Personally, I think this is full of PR spin, but it would be nice if it were true.
By AMY CALDER
The number of Catholics confessing their sins may have declined in the 1960s and '70s, but some priests say there may be a resurgence -- and they would welcome the change.
Others say an increase in confessions would present a challenge for priests who already are serving more than one parish, but they would try to find ways to accommodate an increase.
By most accounts, confessions of the 1950s and '60s tended to be mechanical -- the methodical chanting of what one perceived as his or her sins.
"Forgive me, Father, for it has been two weeks since my last confession," a parishioner might typically have said to a priest. "I gossiped four times, I lied three times, I cheated five times."
In those days, one entered a dark booth and confessed sins in private to a priest behind a curtain or screen. And the frequency of confession was much more pronounced -- people went to confession once a week, once a month or twice a month, for instance.
As the number of people confessing their sins decreased in the '60s and into the '70s, the nature of the practice also changed. Parishioners years ago tended to see sin everywhere, but that is not now the case, priests say.
"We tend to see not just the isolated act, but the act as symptoms of a larger problem," says Monsignor Michael Henchal of Cape Elizabeth. "We need to treat the disease and not just the symptom."
So, confessions are now much more meaningful, more in-depth, more about the orientation of one's life, according to the Rev. Maurice Morin, pastor of Notre Dame de Lourdes Church in Skowhegan and administrator of St. Peter's Catholic Church in Bingham and St. Sebastian Catholic Church in Madison.
"It's a difference in conscience," Morin said. "They see more than just the action; they see the results of the action or lack of."
Morin says he does not expect confessions to increase; rather, he believes people will tend to gain a better understanding of who they are and what they need to do to live a better life.
Confession now is not restricted to a confessional booth. Parishioners may make appointments and sometimes spend 30 minutes with a priest in his office; they can confess in a "reconciliation room," an area at the church where priest and parishioner may speak, face-to-face; and many churches have penitential services before Christmas and Easter that allow for a large group of parishioners to listen to a service and take part in individual confession with one of several priests on hand. Such a service is planned for 1 p.m. March 18 at Notre Dame Catholic Church in Waterville.
Confessions also are not restricted so much by time as they were in the old days, when they might last one to two minutes or less:
"Imagine trying to discuss a serious issue in someone's life in a minute-and-a-half," Henchal, pastor of both St. Maximilian Kobe and St. Bartholomew Catholic churches in Cape Elizabeth, said.
The Washington Post on Feb. 22 reported that the new archbishop of Washington, D.C., Donald Wuerl, has launched a campaign to try to bring people back to the confessional, with advertisements on buses, subway cars, brochures and billboards -- as well as on the radio. Wuerl began the campaign to coincide with the start of Lent, the 40-day period preceding Easter during which Catholics typically go to confession.
Exact figures are not available as to the numbers of people who practiced confession in the 1950s or '60s in Maine versus those confessing today, because confession is confidential, according to Sue Bernard, spokeswoman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.
"We simply don't keep any statistics at all because it's a private thing," Bernard said.
But priests say the numbers decreased in the '60s and '70s and the reasons for the decline are varied.
Henchal, who has been a priest 33 years, said he has a personal theory that people who went to confession in the 50s and 60s are carrying a lot of baggage from the experience. The practice was not satisfying, and thus, they abandoned it, he said.
"I think that until the baggage is gone, and that maybe takes 40 or 50 years for working through the system, it's very difficult to get people to do this very much," Henchal said. "I think in the long run, confession will find its way back. People have a real need to be able to discuss their spiritual and moral life."
Priests say they will keep track of Wuerl's effort to nudge people back to the confessional. The Rev. Paul Dumais, a pastor assigned to Catholic parishes in the greater Waterville area, says he would welcome an increase in confessions.
"It's a great joy to witness people embracing God's mercy and benefiting from it," Dumais said. "If I did nothing but hear confessions and offer Mass, I'd be happy."
With the shortage of priests nowadays, time is precious, but Dumais believes ways would be found to accommodate an increase.
"I remind people it's (confession) a normal, ordinary, regular part of a full Catholic life and so it's part and parcel of living a full Catholic life," he said.
