PITTSBURGH — What’s the secret to bringing Catholics back to confession? According to priests with parishes that have strong cultures of confession, how the priest approaches the sacrament of reconciliation and also makes it available to the faithful at times convenient for them is key.

A poll conducted in November by EWTN News & RealClear Politics showed approximately 36% of Catholics go to confession at least once a year, which is the minimum frequency required by the Catholic Church. Even among self-described “most active” Catholics, who say they accept all or most of the Church’s teachings, only 52% go to confession at least once a year.

Only 6% of Catholics are going at least once a month to the sacrament of reconciliation, an interval that is within the frequency recommended by confessors and recent popes. And that was before the coronavirus pandemic interrupted normal confession routines.

St. John Paul II, who went to confession weekly, recommended frequent confession “at least once a month,” and Pope Francis has said he goes every two weeks.

“We are all sinners. Even the pope goes to confession every two weeks because the pope, too, is a sinner," Pope Francis said in 2013, the year he became pope. “My confessor hears what I say, offers me advice and forgives me. We all need this.”

Canon William Avis of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, the pastor of Most Precious Blood parish in Pittsburgh, told the Register that, normally (under non-pandemic situations), confession there starts a half-hour before Sunday Masses and then keeps going until the conclusion of Mass. The parish offers Mass at noon on weekdays and then has a 7pm evening Mass on Tuesdays and Fridays. Confession starts a half-hour before these Masses.

The parish is run by the institute, and so has two priests on hand, allowing one to hear confessions while the other offers Mass.

“The big thing is having the opportunity,” Canon Avis said. By providing confession when people are already there for Mass, he said, it not only allows them to receive the sacrament regularly, but the example of people going to confession stirs others to do the same.

 “When people start seeing people in line for confession, then they have something that moves them a little bit to say, ‘Well, yeah, I need to get to confession, too,’ and then they get in line,” he said.

Canon Avis explained that creating a culture where frequent sacramental confession is normal in Catholic life really depends on how the clergy approach confession. If they downplay the seriousness of sin or the need to reconcile with God, people will not realize what God is offering them in the sacrament, which is first and foremost about “reconciliation with God.”

He added that canon law recommends that clergy go to confession every two weeks, and laity should have recourse to the sacrament at least as much, if not more.

The canon also said people should take a lesson from the great concern surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“If we’re willing to go through such efforts to save the life of the body, which eventually is going to die anyway, we should make stronger efforts to save the life of the soul, which will live on in eternity,” he said.


Coronavirus Challenge Varies

The extraordinary nature of the rapidly changing public-health challenges of the COVID-19 coronavirus have also challenged dioceses nationwide, which are trying to provide policies for sacramental confession in accordance with the public-health orders of local, state and federal officials. For some priests, this has meant providing confession with social distancing and disinfection procedures, including innovative ideas such as the “drive-thru confessional.” For other priests in severe outbreaks where public-health stay-at-home orders have been issued and public gatherings banned, the ability to offer sacramental confession in a confidential setting may be nigh impossible.

The Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary on March 20 stated it is “up to the diocesan bishop to indicate to priests and penitents the prudent attentions to be adopted in the individual celebration of sacramental reconciliation, such as the celebration in a ventilated place outside the confessional, the adoption of a suitable distance, the use of protective masks, without prejudice to absolute attention to the safeguarding of the sacramental seal and necessary discretion.”

The Vatican stated it is up to the diocesan bishop to determine the “cases of grave necessity” for authorizing general absolution, given the level of pandemic contagion in his diocese. For the faithful bereft of sacramental confession, the Vatican stated that perfect contrition with an intention to go to sacramental confession as soon as possible “obtains forgiveness of sins, even mortal ones.”


Making Confession Convenient

When Father J.D. Jaffe arrived at Christ the Redeemer Catholic Church in Sterling, Virginia, he was taking over as pastor from a religious order that only offered confession for a half-hour on Saturday afternoons. But he told the Register that approach did not take into account what times were convenient for the faithful, particularly families, to attend confession.

“Saturday afternoon does not seem like the best time for a family to be having confession,” he said. Even though it’s almost “a tradition” in parishes, that time is during generally soccer games and family activities and requires people to “stop what you’re doing in the middle of the day” in order to go.

So he expanded the hours for Saturday confession in the morning and evening and started to look around at what other parishes were doing.

He saw a nearby parish offered confessions in the evenings during the week, so for Advent and the Lent/Easter season, they decided to offer morning weekday confessions, from 7-8am.

