Is the Sacrament of Penance Really Serving the Faithful?

I am hoping with this posting to open up further dialogue on a sacramental topic perhaps not critically examined enough for what it has become or how it is functioning in the life of the faithful. I am speaking about the enactment of the Sacrament of Penance on a parochial level.

I am now three years in a parish assignment after temporarily leaving academia. I am twenty years in ordained ministry and twenty-five years a professed member of my religious community. During this period, I have celebrated the Sacrament of Penance in a variety of context and through a variety of mediums. The current assignment affords me the experience of the sacrament on a regular basis. My assessment of the depth and breadth of these encounters more often than not is they are driven by a penal sense of divine judgment and justice, which is in turn often very difficult to reorient to the more hopeful and transformative vision of the reformed sacrament. An emphasis on retributive justice — a sense in which God demands confession of sins so that just punishments may be undertaken — flies in the face of a scriptural understanding of God all too ready to forgive.

Of course, this is never to deny encounters of true reconciliation and transformation brought about through the sacrament, but it is necessary to look at how many other encounters are merely mechanical exercises to make sure “I’m all right with God for another day/week/month/year.” And many of these focus on things that are more the ups and downs of human life than they are wilful actions of dehumanization for which the sacrament seems truly designed.

So, it might be prudent to ask, “Are we sufficiently enacting the Sacrament of Penance for the purpose it serves?” While Luther did not fully reject the sacrament, his criticism of it gives pause to wonder if at times we are meddling in matters best left between God and an individual. For more than a few clergy, especially seminarians and recently ordained, next to celebration of the Eucharist, Penance has morphed into the second most important of all the sacraments (if in reality it has always been that since the dawn of the modern era and the rise of “devotional confession”). It is one of principal reasons they are ordained – to act as arbiters between the human person and divine justice. At a recent clergy assembly on the sacrament, one priest stated to us gathered that he had “a passion of confession,” receiving agreement from many. Such a statement is odd for two reasons, the first is its focus on confession, which is only a part of the entire sacramental experience (and which itself is NOT a sacrament!); and second, because to the uniformed it might appear that he take perverse delight in airing his or listening to other’s dirty laundry. When asked to speak more on this, the priest replied that he saw the Sacrament of Penance as a corrective, to keep the faithful moral before God.

Is this what the sacrament’s purpose is? A vehicle for moral watchdogs? If so, can it truly offer anything in the way of healing, of compassion, of transformation. The perspective of the sacrament as keeping the faithful on the straight and narrow turns the encounter into an uneven exchange between one who claims to understand the dynamic of human existence better than the one who is living it. It continues to promote the idea of Penance as the celestial car wash, where one goes in dirty, to get clean, to get dirty all over again. The sacramental experience becomes one of absurdity.

For example, an elderly parishioner, at about eight minutes before Mass, regularly knocks on the sacristy door, and each time asks, “Father can you hear my confession?” Again, this exchange occurs less than ten minutes before Mass begins. To refuse would place the parishioner in a state of distress, having been raised with a particularly insufficient understand the sacrament. Without any other time to attend to it, I quickly celebrate the sacrament with them. Their confession…masturbation (with frequency that week); again and again, week after week, the same confession always with the number of times.  I could have been impressed by their stamina, but did the celebration of the sacrament truly provide any peace? I cannot say, but for them it is necessary, if only mechanical, week after week. It is retributive, but did it achieve the purpose of the sacramental encounter?

This is just one example, many other experiences of the conversation engaged in the sacramental encounter of Penance involve missing Mass (generally because of sickness!), or the whole amorphous category of “impure thoughts” or equally quixotic “offenses against the Holy Spirit.” These expressions of contrition, while not to be blithely dismissed, are more the consequences of the frailty of human existence that the present ritual of Penance does not intend to address. To undertake the fullness of the reformed ritual, which to be honest, most ordained confessors do not do (nor may they even be aware that the ritual was reformed!), for a lack of attention to one’s daily prayers is to reduce, if not negate, the power of the sacrament. The ritual is NOT a catch-all. It is designed for those ruptures that if left unchecked have the power to destroy the fabric of human relationships – which is both human and divine. It is designed for transformation of life and attitudes and values and dignity, not to end in a few Our Fathers, Hail Marys, or a decade of the Rosary, all intended to make God like me again.

