Crunching the Confession Numbers

For many years I’ve had the clear sense that most parishes allot an inadequate amount of time each week for Confession. In my experience, most parishes set aside one hour per week for scheduled Confessions, some set aside two hours, and very few set aside more than that.

What does that all that mean in practical terms? Well, I decided to dust off my calculator to see if there really is a “Confession shortage.”

First, let’s assume a large parish of 2,000 families, such that there are more than 4,000 people who have made their first Confession. This number can be somewhat validated by adding up the number of people at all the weekend Masses that satisfy the Sunday obligation, virtually all of whom receive Communion. Certainly there is always going to be a fair number of nominal Catholics who really do not participate in the sacramental life of the Church. But let’s assume that in our parish there are 4,000 people who consider themselves Catholic and who have already made their first Confession.

Second, let’s assume that the average person needs to spend 15 minutes per year in the confessional, whether it’s 15 minutes all at once or perhaps three five-minute Confessions over the course of the year. I’d suggest that the average adult Catholic needs to spend much more than 15 minutes per year in the confessional (I know I do!), but let’s go with this very conservative number.

If the 4,000 parishioners spend on average 15 minutes in Confession per year, the parish needs to allot 1,000 hours per year for Confession. This amounts to 19 hours per week. Since our parish is on the large side, let’s say we have two priests instead of one, which in many places is an unrealistic luxury. If both priests hear Confessions for two hours on Saturday, that’s still only four hours per week. Even allowing for a certain amount of “catch up” before Easter and Christmas through special Penance services, and taking into account that a handful of people do make appointments for Confession outside of the normally scheduled hours, we can quickly see that this sacrament is drastically under-utilized.

Sacramental Confession is an awesome encounter with the mercy of God. Without regular recourse to the sacrament, our sinful tendencies will likely get the better of us, dragging us and our loved ones deeper into darkness and away from the Lord. Further, this lack of Confession combined with frequent Communion is a deadly mix, as receiving Communion in a state of mortal sin in itself is a mortal sin that drags us down even farther.

There are many reasons for the current situation, and it’s not my intention to here to single out any particular group for criticism, as all of us need to take responsibility for our own spiritual well-being and for the spiritual well-being of those entrusted to our care.

One reason why parishes don’t schedule more Confession hours is because people don’t show up. Maybe we weren’t catechized well, or our pastor doesn’t encourage Confession enough. And maybe our diocese is suffering from a shortage of priests and just doesn’t have the ministers to meet the needs of the faithful. These are all likely factors, and surely there are many others.

But priests do draw encouragement from lay people. I remember how edified my parish priest was twenty years ago when our young adult group showed up en masse for the Saturday evening Confessions. This unanticipated demand led the priest to call in reinforcements (i.e., the pastor) and to stay an hour longer than the scheduled time.

I mention this topic because this situation was the driving force behind our new Faith Basics product. Faith Basics is our new parish-based resource that strives to provide sound adult catechesis on the grass roots level, in a way that’s accessible and even appealing to the average Sunday Catholic.

The first four issues of Faith Basics are now available at www.emmausroad.org. These four issues are devoted to the subject of vocations, and include testimonies, questions and answers, facts and figures, and also short teachings from top-notch bishops such as Archbishops Chaput and Burke, and Bishops Olmsted and Carlson.

The next set of four issues will be on Confession. Once again we have lined up some really good bishops to provide sound catechesis, such as Bishop Finn on examining one’s conscience; Bishop Galeone on the Bible and Confession; Bishop Slattery on being ambassadors of reconciliation; and Bishop Perry on the ABCs of making a good Confession. Msgr. Charles Mangan will again do the questions and answers, and of course there will be several other interesting testimonies and features.

That’s where you come in. We still need a testimony or two to complete this set. Do you have a Confession story to tell? Were you away from the Church for a long time and had a life-changing experience involving Confession? Are you a convert, and found Confession to be much different from what you expected? If you have such a story, email it to email@cuf.org. We’re looking for testimonies in the 300-500 word range. If we use it in Faith Basics we will pay a $50 stipend and also send you a complimentary set of all four issues on Confession.

The point in all this is to stress that we need to teach (and pray) about vocations, and teach (and get to) Confession. Our faith is rooted in our personal relationship with the Lord that begins at Baptism, but those two topics are crucial when it comes to living our Baptism as effective Catholics in the world. We need ministers of God’s mercy. Even more to the point, we need God’s mercy.

