Monday, November 11, 2013

A Plea to Pastors

Some recent news stories have reported an increase in the number of people going to confession since Pope Francis ascended to the Holy See. This is a wonderful thing to hear, and we ought all to pray that it continue. If the spiritual life is likened to the bodily life, then this sacrament is medicine for a sick soul, and all of us are suffering from one sort of spiritual illness or another. We all could use a little booster shot of God's grace now and then!

To extend the analogy, it would certainly help if the clinic were open more often. As much as we talk about the vital importance of this sacrament to the spiritual life, most parishes offer confessions very infrequently: most typically, for somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes right before the vigil Mass on Saturday afternoons. But life is busy, and Saturday afternoon seems a busier time than most: you might have to work, or coach a Little League team, or it may be the only time you can work on that home improvement project without the neighbors complaining. There are 10 thousand and eight reasons why any 60 minute block of time may be unavailable to you in a given week.

And in my experience, often the priest shows up 10 or 20 minutes late. Can you imagine a health clinic that only offered flu shots once a week for 45 minutes? Yes, most parishes also say you can make an appointment to have your confession heard. But have you ever tried actually doing this? Whatever time you suggest, odds are the pastor is in a meeting.

God bless our priests, they're often over-extended and over-worked, I know. My point here is not to blame them. My point is to say that if the Church is serious about its words on wanting the faithful to avail themselves of this sacrament more frequently, parishes should make this sacrament available more frequently. The Church teaches us that the Mass is the "source and summit of the Christian life," and it backs this up by offering four, five, six Masses during the weekend, giving people as much of a chance as possible to partake of the Supper of the Lamb. The Church also teaches that the sacrament of Penance is sorely needed for our spiritual health, and it backs this up by... 45 minutes a week? That doesn't add up.

The leadership of the Church knows this, I think. In his 2002 apostolic letter motu proprio Misericordia Dei, soon-to-be-St. John Paul II, as part of an effort to effect a "vigorous revitalization" of the sacrament, directed the bishops and priests of the Church to ensure that this sacrament be made more widely available to the faithful:
"Local Ordinaries, and parish priests and rectors of churches and shrines, should periodically verify that the greatest possible provision is in fact being made for the faithful to confess their sins. It is particularly recommended that in places of worship confessors be visibly present at the advertised times, that these times be adapted to the real circumstances of penitents, and that confessions be especially available before Masses, and even during Mass if there are other priests available, in order to meet the needs of the faithful."
Now, there are lots of reasons that the number of people partaking of this sacrament has been down in recent decades. The biggest, I'm sure, is the loss of the sense of sin, the dulling of our consciences, the defining-down of sinfulness to "I'm basically a good person... I mean, it's not like I kill people... often." This problem also needs to be addressed. But I'm convinced of the Field of Dreams Principle: "If you build it, they will come." If you offer confession more often, more people will participate. I know that priests are often extraordinarily busy, but would it be that much of a demand on your time to offer other half hour periods during the week, three or four days--heck, maybe every day? Look at it this way: if people come, fantastic, you've been a Good Shepherd and reconciled them to God; if people don't come, you can use the time as a daily period for spiritual reading, prayer, homily prep, etc. Work on your crossword puzzle if you want. But be there for us. You are doctors of grace and we need your ministrations.

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