Mercy! So Great a Gift – Why Many Parishes Need to Reconsider When They Offer the Sacrament of Confession

"Исповедь берн собор" by Водник - Transferred from ru.wikipedia; (собственное фото). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
“Исповедь берн собор” by Водник – Transferred from ru.wikipedia; (собственное фото). Licensed
under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

At tonight’s Chrism Mass, the Cardinal chose to focus his remarks to the more than 300 priests in attendance on the beauty of the Sacrament of Confession and the power of mercy. What a magnificent gift the Lord gave His Church through the ministry of priests, that we can hear His blessed words, I absolve you from your sins … go in peace.

My mind goes back to a beautiful story of St. John Paul II and a certain bishop (not of my own diocese). The story was told by the homilist at the funeral of this bishop over a decade ago and I was in attendance. Sadly, the bishop had a fall from grace and was forced to resign after an affair he had with a woman had come to light. Pope John Paul II accepted his resignation but within a month asked the bishop to come to Rome for a meeting. It was with some trepidation that the bishop made the journey. He was led into the meeting room by the usual Vatican staff, but, strangely, they all stepped out of the large, ornate room leaving him quite alone for a few minutes. The door opened and in walked Pope John Paul II, not with his usual entourage, but alone. The bishop was apprehensive, not knowing what to expect. He had let the Holy Father and God’s people down and a thousand nervous thoughts rushed through his mind. As he drew close, Pope John Paul II extended his large, muscular arms and put a hand on each shoulder of the bishop. He looked him in the eye and said, “Are you at peace?”

Relief and a profound sense of mercy flooded the bishop’s heart; his eyes often filled with tears as he recounted the story years later. None of us who heard it at the funeral failed to be moved either. The rest of the meeting with the Pope was never related by the bishop, who held that close to his heart, but he emerged reconciled and at peace. He spent his remaining years quietly ministering to several cloistered religious communities.

There is perhaps no greater gift than to experience the power and beauty of mercy. Yet it is a gift that is often wrapped in pain and in the humiliation of having experienced the true weight of our sins. It is no accident that the opening words of our Lord’s proclamation were “Repent and believe the good news” (Mk 1:15), specifically in that order. For unless we know the bad news, the good news is no news. To repent is to come to a new mind that, beholding God’s glory and holiness, sees the need for mercy. But oh, the glory then of the good news: mercy is available in abundance! God will never reject anyone who calls on Him (Jn 6:37). Oh, the relief, the peace of knowing the effect of those words spoken by God through His priests: “I absolve from your sins … go in peace.”

It is one of the greatest joys of a priest to confer that peace and to say those words, knowing that by his configuration to the Lord in the sacrament of Holy Orders, they are no mere wish; they in fact confer the absolution they announce and offer the only peace that really matters: the Lord’s peace. And as a priest I, too, need to hear those words addressed to me. I go to confession once a week and have no doubt at all that the progress and peace I experience are due to the power and beauty of those words: “I absolve you from your sins … go in peace.” I also give God thanks for the glorious Sacrament of Holy Communion, for His Holy Word in Scripture and Tradition, for the power of prayer, and for the honesty of fellowship with His Church.

In the past few years I became alarmed that the number of confessions was dropping. I added a number of reminders and exhortations to my preaching, but they had only a marginal effect.

Then I remembered an admonition by Fr. Dennis McManus, with whom I studied recently. He told us (most of whom were priests) that people would know we were serious about confession not by our words, but by our deeds. He went on to recite the pathetically limited schedule of confessions in a number of parishes with which he was familiar. In most cases it was barely an hour a week. And even then, it was not uncommon for the priest to show up late. Were there exceptions? Sure. And where exceptions did exist, confessions were numerous. The conclusion was clear: when priests are serious about offering confessions, the faithful are more serious about going.

I had thought I was already generous with offering confessions. I would enter “the box” half an hour before scheduled Masses. But, sadly, I spent a lot of time reading while waiting for penitents. We are not a downtown parish, so noontime confessions did not seem to be a good solution. My parish has a large commuter component due to our specialized liturgies, so many arrive just before Mass and sometimes even a bit late. Confessions just before Mass did not seem to be proving very helpful. I began asking what might work. People said, “Father could you hear confessions after Mass?” Sure.