“People bring their kids before they go to school,” he said, referring to the normal conditions before the coronavirus pandemic hit. “Some come to confession before they go off to work.”

Father Jaffe said under normal conditions he offers confessions after the Spanish Masses because that’s often those parishioners’ main opportunity for getting the sacrament.

If priests of parishes within reasonable driving distance work together, he explained, they can help provide comprehensive coverage for the faithful to access confession.

“From the standpoint of the Church, the key has to be ‘let’s figure out when people can come, and let’s offer confessions then and be generous with those confessions,’” he said.


Lambs in the Confessional

But Father Jaffe said one thing he has learned over 17 years of priesthood is the critical importance of making people comfortable with confession. When Christ the Redeemer normally has confession, chant music plays gently in the background, keeping the atmosphere calm and peaceful.

At the same time, he said, the priest needs to make sure his people know confession is a positive experience of God’s mercy. A bad experience in the confessional, he added, can do a lot of damage and drive a person away for decades.

In the pulpit, he said, “we need to preach the truth boldly and be that lion roaring, just like John the Baptist in the wilderness, that Jesus Christ is here. But then when it comes to those moments of encounter [in the confessional], we need to be that merciful lamb.”

Priests themselves, he said, need frequent confession — and they need to remember the advice of a seminary professor who told him and his fellow seminarians to “be that kind, merciful priest that you were longing for when you most needed it.”

“It’s something I remember every time I’m in the confessional, and I’m not afraid to tell the people that either, in my homilies on confession, that this is my goal,” he said.

Another aspect is preaching about penance. Many people will approach confession like it’s “checking a box and getting the slate wiped clean,” when it needs to be “a moment of encountering God’s merciful love.”

He said approaching confession with the attitude of “I’ve got to try harder” like a person needs to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” is “almost like a sinful attitude” because it sends the message that they’re going to overcome sin or can conquer sin by themselves.

“The reality is we need to leave confessional going, ‘Wow, Lord, I’m so grateful for your mercy. I need to rely upon you more. How can I rely upon you more? How can I leave this confessional saying, ‘Okay, Jesus, it’s now you and me,’” he said.

Helping Catholics take this approach to confession can help them overcome bad experiences or overcome attitudes of fear and shame that burden them. After all, he said, confession is a time to unburden their souls.


Inspire, Motivate, Direct

Father Ian VanHeusen, a campus minister at East Carolina University’s Newman Center and parochial vicar at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Greenville, North Carolina, said one challenge for confession is priests and penitents don’t have “a growth mentality.”

Father VanHeusen said the Church’s tradition of ascetical-mystical theology can equip priests with the idea that people grow in stages, what that looks like, and how to practically help people move through those stages.

“With that growth mentality, people are more motivated,” he said. The problem is that it is not required learning in seminary, which means that many priests need to learn it on their own.

One of the frequent challenges he meets is what he calls a “dump confession.” This is where a person is unloading “a lot of emotional baggage” for several minutes, but “they really never confess the sin.”

But that is the point where a priest has to gently walk with the penitent through the Ten Commandments and see where their heart is in relation to each one. Many times, he explained, it is not a mortal sin the person is dealing with, but an experience of spiritual desolation.

In confessions where a person is dealing with mortal sin, ascetical-mystical theology can help a priest discern whether there’s an underlying spiritual or psychological problem or addiction that is really behind the sin that needs to be addressed.

In either case, the spiritual insights of St. Ignatius of Loyola or St. Alphonsus Liguori can help the priest provide the penitent direction.

“All these tools give you a way to help people and to understand what they’re going through,” he said. With regular penitents, confession can be an opportunity to encourage them in spiritual ascent by celebrating little victories with Christ while helping them to rise again after a fall.

“You’ve got to inspire, motivate and direct,” he said.

Father VanHeusen said normally his average confessions take three minutes. He cautioned against priests who drag out confession into a kind of “therapy session” that is 10, 15 or 20 minutes long that “zaps your energy.”

Confession is not a therapy session or a replacement for psychotherapy, even though it can have good effects on one’s mental health.

“I mean, a good therapy session or even a good spiritual-direction session needs about an hour, or at least 45 minutes, sometimes a half-hour, and you just don’t have that for confession,” he said. “One thing that priests should consider is if there’s a longer conversation that needs to happen, I direct them to schedule an appointment outside of confession.”

And until the coronavirus pandemic subsides, those conversations will take place with appropriate social distance.


Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.