A Call to Confession, for It Is Fading

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By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 22, 2007

Between Oprah and the therapist's couch, is there any role left for the church confession?

Noting that the number of Catholics taking part in the key rite has plunged, the Archdiocese of Washington is launching its biggest marketing blitz this week, using ads on buses, subway cars, a Route 301 billboard, 100,000 brochures and radio spots in an effort to get people back to the confessional.

The unusual campaign -- whose slogan, "The Light is On for You," shouldn't be confused with Motel 6's promise to "Leave the Light On for You" -- highlights the church's alarm that Catholics are ignoring a fundamental ritual meant to keep them holy and close to God.

Priests and sociologists of Catholicism have theorized about the drop for years. Is it because of a culture that tells us we aren't responsible for what we do wrong? Or could it be something less dark: that the traditional Saturday confession time has simply been gobbled up by youth soccer leagues and errand-mania? Or maybe something more dark: that we don't even know what sin is anymore?

"People go online and confess all sorts of things, but they don't do it in a way of apology. And it's very hard to verbalize what you did wrong," said archdiocese spokeswoman Susan Gibbs, letting loose an admission of her own: "That's why I like to go when I'm in Rome, because I won't know anyone."

The campaign, the first big public endeavor by the new archbishop, Donald Wuerl, is timed to start with Lent, the 40-day period of reflection and penitence that started yesterday, Ash Wednesday. The 100,000 brochures that parishes are distributing lay out rules for the rusty, complete with a pop-out, wallet-size card ("Step 3: Confess all of your sins to the priest. If you are unsure or uneasy, tell him and ask for help."). Starting Wednesday, all 140 churches in the archdiocese will be open for confession from 7 to 8:30 p.m. every Wednesday through Lent.

Parishes have been cutting back the time they set aside for confessions for years; many now allot only 30- or 45-minute blocks or ask for appointments. Years ago, lines at confessionals were long and priests listened for hours.

Also known as the sacrament of reconciliation, confession involves several mandatory steps: being sincerely contrite, articulating to a priest (who stands in the place of Jesus) what was done wrong, apologizing, receiving an assigned penance and being forgiven.

The process has been evolving for centuries. In the 1500s, churches began using screens to protect parishioners' privacy and physical space from priests, said Monsignor Kevin Irwin, dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at Catholic University.

In the ancient church, punishments were sometimes public. Sinners were ordered to do such things as long-term fasts and in some places were seated separately or banned from the church during communion. Today penances can involve the traditional order to recite (and re-recite) prayers, telling a busy parent to spend more time with a child, or mandating a nature hike for perspective on God's creation.

But the biggest changes, church historians say, came in the 1960s, when clergy began preaching more about the sins of racism, militarism and environmental degradation. The '60s also brought the Second Vatican Council, which said -- among many other things -- that eating meat on Friday was no longer a sin.

Priests began talking about sin in different terms, and Catholics wondered: What is it I'm supposed to confess? said Boston College professor James O'Toole, who wrote a social history of confession. The sacrament has "virtually disappeared," he said.

After Vatican II, "the whole idea was changed, it became a much more positive thing, less emphasis on fault and more on improvement," said Mary Gautier, a researcher with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

Vatican II also made a slight change in the confession rite that emphasized a moment at the start of Mass in which parishioners, together, take a moment of penance.

"I think people misunderstood and thought they no longer had to go to confession," said Lawrence Cunningham, a University of Notre Dame theology professor.

Matthew Gallaugher, a government technology worker who lives in Foggy Bottom, said he experiences a "lighter, supernatural feeling" after confession, which he attends at least once a month "to clean out the gunk" of regular life: the bickering with his wife over who would make the bed, the little snip to someone at work.

"I want to become holy, I want to be transformed, to be Christlike," the slim 30-year-old said yesterday outside the downtown church St. Stephen Martyr, where forehead-smeared parishioners poured in at noon for Ash Wednesday Mass.

Clergy say the rise in therapy and self-help may be a contributing factor in the decline in Catholics' going to confession. And though they praise the advancement of mental health care, they also worry that people are forgetting that confession involves more than, well, confessing.

"It's about coming to your senses, asking God's forgiveness, demonstrating if we did wrong we need to do something to prevent that," Irwin, of Catholic University, said.

In a Lent letter to the archdiocese's 580,000 Catholics, Wuerl opens with a secular image, comparing confession with unloading excess "baggage." He adds that the church's power to grant forgiveness through confession is called "the power of the keys" because it is viewed as part of the path to heaven.

According to Gibbs, the archdiocese spokeswoman, watching Internet pornography is the most commonly unloaded baggage to priests, who have been protected under civil law from having to reveal confessions.

From the other side of the divider, Irwin said, confessions feel humbling, like the listener is being used as an instrument to help people connect with God. "It's draining, but spiritually encouraging at the same time. Like a doctor has to diagnose what's wrong; it's the same sort of thing," he said.

Damiana Astudillo, 33, a researcher who lives in Mount Pleasant, said she hasn't been to confession in a decade because she is turned off by what she sees as paternalism among church leaders.

"The Catholic Church is unwilling to adapt to the modern world. They're still hung up on the dogma of ancient times, and life is very complex today," she said yesterday on L Street NW. "I've grown to believe a priest is a man, and he doesn't have the power to forgive. Confession and a prayer? That doesn't work for me anymore."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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