The ritual of Penance with integral confession and absolution is used expressly with those who are conscious of “grave sin” (Canon 960). The negative use of the sacrament as a deterrent to immoral behavior or to keep human beings in check with the Almighty serves more those who are the administers of it. It is not a sacrament of initiation, and it is not more powerful than Eucharist in the experience of reconciliation.

Another ritual action or experience of reconciling encounter must be devised to meet and unburden the experience of day to day human frailty and mistakes. Even the retrieval of General Absolution to meet these situations may be overshooting where a simpler and direct encounter will suffice. Until such time, however, we only have a ritual that equalizes all human brokenness into one pool which may not always resolve the encounter in the best interests of the faithful who participate in it.


  1. Simple answer – NO. We need ressourcement……go back to when the focus was on a few very public sins – it was about being made right with the community. Recapture the kernel – metanoia! Refocus on *social sin*.
    Agree that the Irish impact has moved this to a *devout confession* which leaves out some of the four essential elements of the sacrament – it has become just another focus on the *individual* in cultures that already are too individualistic.
    There have been attempts to refocus on the reality that Eucharist is the primary sacrament of reconciliation and there are three forms to utilize in the Eucharist (yes, bishops, Vatican have rejected or limited those forms).
    Reconciliation should be rare, limited, and marking serious conversion moments.
    Some suggestions:
    BTW – it is interesting that we basically call this sacrament by different names – penance, reconciliation, confession, etc. Suggest something? The historical tradition appears to have emphasized differently the four key parts of the sacrament and we are left with a * jumble*. What about making amends? Is the focus too clerical while skipping or limiting the role of the community? What about its scriptural roots? Always came away from my theology studies in the 1970s with the thought that VII bishops wanted to continue to reconsider and reform this sacrament??

  2. The perspective of the sacrament as keeping the faithful on the straight and narrow turns the encounter into an uneven exchange between one who claims to understand the dynamic of human existence better than the one who is living it.

    This statement does not match my experience well at all. (I am a convert, from a Christian tradition where the equivalent of confession was public and about reconciliation with the community.)

    For me, the requirement to look honestly at God’s requirements, and to tell someone else “I have failed, in these specific ways, to keep these requirements” has been very helpful in forming my conscience and making me aware of my own need for God’s forgiveness. It hasn’t been what the priest says, mostly: it’s been the requirement to be honest with myself and speak honestly to another.

    1. I was unaware of the reformed ritual until I looked through the handbook for the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation commonly found in the little room with the prie-dieux and the chair when the priest wasn’t there. Then I realized that I had never experienced it as a part of a private confession! I’ve only experienced it as part of the Reconciliation Services that are becoming more common at Advent and Lent. These have songs, readings from the Scriptures, Psalms, and maybe a little homily, then an opportunity to confess to a variety of priests in the sanctuary itself. I prefer this, since it gives the real atmosphere of a celebration, as well as an opportunity to pray before I confess, and that in the light of Scripture.
      To be honest, I’d like to hear more instruction, or read it, in the bulletin, or as part of a parish mission statement, about what attitudes and expectations the Church has for believers in the celebration of this sacrament. Frankly, I’d like to see a similar statement about the Sacrament of the Sick, another of the healing sacraments. How many people know that suffering from depression, for example, is real illness that would be better fought by recourse to that, rather than an overly scrupulous use of Reconciliation??

  3. Is the sacrament serving the people of God? No. By and large, the people have moved on and, in my experience, see the Sacrament of Penance serving little useful purpose in their lives.

    I’m continually horrified at how I see the Sacrament being abused, not by the people but by Priests, particularly young Priests, who might be up on sacramental knowledge but know squat about how to sell it to the people. I do agree with Paul Inwood, great article. It really got me thinking.

    1. Oh really? In my locale, almost every parish that has been taken over by one of those young priests has seen an increase in people going to confession, especially young people. They preach about it, they expanded confession hours, they make themselves available, and their congregants have responded.