Dumais makes it a point to tell parishioners that confession is available to them and he will help them through the process.
"I said one time at Mass that if you're unfamiliar with the mechanics of going to confession, don't let that prevent you from going," he said.
The Rev. Louis Phillips, pastor of the Augusta-Gardiner parishes, says such an increase in confessions would present a challenge, as 20 to 40 people stand in line for confession at St. Augustine's Catholic Church in Augusta.
"Augusta is somewhat of an anomaly," he said. "They're still pretty strong here. At St. Augustine, we're kept busy the whole time."
The Augusta-Gardiner area parishes include St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Gardiner; St. Denis in Whitefield; and St. Augustine, St. Mary and St. Andrew in Augusta.
Some churches set aside 15 minutes to a half-hour for confessions prior to Masses held on Saturday. Henchal said three or four people typically confess on a Saturday; Morin said he sees one to three people at his three churches on weekends.
THE MECHANICS OF CONFESSION
During a confessional, a parishioner typically confesses sins of commission, such as lying, and/or sins of omission, such as not helping the sick or poor, or someone with other needs.
"Once they've done that, a priest might have a little advice for them, or they have a conversation," said Dumais, a priest of 2 1/2 years.
The priest assigns penance, which can be a single prayer or an act of mercy or kindness agreed to by the parishioner, and the priest offers a prayer of absolution.
"It's beautiful and many people experience a kind of peace that's spoken in the prayer," Dumais said. "They feel a sense of renewed peace in confession."
God -- not the priest -- is the one who forgives the sins of the confessor; the priest serves as an important tool in the process, according to Dumais.
"To hear the prayer of absolution from somebody who has the authority to say it, we're assured we have been forgiven," he said.
Dumais himself tries to go to confession every month, he says.
"I tell my people, priests can't look in the mirror; priests go to another priest."
Confessions now are not necessarily conducted in a booth or reconciliation room. Dumais once confessed in a restaurant, he said.
"Confessions can be heard anywhere. I hear confession in my office, I hear confession in a variety of places -- walking down the street. So while the confessional is an ordinary place, confession can be heard anywhere. It's up to the penitent to decide."
As to the frequency of confession, the church recommends "regular" confession but never identifies what "regular" means, according to Dumais.
"The Catholic practice of going to confession was instituted by Christ and can be found in the 20th chapter of the Gospel of John," he said. "I talk to high school students and I say, 'If you want 20-20 vision about the meaning of Christ, look up John 20:20."
Phillips, who was ordained 25 years ago, says he is seeing an increase in people wanting to make appointments to go to confession.
"We encourage that, so if people need more time, they have it," he said.
Those who confess are of all ages, he said.
"We do have older people, but we have a number of younger people -- families -- and many of these people make this a regular part of their faith lives -- their once-a-month devotion," Phillips said.
Those who make appointments have a deeper and more meaningful experience, he said.
"They come already thinking about it," Phillips said. "I don't feel rushed because there is not a line 10 people long."
Some people return to confession after abandoning it for a long period of time, he said.
"I find almost weekly that someone will come back and confess after being away for literally years," he said. "I think that is a sign that confession is making a resurgence."
Fern Bernier, 93, of Waterville, went to confession for 85 years and stopped going regularly about five years ago.
"I go to church every morning but I don't go (to confession) that often," she said. "Years ago, we used to go every other week."
She said as she got older, her activities became fewer and the need for confession felt less urgent. She does not have a car or watch television, but does like to do jigsaw puzzles, she said.
Paul McDonald, also of Waterville, said he and his wife go to church every week and attend confession at least once a year. Years ago, they went to confession more frequently, but the practice is not encouraged so much any more.
"When we were young, we were encouraged to go," he said. "I went to a parochial school in Aroostook County and we were encouraged to go every week."
McDonald says he thinks that, as priests become fewer and fewer and stretched in many directions, parishioners will be encouraged to help with church duties and activities not requiring the work of a priest. That certainly would need to happen if the number of confessions increased, he said.
Amy Calder -- 861-9247