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Pope Francis is confessed by a priest in St. Peter’s Basilica. (Photo L’ Osservatore Romano/ Associated Press)
Pope Francis is confessed by a priest in St. Peter’s Basilica. (Photo L’ Osservatore Romano/ Associated Press)

By Michael O’Loughlin

Special to Crux April 1, 2016

As Pope Francis was personally hearing confessions in the Vatican at the beginning of Lent, dioceses at his invitation were launching an ambitious initiative called “24 Hours for the Lord” to invite lapsed Catholics back to the Church and, in particular, to the sacrament of reconciliation.

Confession often goes hand in hand with the pope’s musings on mercy, a virtue he’s invoked to define his papacy. But will his high-profile endorsement revitalize interest in what some say is an endangered sacrament?

The pope’s confession-obsession was on display in his recent book, the New York Times bestselling “The Name of God is Mercy.” There, Francis expands on his now famous “Who am I to judge?” response in 2013 when asked about gay priests.

“I prefer that homosexuals come to confession,” he said, “that they stay close to the Lord, and that we pray all together.”

Last year, Francis raised eyebrows when he announced that women and others who take part in abortions – which the Church considers a grave sin – could be forgiven by any priest in the world, if they went to confession.

“I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision,” Francis wrote in a letter, in which he went on to say “the forgiveness of God cannot be denied.”

And when he kicked off his special jubilee Year of Mercy, which runs through November, Francis again highlighted the sacrament, urging Catholics to visit a priest for absolution.

“A special sign of grace in this Jubilee of Mercy is the sacrament of penance, in which Christ invites us to acknowledge our sinfulness, to experience his mercy, and to receive the grace which can make us ever more effective signs of his reconciling love at work in our world,” Francis said.

But even with all the pope’s emphasis on the sacrament of reconciliation—which include images of him going to confession and confirmation that he occasionally hear confessions—is this rite on its way to extinction?

The most recent data on the numbers of US Catholics who frequent the confessional are from 2008, well before Pope Francis was elected. But that survey found that about three-quarters of Catholics practice the sacrament once a year or less, and nearly half, 45 percent, said they never go.

Figures like that prompted one of the US Church’s most prominent leaders to weigh in.

In 2012, then-president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, warned his fellow bishops that the sacrament was in peril.

“What an irony that despite the call of the Second Vatican Council for a renewal of the sacrament of penance, what we got instead was its near disappearance,” he said in a speech to bishops.

He suggested bishops consider “re-embracing Friday as a particular day of penance, including the possible reinstitution of abstinence on all Fridays of the year, not just during Lent.” That proposal never came to fruition.

The Association of US Catholic Priests, generally seen as fairly progressive, thinks one way the Church could get more Catholics interested in the sacrament is by reviving communal penitential services.

“We’re doing things in reverse order. We’re saying the standard way of coming to confession is to do the one on one thing, and in a certain sense, that’s the most intense form of the sacrament,” said the Rev. Bernard Bonnot, pastor of Christ Our Savior Parish in Struthers, Ohio and a member of the organization, which says it includes about 1,000 clerics who try to promote the teachings of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Catholics today might be familiar with a communal penance service, usually during advent or lent, during which they recall their sins before breaking off to meet with a priest for absolution. That’s generally known as the “second rite” of penance, with the first rite being standard one-on-one private confession.

There’s also a communal form of the sacrament that offers forgiveness without the need for an individual meeting, referred to as the “third rite.” Its use was heavily restricted in 1984 by Pope John Paul II, who stressed the importance of the personal interaction with priests during the sacrament. He told bishops that general absolution could be used only “in cases of grave necessity.”

But Bonnot thinks using the third rite more widely could help educate Catholics about what he called “a forgotten sacrament,” and perhaps lead them back to the personal interaction.

He said that seeing more than a handful of people in the confessional each week would be unusual, and fears that the sacrament’s value isn’t appreciated.

“Acknowledging our sinfulness and experiencing something that makes us aware of the mercy of God is healthy,” he said. “It’s psychologically healthy and it’s spiritually healthy. It’s not beating ourselves up, rather it prompts and honesty about ourselves and the loving mercy of God.”

While many parishes offer the sacrament just once a week or so, with few Catholics lining up for absolution, there are exceptions.

Jennifer Fulwiler said the biggest complaint about trying to make a confession at her parish in Round Rock, Texas, is that the lines are so long – five days per week.

“You get this chance to unload what’s been on your mind, in terms of what you’ve been doing wrong, or ways that you’ve messed up,” she said. “There’s something so cathartic about that. And as Catholics, we believe you get real grace through that, too.”

Fulwiler, who hosts a daily radio show about Catholic issues, said there is something about verbalizing one’s shortcomings to another person that makes confession particularly beneficial.

“Until you’ve done it, it’s hard even to imagine how powerful it is, to actually have to form the words and have another person hear them,” she said. “I think a lot of us don’t want to confess our most private sins.”

But with numbers continuing to dwindle, at least in many parts of the country, Church leaders have invested in a number of programs to boost the number of Catholics who seek out the sacrament, including even an imprimatur for a mobile app.

Called “Confession,” Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend signed off on the app in 2011 as a way to help prepare Catholics for meeting with a priest. But confusion over the app forced the Vatican to weigh in, reminding Catholics that God’s mercy isn’t downloadable.

“It is essential to understand well the sacrament of penitence requires the personal dialogue between the penitent and the confessor and the absolution by the confessor,” a Vatican spokesman said at the time. “One cannot talk in any way about a ‘confession via iPhone.”

Then there are the campaigns some dioceses undertake to raise awareness about the sacrament.

Beginning in 2007, the Archdiocese of Washington and the Diocese of Arlington, for example, placed ads on city buses and bought billboards to promote the sacrament during Lent. Called “The Light is on for You,” the program sees every church in the archdiocese offering confession at the same time on Wednesday evenings during Lent.

Still in use in Washington, the campaign has spread to other dioceses as well, including Denver, Scranton, and Boston.

The Diocese of Dallas, too, used program again this year, said Sister Theresa Khirallah.

“We started this about five years ago as an inititivae to bring people back to the Church during Lent and Easter,” said Sister Khirallah, the director of ministries in the diocese. She said that while the diocese doesn’t count the number of Catholics who partake in the sacrament as a result of the program, many priests reported longer lines than normal.

Dioceses are hoping the pope’s emphasis on confession and the Jubilee of Mercy also might bring some people back to the confessional. In Indianapolis, for example, all 133 parishes offered confession during the “24 Hours for the Lord” campaign.

While the archdiocese didn’t have enough priests to make confession available for the full 24 hours, archdiocesan spokesman Greg Otolski said the goal was to have a priest available in all Catholic churches during “a large chunk of time”. At other times, parishes offered other mercy-themed activities, including prayer, Taize chant, and read excerpts of the pope’s homilies on mercy.

“We want to get to do more to promote reconciliation and to get people to take part in this sacrament, tying it to the year of Mercy,” Otolski said. “It’s a way for us to reach out to people to emphasize this aspect of the faith.”