Some liturgical purists might object, saying that people with serious sins need to go to confession before Mass. Agreed. So I continue to hear confessions before Mass. But now it was time to offer what people needed. After each Mass this Lent, I announced that I was headed to “the box” and that a Lent without confession was a disgrace.

The result? A bumper crop! I often heard more than a dozen confessions after each Mass. With four Masses, that was almost fifty confessions a weekend. And with five weeks of Lent, that was more than 200 confessions. Fr. Dennis was right.

Was I tired? Sure. But it was the right kind of tired. God is good, and many waited patiently in line after each Mass. When they knew I was serious, they were too. I am going to keep up this practice; it will not stop with Lent. After Mass, I make a few quick greetings and then it’s off to “the box.”

I am not here to tell you or any other priest what is right for your parish, but consider these key points. Mercy is a glorious gift and must be celebrated often. Repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be preached in every pulpit. And the same priest who exhorts repentance must be willing to be dedicated to the celebration of the good news of the mercy that comes with that repentance. It surely means expanded confessional times for most parishes, but those times will vary. Actually asking parishioners for suggestions may seem obvious, but what is obvious is not always what is done and “business as usual” tends to prevail.

Encourage your priests. Brother priests, encourage your people and ask what will work for them. When priests are serious, the faithful are too.

Mercy! No greater gift, for it restores us to Jesus. A costly gift? Often, yes. But it’s always worth it. Such precious words: “I absolve you of your sins … go in peace.”

21 Replies to “Mercy! So Great a Gift – Why Many Parishes Need to Reconsider When They Offer the Sacrament of Confession”

  1. Monsignor always finds the BEST videos to accompany his well articulated words!

  2. Amen,, amen and amen. What a beautiful, profound and prodigious sacrament left by The LORD to the Church and administered by HIS Priests to the children of GOD. I remember my general confession to HIS Priest face to face before my Life in the Spirit Seminar in which I confessed my littlest to the gravest of my debilitating sins which held me captured in the darkness and imprisoned in a life without direction. After hearing my confession, he called my wife who had confessed earlier and laid his hands on both of us, we felt the kneeler shook and when we opened our eyes, it is as if we were born into a new world much colorful, more wonderful and much peaceful. Oh how great is The Love of GOD, total, unrelenting and irrevocable. HIS Mercies endureth forever. My only wish is that some priests stop limiting their time for confession and really hear from the depths of their hearts the pains of those who are confessing. Let it not be looked upon as a form of work but a ministry of deeper reconciliation of man to his GOD. YHWH ROPHE!

  3. I have noticed that our local parish, in a city of about 30,000, has Adoration year-round every Monday night from 5 to 7p.m. The parish also offers confessions during that time and seems to have a steady flow throughout. Being now the season of Lent, there have been long lines from beginning to end. I believe that there may be a strong connection to Adoration and Confession being paired together in increasing the number of people who attend. Personally, in trying to at least stop by for weekly Adoration, it wasn’t long before I found myself in weekly confession too!

  4. Father, You are so right. I was blessed to have belonged to a parish with daily confession available including before each Sunday mass. When I moved to the DMV, I lucked out and ended up living near a parish with frequent confessions. Once a week for 45minutes to an hour is not enough time to minister to everyone who needs the sacrament. Calling the rectory to arrange a time destroys anonymity for the penitent.

  5. I go to confession at least once a month, but almost never at my own parish. Other parishes in the area have better availability of confession times such as during the morning or afternoon commute. Thank you for removing scheduling as an obstacle for people to receive absolution!

  6. Father, ur words bring joy to my heart. The beautiful sacrament of penance is such a wonderful gift From God. Thank u for the wise n treasured words.

