CH: Why have confessions dropped off in England but not Kenya?

From the UK’s best Catholic weekly, The Catholic Herald.

Many Catholics in Britain do not grasp how important and rewarding regular Confession can be

Why has the practice dropped off so dramatically here, but not in Italy, say, or Kenya?

By Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith

It is easy to forget that Advent is a penitential season, [We fast before our feasts.] especially if you are invited to numerous Christmas parties before the Christmas season begins, or if you are subjected to Christmas carols (rather than proper advent hymns) in pubs, shops and clubs in the lead up to December 25. But one welcome and counter-cultural development is the Advent penitential service that seems to be a fixture now in many parishes. I have been to several this year already. Almost all parishes seem to have them, and I certainly consider them worthwhile.

The best penitential service is, to my mind, the simplest of all: perhaps an introductory hymn, a prayer, a brief reflection, and then the chance for individual confessions. [Do I hear an “Amen!”?] If there are lots of priests there, the individual penitent does not have to worry that he or she is holding up the queue, but can spend as long as required talking to the priest. And then, having received individual penance and absolution, the people are free to go. I don’t think one really needs anything else.  [“Amen!”, bruthuhs n sistuhs!]

The guided examination of conscience is rather important; it can help a great deal if it is sensitively done. And here we get to the nub of the question. We all know that in recent decades the number of people going to confession in our churches in England and Wales (and I can’t imagine Scotland is much different) has fallen off dramatically. Why is this? It hasn’t happened, strangely enough, in Italy, where people still go to confession in considerable numbers. [?] Or in Kenya, where I often used to hear confessions during days of recollection for young people.

Is there something in our national character which stops us going to confession as often as we might?

Or is it that we simply do not need to go?

Or is it that we have not been properly catechised, and that we do not know just how rewarding regular and frequent confession can be, and indeed how essential for progress in the spiritual life?

I think the answer might be a combination of the first and third options, not the second. I wonder what other people think? And if they have any suggestions that, if put into practice, might lead to a revival of this essential Catholic practice?

I think priests have to move their collective backsides from the comfy chair in the rectory to the comfy chair in the confessional.  I think priests and especially bishops have to preach about and teach about and talk about confession far more often.  I think we need proper confessionals, too.

A few minutes of confessions before Mass will help.

This is the promotion of the “new evangelization”.

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  1. Father K says:

    Why not just use the second rite [say the black do the red]: in his outline Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith curiously omits a reading from Scripture. BTW would the illustration chosen for this article really encourage people to go to confession. I for one don’t think so. Just my opinion.

  2. “I think priests and especially bishops have to preach about and teach about and talk about confession far more often. I think we need proper confessionals, too.”

    Build it, fathers, and they will come. At virtually every Sunday TLM I attend, the line to the confessional is too long for everyone to go before Mass, and some have to wait until after Mass.

  3. Supertradmum says:

    It is a question of catechesis. I was in a woman’s study group and some thought that there was no such thing as mortal or venial sin anymore. Thankfully, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is brilliant on these facts. I partially blame and pray for the clergy, who never talk about sin from the pulpit in the NO. In fact, I can say that in the past eight months, I have not heard but one sermon mentioning sin. No sin, no Confession. The normal British person tolerates evil, accepts sin as normal behavior for some people…

    Dear Pastors, I suggest putting this link in the bulletins of every parish in Great Britain.

  4. Supertradmum says:

    It is a question of catechesis. I was in a woman’s study group and some thought that there was no such thing as mortal or venial sin anymore. Thankfully, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is brilliant on these facts. I partially blame and pray for the clergy, who never talk about sin from the pulpit in the NO. In fact, I can say that in the past eight months, I have not heard but one sermon mentioning sin. No sin, no Confession. The normal British person tolerates evil, accepts sin as normal behavior for some people…

    Dear Pastors, I suggest putting this link in the bulletins of every parish in Great Britain.

  5. Jon says:

    Ditto what Henry says.

    At my FSSP parish, Father hears a long line of confessions before and AFTER Mass on Sundays. The lines are often very long. He also hears them before every other Mass during the week.

    Interestingly, at the diocesan cathedral, not 200 yards up the street, where only the Novus Ordo is celebrated, confessions are heard after noon Mass three days a week as well as the usual Saturday times. You want to be first in line if you need to get back to work, as the line can be 45 minutes to an hour long.