      With all due respect, in my experience it’s the older generation of priests where many have given up on the sacrament and in turn have given their congregants little reason to make it a serious part of their spiritual life. I had a memorable incident not long ago where a priest then two years from retirement was so cranky during my confession that he didn’t bother giving any counsel or a penance, the latter of which I kindly prompted him on and got a rude remark in return (I was the only person in his line during scheduled confession hours, and now I know why!).

  4. At a certain point in my life this encounter made sense when I expanded it into a complete checkup of strengths and failures, as a way to confirm as well as release. Jesus came to save sinners, of course, and from the beginning our tradition emphasizes the release from sin. But he also showed his disciples lessons in strengthening their life of faith. Of course we praise the practice of spiritual consultation, but it is usually done outside the celebration of sacraments. If that opportunity for growth is not the purpose of traditional Penance, I suggest we rethink traditional Penance. Or if it should be folded into the Eucharist, as Richstatter says, then we should find a way to do that.

  5. I’m more than a little confused at the idea the reformed rite of reconciliation is intended to be restricted to grave sins, and not for the purposes of more general spiritual growth.

    The teaching of the Catechism at 1458 etc appears to me to provide a much more expansive and indeed meaningful purpose to the Sacrament, which this conception appears to lose.

  6. Thank you, Fr. Jim Sabak, for your article with which I mostly agree.
    But I’ve got a question which doesn’t concern the main topic. Are you quite sure that nobody, who regularly saw that old guy knocking to your sacristy 8 minutes before Mass, reads this article? And, if you aren’t, doesn’t this passage of your article violate the seal of confession?
    Believe me, I don’t try to blame you – I only want to understand it. I am not a specialist in the canon law. Sometimes I heard homilies where priests refered to some cases heard by them during confessions or to their dialogues with penitents (of course, without names, but who would guarantee that no one would recognize himself/herself or anybody he/she knows). In some books on the moral theology I also met passages where authors-priests refered to their dialogues at the confession. As I know (though I couldn’t find any certain legislative documents) there are limited cases where a portion of a confession may be revealed to others, but only with the penitent’s permission and without revealing his/her identity. I doubt whether all the cases I mentioned took place with the penitent’s permission. So I try to understand: where do the limits of the sacramental seal pass?

    1. Thank you Piotr for your comment. I understand your concern — a very good one. As I understand it that someone came to me to celebrate the sacrament can be known, and that certain things were confessed in the course of a sacramental encounter could be known – but never can the identity of the individual and what was confessed be connected. This helps, especially, when discussing the trends in celebration of the sacrament and what advice other confessors may be able to provide to one another. In response to your concern, though, I’ve revised the language of the post. Thank you again.

  7. Fr. Sabak has misused Can. 960, which addresses cases in which (the individual form of) this sacrament is *required* without concomitantly delimiting the situations in which it is *useful.* A better place to explore the intended scope of the sacramental celebration is the Rite of Penance itself, specifically its praenotanda. No. 7 asserts that combating venial sins through sacramental Penance can be “very useful”:

    “[…] And those who, experiencing their weakness daily, fall into venial sins draw strength from a repeated celebration of penance to reach the full freedom of the children of God. […] b. Moreover, the frequent and careful celebration of this sacrament is also very useful as a remedy for venial sins. This is not a mere ritual repetition or psychological exercise, but a serious striving to perfect the grace of baptism so that, as we bear in our body the death of Jesus Christ, his life may be seen in us ever more clearly. In confession of this kind, penitents who accuse themselves of venial faults should try to be more closely conformed to Christ and to follow the voice of the Spirit more attentively.”

    Thus, without contesting that the sacrament was instituted to reconcile, “above all,” those who have fallen into grave sin (CCC 1446), Scott Smith is right to read CCC 1458 as encouraging confession of venial sins (i.e., on their own) as an aid to spiritual growth:

    “Without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church. Indeed the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit. By receiving more frequently through this sacrament the gift of the Father’s mercy, we are spurred to be merciful as he is merciful: […].”

