What Happened to Confession?


Have you ever noticed how the lines for Communion are long and yet the lines for Confession are short? It is interesting to note that, out of necessity, many parishes today offer four or five scheduled masses on Sunday and yet often only dedicate one hour a week for confession.

What Once Was

Not long ago, really just a few generations removed, confession still played a vitally important role in the lives of everyday Catholics. The Sacrament of Penance (as it was then called) was offered frequently and the faithful in turn availed themselves to it regularly. Saturday afternoons were a busy time for Catholic parishes as entire families would turn out to confess their sins, receive absolution and then penance from their priest. Sadly, this is no longer the case.

In the Fall 2000 online issue of Boston College Magazine author James O’Toole relays the story of the Jesuit priests at St. Ignatius Loyola Church on Park Avenue in New York City. He writes:

From July 1896 through June 1897, according to reports sent to their Jesuit superiors, the seven priests of the parish estimated that they heard a total of 78,000 confessions: 76,000 of these were “particular”, recounting sins committed since a previous confession…

In the same article (well worth the time to read) Mr. O’Toole also documents the decline of confession at Sacred Heart parish in Newton, Massachusetts.

In and around the year 1900 four priests would hear confessions (on average) for five hours every Saturday. By 1972, in the immediate years after the Second Vatican Council, that number was down to three hours. Finally, by 1991 the (only) priest assigned to the parish was only hearing scheduled confessions for an hour and a half on Saturdays. That is a drop of 70 percent in availability to the sacrament!

Just How Damning is the Data?

Nearly all of us are aware of this decline in participation among the faithful. However, the data is as compelling as it is damning.

According to the National Opinion Research Center, Catholics who went to confession once a month declined from 38 percent to only 17 percent from 1965 (the year the Council concluded) to 1975.

The same study also showed that the number of Catholics who said they “never” or “practically never” go to confession increased from 18 percent to 38 percent during the same 10 years.

A University of Notre Dame study conducted in the mid 1980’s revealed that the number of Catholics going to confession at least once per month had dropped even further, down to only 6 percent. That same study found that 26 percent of “active” Catholics no longer went to confession.

In 2005 and again in 2008 Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) found that three quarters of Catholics never participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation or do so less than once a year.

Surprisingly, even among those Catholics who attend Mass weekly nearly 40 percent either never participate in the sacrament or do so “less than once a year”.

The survey further found that “about six in ten respondents agree at least “somewhat” that they can be a good Catholic without celebrating the sacrament of Reconciliation at least yearly.”

Finally, and this is no shock, greatest participation in yearly confession was found among the pre-Vatican II generation (42 percent) with the weakest showing coming from the post-Vatican II generation (22 percent).

So, What Happened to Confession?

If the Catholic Church wanted to intentionally diminish the Sacrament of Penance in the years since the close of the Second Vatican Council, they could not have done a better job.

Just how do you go from 78,000 confessions in 12 months at just one parish back in 1896 to 75 percent of the faithful never going to Confession today, or (at best) just once a year?

First, don’t preach sin. I have personally attended classes where the Vatican II era Director of Religious Education for the parish stated that “fire and brimstone” went away with the Council and a more “positive” message of love was instituted. I myself am blessed to hear homilies from my pastor on the wages of sin, and the very real possibility of eternal damnation, but I know that this is unfortunately the exception and not the norm.

If you want people to stop going to the doctor, stop talking about cancer screenings, cholesterol levels or hypertension. If you want people to stop going to confession just stop telling them they need to. In addition, stop preaching on those topics, those common behaviors and mortal sins which require confessing.

I have been blessed to be a part of several retreat weekends and conferences where many Catholics heard for the first time a real, grown up, discussion on sin and the need to repent, confess and amend. I never cease to be moved and awed by the responses. Long lines for confession, even face to face, followed usually by tears and relief…even from grown men! People are hungry for the Truth.

Second, hide the confessionals. Pulling no punches, church architecture over the past 40 years has been horrific in many parishes. Catholic identity has often been lost in settings devoid of statues, beautiful art, kneelers and even confessionals. Confessionals which once lined the walls of the naves of many churches now are often hidden off somewhere between the storage closets and the “out of sight” tabernacle (that’s another blog topic in itself).

Third, availability of the sacrament. One hour a week…really? Is there anything better that our holy Catholic priest can do with their time, besides offering the Mass, then to hear the confessions of their flock? The faithful intrinsically know that the sacrament can’t be all that important if they have only one hour a week to avail themselves to it…or by appointment. Not good enough.