    If you hear them, they will come.

  6. Precentrix says:

    There is something else – the move from the use of the confessional to the cozy reconciliation room. People who, despite everything society (and unfortunately a certain proportion of the clergy) says, are somehow still conscious of sin, are usually ashamed of what they have done. They are much more likely to confess if there is at least the impression of being able to do so anonymously.

    The cozy chat, well, also gives the impression that that is what it is – a cozy chat and not a Sacrament instituted by Christ – that we are just having a little talk with Father Joe rather than an encounter with Christ acting in and through His priest. If we lose sight of the fact that Confession is a Sacrament, then we probably don’t really see the point in going any more.

    Don’t get me wrong – I’m quite happy to go where there is no confessional box, say in the middle of a field on the Chartres pilgrimage. But I do think that it helps to prevent the impression that this precious gift is no more than a little counselling session.

  7. Patti Day says:

    Our pastor has spoken on two Sundays about traveling to other churches in the diocese to help hear confessions, one church where they had five priests and the people were backed up out the doors. He sounds so joyful about it, but he hasn’t invited his own parishioners to make use of the confessional. There are two times printed in the bulletin for confession, before mass on Sundays and before mass on Wednesdays. I’ve never seen anyone go on Wednesday (of course fewer than a half dozen people attend Wednesday mass) and there is often no one to confess on Sunday either, yet not a single person remains behind in the pew at Communion time. Father is losing a golden opportunity to exhort his people to holiness. Father, if you read this blog, please tell us this Sunday, “People you NEED to come to confession to be ready for Our Savior’s birthday.”

  8. asperges says:

    I can hardly think of a EF Mass where Confession isn’t mentioned particularly in the penitential seasons, but the sermons at EF Masses are not the cautious, hesitant and often soft-on-doctrine sermons I hear at some OF Masses – not than I attend these often, but the contrasts are very clear.

    It is not common to see young people at Confession. It is very obvious they think committing sin is unusual and I suspect they have no notion at all of mortal sin or its consequences. The schools are very much to blame for the last disastrous 30 yrs waffle these kids have had to endure instead of sound doctrine. The downgrading of the priesthood (poor liturgy, over-emphasis on the laity, few vocations, Communion in the hand) and an obvious disinterest by some clergy in the sacrament itself have all added to the misunderstanding of why they should go to to a priest in Confession at all: God can do it “direct” online, so to speak, so why put yourself through the angst of one-to-one with all that embarrassment? If a priest just has Confession only on demand, what adolescent is going to knock on his door and face-t0-face have to tell him his sins? It just won’t happen. Weeks turn to months and years of neglect.

    When the Confessional door is ajar and anonymity is assured, that can be a different matter. Some churches are now making a huge effort to put on regular, even daily, Confession (eg our local Cathedral). This is a commitment to a neglected Sacrament and a wonderful opportunity. It is the way back.

  9. Jenny says:

    My priest does a great job preaching about the need for Confession, but then he only schedules them at 4 on Saturday afternoons which is near impossible for me. I think every parish in the diocese has Confession scheduled at 4 on Saturday afternoon. The week before Christmas and during Holy Week he schedules a lot of Confession time during the week which is great. And every time I request he schedule a weekday evening Confession time once a month and every time he defers. :(

  10. rtjl says:

    How’s this for a simple penitential service. Put the Blessed Sacrament exposed on the altar. Park you but in the confessional and wait. You can pray while you are waiting. You can provide literature explaining Confession, outlining examinations of conscience, outlining the ritual and reassuring people of the fact that the priest is prepared to help them confess if they are not sure how to do it. Do this all Friday Evenings and/or Saturday mornings in penitential seasons and one Friday Evening and/or Saturday morning a month outside of penitential seasons. Do it consistently and people will come.

    Seriously though. The single biggest reason why most people don’t go to confession is simply that it is hard. It is not easy to face up to one’s sins and to tell things to a priest that one doesn’t may not even tell to one’s best friend. It is embarrassing, difficult and takes real courage. It doesn’t matter how many times you hear that priests have heard it all before and they won’t be hearing anything new. It is hard. People need more than simply being reminded of that. That’s where exposition comes in.