    1. The Church is in transition.

      In pointing to the use of the sacrament of Reconciliation to deal with venial sins, it is easy to forget what the CCC has to say about the fruits of the Eucharist:

      1393 Holy Communion separates us from sin. The body of Christ we receive in Holy Communion is “given up for us,” and the blood we drink “shed for the many for the forgiveness of sins.” For this reason the Eucharist cannot unite us to Christ without at the same time cleansing us from past sins and preserving us from future sins.


      1394 As bodily nourishment restores lost strength, so the Eucharist strengthens our charity, which tends to be weakened in daily life; and this living charity wipes away venial sins. [Cf. Council of Trent (1551): DS 1638] By giving himself to us Christ revives our love and enables us to break our disordered attachments to creatures and root
      ourselves in him.

      Equally, it is all too easy to judge people who don’t make use of the sacrament of Reconciliation when one doesn’t know that they actually prefer to make use of the Eucharist for this purpose.

      1. Paul, I think to oppose the forgiveness of venial sins in the Eucharist with that provided in Reconciliation is too reductive, and misses the more expansive understanding I think CCC 1458 points to.

        The purpose of Reconciliation in respect of venial sins isn’t because it is the only way to be absolved – It rather explicitly is not! Rather, as Pope Francis teaches in Amoris laetitia, it assists us to examine our conscience, discern our culpabilities and to grow ever more in the spiritual life.

        It is indeed why, at this point in the Church’s history, Pope Francis renews the call to frequent confession and spiritual direction (AL227), and underlines the importance of Reconciliation, which allows us to “bring our sins and past mistakes, and our relationship itself, before God, and to receive in turn his merciful forgiveness and healing strength” (AL211).

      2. “It is desirable that those who receive communion daily or very often go to the sacrament of penance at regular intervals, depending on their circumstances” (HCWEOM 23). Are we not being urged to view these sacraments through a lens of complementarity rather than dichotomy?

      3. Aaron

        There’s a potential unspoken context that may be relevant to some communicant/penitents: indulgences, particularly plenary indulgences. To step back: praying for the dead is a spiritual work of mercy. To seek a plenary indulgence (either for oneself or deceased persons) through an indulgenced action, one of the conditions is not having an attachment to sin (which is not just being in a state of grace). People who are frequent communicants who also frequent the Sacrament of Penance in a non-scrupulous way can proceed in that practice as a way of pruning away attachment to sin (not just remission of venial sins) in the context of a wonderful act of mercy/charity. In this week following All Saints and All Souls, I just thought I’d mention that context, as an additional way beyond actual scrupulosity on the one hand and erroneously attributed scrupulosity on the other hand. (And, as we grow older, we are likely in the course of ordinary life to have more people for whom we may offer such an act. It’s not a way I thought about as a child or young adult; now, being on the backside of middle age, I most certainly do now, and I find it’s grown my spiritual compass of awareness.)

      4. My point about *ressourcement* and the sacrament’s history is that our practice came about before we even distinguished between venial and mortal. To start with a summary such as CCC is to miss significant parts of this sacrament’s evolution and journey.
        Again, it is my sense that the VII bishops hoped that additional sacrament reforms would happen e.g. the three penitential rites in the Eucharist as a start.
        Not sure that personal, individual, spiritual counseling is the purpose of this sacrament but it is a late development – does it help or detract from what the sacrament was or is this an *accretion*?

      5. Bill,
        I think the point at which various aspects of the Sacrament of Reconciliation developed is probably not very important.
        For instance, the move to face to face reconciliation rooms and chapels after the Council are in a sense a late development, but that doesn’t devalue the emphasis on spiritual counseling etc they provide.

      6. My point was simply that the Church currently provides several different modes for the absolution of venial sins: the sacrament of Reconciliation (individual confession, Form I), communal services of Reconciliation (Form II), general absolution (Form III), and the Eucharist, as mentioned above. Given that the last one is the easiest, and given that many have been scarred in the use of Form I by being lambasted, shouted at in the confessional, etc, is it any wonder that what is perceived as the easiest and most readily available option (receiving Communion at Mass) may appeal to quite a large number of people?

        While agreeing with Aaron that the optimum would be complementarity, in practice people in their busy lives are going to take the easiest way out. When I said the Church is in transition, I meant that I think these various modes for dealing with venial sins will eventually coalesce into just one or two. I suspect that individual confession may not be among them, becoming used instead for dealing with grave sin only.

