 1500s, allowing confessions to be more anonymous than ever before.
Theologians, sociologists and historians of religion suggest that changes in both American culture and Catholics’ ideas about sin have significantly altered churchgoers’ adherence to the holy sacrament. Catholic assimilation into the wider American culture, busy schedules and rebellion against certain Catholic definitions of sin — such as using birth control — have all been charged with decreasing attendance at confessions.
Others propose that changing notions of sin and the role of confession during the 1960s and onward are partially to blame for the low turnout. The Second Vatican Council, which wrapped up in 1965, proposed changes about sin and what does and does not need to be confessed. For one, the Second Vatican Council provided a ritual at the beginning of Mass for congregants to do a communal, generic confession for lesser sins and infractions. In addition, there was an emphasis on the sacrament of communion as a way to grow in faith, and since unrepented sin prevented a Catholic from taking communion, ideas began to shift that only mortal (serious) sins had to be repented in confession, said Avis Clendenen, professor of religious studies at St. Xavier University and co-author of “Forgiveness: Finding Freedom Through Reconciliation.”
All these changes suggested that confession should be reserved for larger issues of how a person lived his or her life, and that the sacrament of reconciliation was not meant for everyday sins.
“Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the notion of sin was very tight and well organized,” Clendenen said. “But the church was in transition at this time, deciding how it understood itself in light of the modern world,” and as a result, fewer Catholics began participating in confession because they didn’t know how to make the leap to the new definitions of sin, she said.
Many priests and scholars also suggest that the prevalence of therapists and self-help cures in today’s society has placed more of an emphasis on personal forgiveness. “There’s risks of going to far into the realm of Dr. Phil and Oprah of: ‘The important thing is to forgive yourself,’” O’Toole said. “That’s good, but that may not always be sufficient. People don’t think anymore about having to ask for other people’s forgiveness, for God’s forgiveness.”
Many church historians and members of the clergy say that, in order for confession to survive and regain popularity, it will need to adapt yet again to fit into today’s society. O’Toole said the church needs a new way of embodying the religious and moral ideals that confession is based on.”
The Catholic church hierarchy has launched several attempts to bring people back to the confessional in recent years, but to limited effect.
In February, the Archdiocese of Washington launched a major media campaign with the slogan, “The Light is on For You,” using billboards, buses, brochures and radio ads to get Catholics back into the confessional. A chapel in a strip mall in New York has dedicated itself solely to confessions in an attempt to provide easy accessibility to busy penitents who have to fit the rite in with groceries and hair appointments. And during Lent and the season of Advent, pastors around the country are encouraged to stress the importance of reconciliation in order to push the notion of confession from the pulpit.
“There are efforts every year by the hierarchy to put people back into the habit of confession,” O’Toole said. “They work for a time, but they haven’t brought back the huge numbers of 100 years ago.”
Churches have been working on reshaping confession to create a more relaxed atmosphere that focuses more on reconciliation and forgiveness than on sin and penance. Clendenen said that one form of confession that has proven popular, at least in the Chicago area where she works, is a communal confession. She said these communal rites allow small groups of people to come together for reconciliation, to examine their consciences and see other people who are also “missing the mark,” and to receive general absolution as part of a community of sinners striving to be better and live more fully.
“People are flocking to these communal rites of reconciliation, but not to the traditional individual ones,” Clendenen said. “It shows that it’s good that the church is doing other ways to forgive and reconcile.”