    With the Blessed Sacrament exposed, maybe people will come and maybe they will leave without mustering the courage to enter the confessional. Maybe they will do that the first time but they will have gotten something out of the time they spent in front of the Blessed Sacrament anyway. The Lord will have drawn then closer to Himself, even if He has not drawn them right into the confessional. And maybe they will come and leave with out confessing again. And maybe again. Eventually though, they will get the courage and enter the confessional and once they do that, if opportunities for confessing are offered regularly, they will find it much easier to build a habit of confessing.

    My point is that it takes time to build up the courage needed to confess. If confession is only offered 15 minutes before week day masses when most people are at work and maybe 20 minutes before Sunday masses when they might be busy with other preparations for mass and attending to their family’s, they will probably NEVER get their courage up. We need to make confession as easy as possible and I believe giving people the time they need to muster their courage, and the time to be helped in doing so by the Lord, is one of the best things we can do. But we have to do it regularly at times that they are able to take advantage of.

    I am sure there are liturgists out there who will come up with a multitude of reasons why it is inappropriate to hear confessions while the Blessed Sacrament is exposed, but I can’t think of any good reasons. If it’s bad liturgy (for lack of a better word), it seems to me that it is good psychology. It gives people what they need to take the plunge: time and the Lord’s own help.

  11. Joseph-Mary says:

    Daily confessions mean people will be coming to confession daily! As simple as that.

    And even the big ‘penitential’ twice a year confession with 7 priests or so are well attended; I do not go then but my husband waited over an hour last night at my parish for a confessor.

    It was the big parish with 45 minutes for confession on a Saturday that had very few ever come because the Sacrament was given no prominence.

  12. Will D. says:

    The best penitential service is, to my mind, the simplest of all: perhaps an introductory hymn, a prayer, a brief reflection, and then the chance for individual confessions.

    My parish priest has simplified it even more. The Eucharist is exposed for Adoration and then he goes into the Reconciliation Room* and hears confessions for an hour or so.

    *The church was built in 1972, so that’s all we’ve got.

  13. SimpleCatholic says:

    Now here’s a great idea for a USEFUL Christmas present for your priest that he may not have: why not buy him one of those comfy obus forme back rests (or something similar) to give him some physical comfort during the hours he (should be) in the confessional. It would be a very gentle way of encouraging him to spend more time there and letting him know that you appreciate him being there. And if your priest says the TLM, get him the deluxe model with massage!

  14. Cathy says:

    It just occurred to me, that I have never seen the priests in my parish in line at the confessional. I know it might sound strange, but there is something profoundly imprinted on a child’s heart when they see practiced what is preached. One might speak well of devotion and adoration of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, and then there is preaching without words, simply put, seeing the one who preaches devoted and adoring.

  15. RichR says:

    Confession is THE hidden treasure of the Church. It has changed my life.

  16. Volanges says:

    It’s unfortunate that in our parish there is no scheduled time for confession — there is never a priest waiting in the Reconciliation Room (at least it does have a curtain and anonymity if we want it), you have to go tap him on the shoulder if he shows up more than 5 minutes before Mass.
    In spite of that, or perhaps because of it (after all, if Confession was important Fr. would be there regularly wouldn’t he?) the last time we had a Penitential Service (last Easter) only about 15 people showed up (from a parish population of ~1500) and most didn’t stay for the private confessions that were available. Could it also have something to do with the homilies always being about how God loves us and forgives us anything we could possibly do but never about our need to repent and confess those things?

  17. JimP says:

    I can’t comment on Kenya or the UK, but in the USA, I think that one reason is that many priests don’t seem to think it’s important enough to encourage it or make it readily available. In my parish, confessions are scheduled for 45 minutes on Friday morning and 90 minutes on Saturday morning. Both times are difficult for me to make. Most nearby parishes have the near standard 45 minutes at 4:00 PM Saturday. Fortunately, there is a nearby parish which also offers confessions on Wednesday evening, but with 4 priests assigned, I have usually seen that there is only 1 hearing confessions. There is usually a line, and people come and leave without confessing because of the wait.

    At my parish, I have heard only one of the parochial vicars mention the need for confession in a homily. He is also the only one who uses the Confiteor for the penitential rite.

    I know that there are exceptions. While traveling, I have visited parishes where confessions are scheduled before and after each daily Mass. When I’ve gone to confession at those parishes, there was usually a line.