        You heard it here first….

      7. Paul,

        I’m not really sure why there would be any movement to reducing the ways in which venial sins can be absolved. As Aquinas taught, because of the nature of venial sin, the methods for its remission are even broader than those you listed (the Summa also lists as other methods saying the Lord’s Prayer or Confiteor, receiving a bishop’s blessing, the sprinkling of holy water, any sacramental anointing, a prayer said in a dedicated church and anything else of the kind).

        And if what you really mean is Reconciliation won’t be the primary way of dealing with venial sin, well as the evidence from Aquinas shows, it already hasn’t been for a long time (if it ever was).

        But none of that precludes or recommends against Confession also being a place where venial sin is absolved, not least as it would be more than passing strange to be absolved from our gravest sins, only to be told we now need to do something else for our lightest!

      8. What one “pefers” has noting to do with it. Receiving to Eucharist in a state of mortal sin does not “separate you from sin”. It heaps the sin of sacrilege on top of your other sins. See 1 Cor 11.

  8. Call me skeptical but I doubt most priests would respond that they have a passion for confession because it keeps them moral before God (perhaps it is different in your diocese.) Most young priests that do indeed have a passion for confession and much of this is inspired by a desire to meet to people at their most broken and vulnerable and able to extend mercy to the sinner on the Lord’s behalf. They consider it an honor to be with people at their most vulnerable and walk with them through areas where they have fallen short. That is the honest way in which I have heard the majority of young priests’ I know have explained to me why they focus on confession (and we have had like 20 of them ordained in the past 4 years and it seems to be a common thread in their bios for the diocesan newspaper. So I find your statement “because to the uniformed it might appear that he take perverse delight in airing his or listening to other’s dirty laundry” to be a cheap shot. Would someone ever say a such a thing about psychologists? Not to mention the last three popes (Francis include) have encouraged priests to spend more time in the confessional.

    I have also noted that young priest seem more apt to give advice in the confessional and even refer the faithful to therapists and other programs to help them address more serious issues. It seems that they utilize confession in a much different way than portrayed in this article.

    1. I think a lot of anxiety about this sacrament is based on the fact that there are two participants in this encounter with the Lord, and one seems to be over prepared, and over pressured, and the other under prepared and over anxious. I spent some time reading the preface to the Rite of Penance yesterday, which says among other things that the two celebrants of the liturgy are the penitent and the confessor. I also read through a small handbook for confession that came from the Collegeville press, that is, St. John’s Abbey. These are two sources that I feel are trustworthy, not flowery, and practical.
      As a Christian, I think the idea of myself as one of the celebrants of one of the forms of penitential liturgy in the Church to be as intimidating as the thought that, as a married man, my wife and I are to be living signs of Christ’s love for the Church. These are heavy matters!
      Maybe it would help more people grasp confession better if we taught from the biblical sources and typology of the Sacrament rather than the bare Canon law of it. After all, the Commandments and Beatitudes can be reduced to a kind of checklist if we are not careful. Even worse, we can think of them as a purely private thing, instead of a public charter of identity as Christians, something which our Holy Father recently spoke about. We know that the encounter with God was experienced as a people, and the covenant was with the people. How can we emphasize confession as an encounter with God who loves us, enough to give us the Commandments and Beatitudes, even though we often fail to live by them? There are some things priests and other ministers of the Church can do to help, but primarily this is the task proper to the penitent, and if prayer, reflection, and good mental health are not brought to bear on the task of building a real relationship with God, it seems to me to be too much to expect a priest to fix in five minutes.

      1. Wonderfully put.

        I would note that, just as a “preconciliar” approach to “confession” can become reductive in practice, so to can a “postconciliar” approach to “reconciliation” where in each case there’s an assumption that if the ritual is arranged in X way that Y desired thing will follow or at least be more likely to follow and that Z undesired thing will be less likely to follow. Which brings me to suggest that people undertaking an analysis of the sacramental ritual might first take inventory of assumptions (aside from canonical “givens” as in effect from time to time) in this regard and then consider evidence not just for but also against their being of universal value – in other words, have less of a hard bite and more of a soft bite. One assumption among many we can consider is the extent to which the postconciliar ritual for the sacrament may be said to have been “received”.