Lastly, oppose the Church’s teaching on contraception. I believe that it is no mere coincidence that the widespread implicit, and at times outright, opposition to Humanae Vitae and the Church’s teaching regarding contraception coincides with the rapid decline in the sacrament of Reconciliation. The moment the faithful are told by their confessor that they can “search their consciences” to determine whether a mortal sin is actually a mortal sin to them, moral relativism has entered the confessional. And then, souls are lost.

The Precepts of the Church

Many professing Catholics today approach their faith much in the same way they do the rest of life. That is, why deny myself what I want. Most fail to realize that as Catholics we are only required to receive Holy Communion once a year, “at least during the Easter season”. No more, or less, often then we are called to confess our sins. As defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the first two precepts of the Church are:

You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor.

You shall confess your sins at least once a year.

It is scandalous that the lines for communion are so long and those for confession are so short.

It’s Not Rocket Science

How do we renew the participation of the faithful in this sacrament which so many have abandoned in recent decades? Preach it, teach it and live it.

To our holy priests:
Please, please, please preach on this topic. Do not settle for generic references to sin in the abstract and the amorphous notion of forgiveness. Your Sunday homily affords you a captive audience. Where else in life do you have 500, 1000 or more people before you and (hopefully) listening to your every word. Don’t waste their time on platitudes. Remind your parishioners that hell exists for those who die in a state of mortal sin. Remind them that contraception, abortion, missing Mass and calumny are mortal sins in need of confessing. Then remind them not to present themselves for Holy Communion until they have made a good confession. If it doesn’t “take” repeat it again the next week.

To the faithful in the pews:
Go to confession! Go often! Go as a family! Encourage your fellow Catholics, friends and family alike, to go. Conduct a frequent examination of conscience. Many saints and religious have recommended a nightly examination before going to bed. Learn what the Church teaches on specific matters, and if you fall, run to confession. If you find yourself disagreeing with the teaching of the Church and reject her authority in certain areas of your life, then run to confession since you suffer from pride.

Finally, encourage your priest and support him in his efforts. Pray for him to have the courage and eloquence to address this with the parish. Encourage him to increase availability of the sacrament. Suggest a parish mission, possibly for Lent, and suggest solid, traditional, priests to come and teach on sin, hell and the need for penance. But most of all, develop the practice of frequent confession in your own life so that you may be fortified against temptation and seek to remain in a state of grace.

Posted on September 3, 2013, in holiness, life and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. The distinct message I got growing up was that you didn’t need to go at all for venial sins. Indeed, the impression was that Confession was only if you did something really, really bad, like willful murder (well, slight exaggeration, but not much).

    I shudder to think how my spiritual growth, and that of so many others, was stunted for so long by that wrong-headed notion, masquerading as teaching.

    Still, it’s never too late to discover the importance, and benefit, of regular confession. The graces are almost palpably evident in my life, empowering me to overcome habitual faults.

    Sometimes the priest has said something perfectly calibrated to what I needed, that he couldn’t possibly have known. I took them gratefully as manifestations of the charism of Holy Orders!

    • Great comment ubique lucet. While I am a convert to Catholicism, my wife is a cradle and was also subjected to the poor catechesis that was inflicted on those growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

      I also concur that the graces from the sacrament help you to grow so much in your personal sanctity. As you said, those habitual sins in time are conquered through our Lord’s mercy and grace.

      God bless and thanks for joining the discussion!

  2. I guess I’m blessed. My small parish (1200 families, 2 English Masses and 1 Spanish each Sunday, and 1 on Saturday) offers Confession 3 hours a week (Thursday Evenings , Friday Morning, and Saturday Afternoon). No matter when I go, it is a 15-30 minute wait. Just last Sunday the homily was about humility, and the priest worked in confession as an act of humility.

    • Ron,

      Thanks for sharing. I would agree you are indeed blessed. It sounds like you have one of the wonderful JPII/BXVI priests which are changing hearts and minds about Confession and living life in a state of grace.

      God bless!

  3. Theodore M. Seebrer

    I want to buy my local Missionary of Mercy a mobile confessional! Confession is the Sacrament of Mercy, and in this Jubilee Year of Mercy we need to make it available to everybody as often as possible.


  4. Thank you for this article, I agreed with and appreciated your research and your points. I am a Master’s student in Spirituality and am writing a paper on the topic of confession and I’m wondering where you found your data on the declining numbers going to confession. I know you listed your sources but I can’t find these numbers listed online. Would you mind sharing more about where you found them? Thank you!

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