    As rtjl says, confession can be hard. The examination of conscience forces us to face our sins, which we would like to forget. The reward is the knowledge that when we receive absolution, the Lord Himself forgets our sins

  18. APX says:

    Confession is THE hidden treasure of the Church. It has changed my life.

    Mmm hmm. Coincidentally enough, today I was told by my supervisor that I’ve changed a lot since I started this fall. Apparently I’m happier, and more pleasant to be around, the wall has come down, etc. The only changes I’ve made since then is weekly Confession and attending daily Mass whenever I can.

    I do feel…different…than I did before. Kinda like being high on graces.

    I can’t believe priests and bishops aren’t promoting Confession.

  19. kiwitrad says:

    Every church in our city has confessions from 9-9.30am on Saturday morning. The Cathedral also has confessions during Holy Hour on Fridays 11.30am -12. Hardly anyone goes to confession.

    I would like to go more often than I do but I get so frustrated because our priest blames all ones sins on ones childhood ( he knows nothing about mine). Last time I finally rebelled after he blamed my current crop of sins on my ‘overstrict Catholic family’ and said “Father I did not have that kind of family. My father was not a Catholic and my mother was non practising. I sin BECAUSE I AM A SINNER!” I haven’t dared go back since.

  20. NoraLee9 says:

    In reference to priests in line at the confessional:
    I had managed to drag one of the fathers preparing for EF Mass at Holy Innocents, NYC, out of the sacristy and into the box. The line was queueing up. Another Father, who was due to assist on the altar (it was one of those super-high events) came in wearing his cassock. I guess I was a familiar face, and I was next up. “May I get in front of you, ma’am,” he asked. “I have to vest in a few minutes.”
    “I am honored to be of assistance, Father,” said I.
    Also, it is a badly kept secret that many priests go to St. Francis Assisi in NYC. They used to hear all day. Now they hear 9-11, 1-3, and 4-6:30, which is sort of all day.

  21. Joan A. says:

    Advent is not a penitential season. This is a classic case of repeating something often enough and after a while everyone believes it. In fact, I’m sure whoever is reading this right now is thinking what an ignorant Catholic I am because “everyone knows” Advent is a penitential season.

    I have discussed this in depth with an extremely knowledgeable priest [Oh boy!] and, believe it or not, but I state for the record: Lent is the only penitential season. Advent is a season of EXPECTATION and PREPARATION. There is a difference.

    In Lent we are sacrificing, getting down to the basics in our churches, homes, and lives, stripping away luxuries and adding more prayer and charity, fasting and abstaining, giving up something or adding an extra devotion or work. If we are penitential, we truly suffer albeit in a small way, joining those sufferings to Our Lord’s.

    In Advent we also get down to basics, but with a spirit of joyful anticipation rather than sacrifice. We add things, not take them away, such as the Advent wreath, the Creche, decorations, and special prayers that have a hopeful and encouraging tone. We are looking forward, as we are in Lent, but it is with an expectation of Mary giving birth to our Savior.

    Therefore all of Advent is, as the word means, a beginning – a time of wonder, excitement and pondering the meaning of new life and eternal life. [A time of penance, thinking about the Second Coming of the Lord as Judge when the world will be unmade in fire.]

    Advent, in the Church and in the secular world, is also filled with big plans to give and help others. Food drives, toy drives, clothing drives. But we participate in these not in a spirit of sacrifice but almost always giving of our excess, going thru the closets for those unused coats and sweaters that we can put in the needy collection. I need not mention presents galore!

    The children are rehearsing a play, the choir is adding extra music, perhaps there are parties and caroling. All this is definitely not penitential, nor should it be. It’s all getting ready, expecting the baby Jesus. All is sharing, giving, laughing, decking the halls, raising the eyes in glorious anticipation of a Star in the East.

    Lent, in stark contrast, is inward-focused. Penance, self-sacrifice and self-improvement. The Stations of the Cross, Adoration of the Cross, O Sacred Head Surrounded. We merge our lives with Christ’s suffering.

    In Advent we join Mary and Joseph’s journey outward to Bethlehem, as we reach out to others in expectation and joy. We are not giddy or silly, but we focus deeply on the meaning of anticipation of God’s gift to the world. Certainly anyone can perform penance during this time, but that is not the defining aspect of the Season.

    [WRONG. C-]

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