    2. Today I received a report from my local college seminary. It includes an Horarium. Confessions are available MTh from 4:00-4:30 pm, 11:00-12:00 am on Friday; 8:00-8:45 am Sat and 8:00-9:00 am Sun. From conversation with staff I know that in addition students meet frequently with their individual Spiritual Directors (I have the impression that every week or two is common). Those men must experience the routine of frequent confession as simply the way Catholic life is lived. It is not surprising–if their experience has been positive–that they are eager to share that with their people when they come into ordained ministry.

  9. We can live forgiven every day. “Forgive us our trespasses” – do we not believe that? “Say but the word and my soul shall be healed.” There is an essential broader picture of the whole dimension of reconciliation in Christian life.
    To broaden the picture does not devalue the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Rather, it can help us see how special a gift we have in the sacramental celebration. At the same time it can spread the load with which the sacrament, the priest, and the penitent may be unnecessarily burdened.
    The Sacrament of Penance is not a single peak of forgiveness in a vast quagmire of sin, but a pinnacle in the range of the Father’s open hearted welcomes for his wandering children. If we need to recover a sense of sin, it must be with hope rather than hopelessness. It must be an awareness of sin committed, but even more of sin vanquished. If anyone talks about “Catholic guilt”, remind them that this awareness of guilt is always of guilt forgiven.
    Apart from the sacramental ways of living forgiven – Baptism, Penance, Eucharist, Anointing of the Sick – there are other traditional ways.
    We can know God’s forgiveness as we confess our sins to God (Ps. 51);
    by confessing our sins to one another (James 5:16);
    by correcting a sinner (James5:20);
    in loving one another (1 Peter4:8);
    by forgiving one another (Luke 6:37);
    by almsgiving (Luke 11:41);
    by reading Scripture (2 Tim 3:15; “By the words of the Gospel may my sins be blotted out”);
    respect for parents (Sirach 3:3);
    fasting (Jonah!),
    almsgiving (Acts 10:4),
    and the baptism of martyrdom.
    If we preach this, are we telling our people that they don’t need to come to Confession; or are we simply putting the Sacrament in its natural setting so that its beauty may be better seen? In fact, all of these (even the last!) can be seen in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
    Someone gave the definition of what a saint is: a forgiven sinner!

  10. This is an interesting and thought-provoking discussion. Some observations as a penitent and a form II/III liturgist …

    – I think the Rite of Penance has been a mixed bag (at best) but (usually) a failure post-Vatican II. I would say that mainly for the missed opportunities in nearly every faith community.

    – I think the pre-conciliar sensibility works well for the “passion for confession” crowd. That’s great. For a single-digit percentage of the faithful. The country club church, in other words.

    – Once we are able to offer other experiences in the Rite that will assist more of the 90-plus percent of the Church, the grace will spread.

    – My best experiences are with form I as a penitent. But only at “crisis” moments or times of insight that have been preceded by extended retreat or soul-searching.

    – My worst are with Saturday afternoon form I or form III.

    – I think many people fear form II, but a few communities celebrate it very, very well. Most clergy lack the trust to do it fully and support one another. It does not happen in my diocese because I and III are the preferred ways to keep it lone ranger.

    – As someone who serves in a diocese with one of the lowest Spanish speaking priest-to-Latino parishioner percentages, and who serves in a parish where it has been over a year since confessions have been heard in Spanish, I wouldn’t object to a discernment of an order of confessors among lay people, women and men. It’s certainly not going to happen, mainly because we can’t get past old baggage to discern needs. Similar things happen in rural areas where priests serve multiple parishes.

    But I have hope … for the 22nd century.

    1. I agree with a lot of this, but “The country club church, in other words.” is passing strange. It’s a variation on resentful elder brother energy or the energy of the lost verse 13A of Luke 18: “Thank you, Lord, for not making me like that Pharisee.”