5 responses

  1. I believe that far too often, people use the confessional as free psychological help. Instead of paying to see a psychologist, they will tie up a poor priest’s time with twenty minutes of problems while he is trying to hear everyone’s confession in the one hour designated time.
    I feel that if a person is burdened with more than just sin, and still feel the need to see a priest,…they should make an appointment outside of the regular confession time.
    Wouldn’t it be a SIN to monopolize the time of the priest and hold up a line of people waiting to have their confessions heard, just because we may have many questions to ask the priest?
    Then, maybe there should be an “Express Lane” for people who have little to confess, and those who need to bend the ear of the priest on a regular Saturday afternoon, would not be inconveniencing everyone else.

  2. My heart goes out to the people who have been away from the grace of the sacraments for a very long time and are fearful of making their Confession after so long.

    Last year, I made a handout with instructions on how to go to confession, a brief examination of conscience, and the Act of Confession prayer in large print in a box. Some ladies meet in my home for Bible Study on Monday nights, and I offered each of them a handout, in case they had forgotten how to go to Confession. Within the past year, three of these ladies have celebrated the sacrament of Reconciliation, one for the very first time, one after 20 years and another after 40 years. May God be praised!

    When the priest asked one of the ladies why she had been away from the sacrament for so long, she explained that someone had told her that it was no longer necessary to go to confession if you didn’t have any serious mortal sins. She thought that the penitential rite of the Mass took care of everything.

    One of the fruitful things we can do on our way to confession, is to call a friend and invite someone to come along with us. Sometimes it only takes an invitation or a bit of encouragement to bring another person into contact with the merciful and gracious love of God.

  3. Confession times in our archdiocese is typically 11/2 hrs Sat afternoon and 1/2 hr Sat eve. No confessions are avaliable at other times except at forty hrs devotion or the last week of lent or during the occasional retreat. Yet the priests say that not many people go. This may be because we have ” face to face ” confessions only. I’ve gone that way but don’t like it at all. Or the problem may be that confession and sin just aren’t preached anymore. I do know that my own catachesis, eventhough educated in Catholic schools and four yrs in college seminary was pretty lousy. No one ever seemed to get around to sin, temptation, and confession. Things which need constant reiteration year after year and in detail.

  4. Growing up in the late 30s and 40s in my small midwestern town, Confessions were held every Saturday afternoon from 2 to 5 p.m. and again in the evenings from 7 to 9 p.m. – weekly. Every other week, Mother would gather us up and get us to Confession. No one would DARE go to Communion if in the state of mortal sin and often we just simply didn’t go because we felt unworthy and the need of Confession. Confession lines were LONG outside all the confessionals. Communion lines were short and scanty most of the time! I’m not saying this latter was good, but it certainly indicated an understanding of our sinfulness. And we were not encouraged to go to Communion by ushers who went row by row! People went up to Holy Communion from all parts of the church and, of course, in those days, we knelt at the altar rail and only the priest with altar boy went up and down. If there were a large number of communicants, the priests in the rectory (usually one more) would come out to assist the celebrant. I believe the GIRM still requires this – but is it done? Largely, not.

    I believe the people had a greater sense of sin and the need for forgiveness back in those days. We desperately need to get back to this sense of the need for Confession before Holy Communion!

    After Vat. II, where I lived, we were told it was no longer important to get to Confession unless there was serious sin. People generally got the idea that they didn’t need to go and confessions dropped off more and more. The love and mercy of God were emphasized and His justice got short shrift! If anyone is to “blame,” it is the bishops and clergy’s silence on this most necessary and beneficial sacrament! And now they wonder “what happened to Confession?” Of course, we, too, have a duty to work at our own holiness, a responsibility; however, if we get little encouragement from our bishops and priests, we slacken. I also think our priests and bishops have relied too much on the laity to do much of their “work.” Only priests can hear confessions and they seem to have become “lazy” about this, too.

    It’s all a matter of good catechesis. This has been deplorable for many years. I know that the family is the “first teacher” of the faith, but if the parents are not catechized and do not know the faith, how can they pass it on to their children? All the problems we have: lack of vocations, zeal for the faith, openness to life, co-habitation, divorce, etc….begin in the family. Our efforts, the efforts of the Church, need to be concentrated on re-evangelizing the family!

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