Pink Ribbons and Penance
As most of you already know, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This annual campaign, which is organized by major breast cancer charities and marketing firms, seeks to increase awareness of the disease and raise funds for research. Go to the grocery store, shopping mall or turn on an NFL game and you will see the color pink this month…most particularly those pink ribbons.
It has been over twenty years since the now iconic pink ribbons were first handed out to participants of charity races for breast cancer survivors. Then, in 1993, Alexandra Penney (editor-in-chief of Self magazine) and Evelyn Lauder (Senior Corporate Vice President of the Estée Lauder Companies) founded the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and established the pink ribbon as its symbol. The ribbon was distributed in stores throughout New York City, on the strength of the Estée Lauder brand, and its status as the symbol of support for breast cancer awareness was cemented. (“The History of Breast Cancer Awareness Month”, CareCycle Solutions, October 2012).
There is no denying the marketing genius of the pink ribbon as a visible reminder of breast cancer. In truth, these pink ribbons provide a valuable lesson to the Church as well. An awareness of the “disease” of sin and the need for sacramental confession has been sorely lacking in the post conciliar years. In the Church today, confession is in need of its own pink ribbon.
As I have written about previously, we are only a few generations removed from a time when confession played a significant part in the lives of the vast majority of Catholics. The Sacrament of Penance was offered frequently and the faithful in turn availed themselves to it regularly. Saturday afternoons were a busy time for Catholic parishes as families would turn out to confess their sins. Additionally, it was common practice for confessions to be heard up until the start of Mass on Sundays as well. Sadly, this is often not the case anymore.
Consider the story of Sacred Heart Parish in Newton, Massachusetts as relayed in Boston College Magazine by author James O’Toole. Early in the twentieth century four priests would hear confessions an average of five hours every Saturday. By 1972, in the immediate years after the Second Vatican Council, that number was down to just three hours. By 1991 the one priest assigned to the parish was only hearing scheduled confessions for ninety minutes on Saturdays. That is a 70 percent drop in availability to the sacrament.
Indeed, many of the faithful have seen a similar decrease within their own parishes. Where they may have upwards of four, five or even six or more weekend masses, the scheduled time for confession is often only one hour a week. While lines for Holy Communion are usually long, those for confession are not.
Limited availability to the sacrament in many ways is simply reflective of a sacramental supply and demand. Fewer avail themselves to confession so fewer times are offered. The real question to ask is why? Which brings us back to those pink ribbons.
At this moment, participation by the faithful in the Sacrament of Penance suffers from a lack of visibility and awareness. Talk of sin has too often been removed from Sunday homilies, while the confessional itself (our Catholic “pink ribbon”) has actually been removed from many churches.
What would happen if more priests decided to address head on those common sins which cause so many of the faithful to stumble? What if more homilies spoke forcefully against pornography, masturbation, contraception, cohabitation, sterilization and abortion? What would we see if more priests reminded their parishioners that missing mass without a valid reason is a mortal sin? Finally, what would happen if more of the faithful were catechized on the four last things (death, judgment, Hell and Heaven) and reminded that to die in a state of mortal sin is to merit eternal damnation?
A good friend of mine shared a story which further illustrates this relationship between visibility and increased awareness of the sacrament.
In the late 1980’s, as newly weds, my friend and his young bride made a pilgrimage to Medjugorje. Headed to a Saturday vigil mass at St. James Church, they arrived to see over three dozen priests stationed along the outside wall hearing confessions. It was my friend’s intention that evening to simply go to mass; in fact, it had been years since he had even been to confession. That evening, however, the sheer visibility of the sacrament prompted him to get in line. To this day, more than a quarter of a century later, he still remembers the grace and emotion of that experience.
The truth regarding our need for the Sacrament of Penance must be given greater awareness. Indeed, the purple stole and the confessional must be our pink ribbons.