      1. “The country club church” is NOT those who avail themselves of regular celebrations of the sacraments, attendance at Mass, and participation in the life of a parish. “The country club church” is those who use the church for prestige and show:

        “It’s on my CV that I am member of St. Penelope’s within the Loop and rent the 2nd pew from the front on the left, so that it’s open when I attend on Christmas and maybe Easter. Oh, and my daughter had a huge wedding there with everything covered in yellow fabric (especially that gory cross!) and banks of roses. She’s thinking of having a baby christened there too, if she ever has one!”

      2. The country club church is concerned with maintenance, not mission. It would indeed be the weekly, not the annual Catholics. It would be concerned with balancing the budget, making sure all ducks, material and virtuous are in a row before looking outside the bounds of Sunday obligation.

        Sure, it drags in another issue. But in essence when we are asked, “Is the Sacrament of Penance Really Serving the Faithful?” We can accurately say about ten percent. At best. And if the response is, “Oh really? I go every month and my priest has the ‘passion for confession.'” That person is clearly not looking beyond the walls of their own church. A country club, in other words. I am sure that “passion-for-confession” Catholics, lay and priest, are good, virtuous, and sincere people. But many of them may be navel-gazing, rather than looking for developing the primordial sacrament, baptism, and its basic mission, evangelization. Or looking for new ways to employ the traditions of penance, spiritual direction, liturgy, etc., to ensure a richer deeper experience, rather than one that’s “good enough for me.”

    2. That’s a weird explanation of that metaphor. Country clubs seek members and constantly invest, so far as I can tell. And I don’t see how your explanation credibly characterizes Form I penitents with such a broad, condescending brush.

      1. A metaphor requires only one point of intersection between image and reality in order for it to work. It’s not, unless it is an extended metaphor, an analogy. There’s nothing weird about Todd’s choice of metaphor in this case. Much less is there anything condescending about it.

      2. My problem is not with form I penitents–I include myself among them. My problem is the one-form-fits-all approach to Penance. It’s part of an assumption, common in traditional-leaning circles, but certainly not unknown among progressives: people have to come to us, to our way of doing things. It’s exemplified in attitudes like: you have to swim the Tiber; you have to apologize for persecuting Catholics, for invading our space, and the like. Our way or the highway, to use the cliché.

        Fr Jim asked the question in the title. The answer is certainly yes. For about one in twelve Catholics. I once had a discussion with one of the passion-for-confession confessors. He lamented how many people were missing out on a great experience. As it goes, that’s a good sentiment. Then I quizzed him about the size of his parish. For a thousand families, we figured about 2000 people of age were eligible to go to form I. If those people confessed monthly, and each confined their experience to three minutes, he would be in his confessional almost 25 hours a week.

        As it worked out, he offered a generous two Saturday hours, plus “by appointment.” Hence my generous estimate of the percentage of Catholics for whom “traditional” confession works. I told him not only is he unprepared for renewal on the scale of which he dreamed, but there’s no way the Church can offer this as an ordinary experience to anything more than, sorry to say, a country club minority.

        To be sure, I don’t find that a depressing thought. I just think it points us to the direction of serious, very serious visioning and reform.

  11. Paul – your response about face to face and history makes my point. Face to face was the standard for hundreds of years – why that changed, etc needs to be understood. Also, Todd – thank you – that is my image of a country club catholic only I call it making the parish into an Individual’s Service Station with only cursory acknowledgement of mission.

  12. Fr Jim, thanks for your thoughtful post. Speaking from “the other side of the Dnieper” (as a dear Jesuit friend of mine likes to say), it seems that clergy – and many laity – invest a great deal in the power of one ritual component, without considering that the transformation we seek and God gives freely is rarely experienced instantaneously. I really appreciate your emphasis on the kind of unburdening that people need, and that only God can provide. It seems to me that we need to re-learn, as a Church, how to receive God’s forgiveness, especially over the course of time. It does not seem accidental that confession became fused with the sacrament of anointing in many places of the Eastern Church, because both sacraments are about the healing of the human person. if that is, indeed, the case, the dialogue, prayer, exomologesis, and absolution of confession can only be one part of a much larger process of healing. How many of us have the tools to attend to each part of that process? Perhaps this is an opportunity for the Church to partner with the laity in developing a lay ministry of healing that accompanies sacramental confession.

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