  7. I have witnessed exactly what you have written. In the dead of summer there are few penitents and the light sometimes comes on late and only stays on for 20 minutes or so. During holiday seasons, especially this Lent, confessions are being heard during mass as well as a prescribed 2 hours on Wednesday evenings in addition to other times. During Holy Week, confessions are being offered daily. People are coming. Lines are often long.

    It is good to see the additional times, but better to see the long lines, though I must confess I dont mind a short wait on occasion.

    I hope Pastors everywhere take note of this and ensure this grace is offered and available as often as practible. Though one can call the parish for an appointment, many will shy away from private confessions. It can be intimidating for anyone who doesn’t yet understand Gods Mercy.

    Thank you for proclaiming this to your readers.

  8. Thank you for this! Another suggestion: perhaps parishes can review the “protocol” for those going to confession. For example, is it easy to see where confessions are held? Is there a process for getting in line with others? Can one tell when the confessional is empty? Is the confessional reasonably sound-proof? All of these can be a hurdle for someone who is gathering up the courage to go. And it’s not uncommon for people to go somewhere other than their home parish.

  9. We have two parishes in town with two daily Masses each and confessions at every single Mass time. My parish offers confessions 11 times a week and the neighboring parish even more times. There are always people coming to confession. I almost always go during the week and leave Saturdays for those who cannot come during the week. The parish with the most confession times has also started perpetual adoration. If a priest is serious about the spiritual well being of his flock, he will have more confession times than 45 minutes on a Saturday in a parish of 3000 families.

  10. Thank you, Msgr Pope, for this necessary post. I’m a priest in Maryland and offer confessions after daily Mass. It’s been 15-45 minutes in the box every day…200-300 confessions in 3 months. They just keep coming in! Rather, God keeps bringing them in. Praise Him. Be generous with offering Confession, Fathers, especially in the upcoming Year of Mercy!

  11. Like many things in life, lots of factors have contributed to the dreadful decline in confessions. Can I suggest two actions that priests could take (realizing that it’s not all up to them – but also realizing their unique shepherding role).

    1. Speak with authority from the pulpit and write with authority in the weekly bulletins. Teach those who never learned; remind those who have forgotten; persuade those who think they know better. We get reminders for the 2nd collection and the food drive…but, in eight years in the ADW, I have rarely heard a sermon on the sacrament of confession.

    2. Back up words with actions – have longer confession hours. Have an hour in the evening, to suit those of us at work all day; or at other times that make sense (after Mass seems to work for some). True, the priest will be there by himself for a while at the start; but worth it to bestow the gift of forgiveness on the one who needs it. Promote these hours in the bulletin, in flyers, on the parish Facebook page…perhaps start a “Confession ministry” with committed folks spreading the word. If you communicate confession as a big deal, people will respond.

    I would add a third option – consider ways to get testimony from parishoners who have seen the gift of confession, perhaps over several years or in the fight against persistent sin. Find ways for them to speak of God’s mercy and ever-welcoming posture.

  12. Thank you Msgr Charles Pope for this wonderful article. The priests in my parish are available all them time. I am very grateful to them for this. I see a lot of people coming for confessions. Thank you and God bless you.

  13. I have been a Catholic for about two years now. While still a Protestant three years ago I went to a men’s conference in Phoenix. At lunch the lines of men going to confession (they had about 30 priests hearing them) must have been a couple of blocks long.

    I remember thinking to myself how it must have pleased Jesus to see so many men confessing their sins. Wow, what a great sacrament (John 20:22-23).

    I go to confession once a month now. What grace is given to us by God in this wonderful sacrament!

  14. Monsignor, can you recommend a good examination of conscience. I only go to confession about 3 or 4 times a year. I know I should go more, but I don’t feel the need to go. I do not want to receive the Eucharist unworthily.

    1. Sorry Lisa, I know that you were asking Msgr Pope this question but I thought that this might help. Here is what I do Pray / Ask God, please God help me to confess everything that separates me from you. Padre pio recommended a daily examination of conscience I try to do this most days before falling asleep. When you are on the receiving end of a bad experience ask yourself if you have ever done the same thing to someone else, usually we have or at least I have / had and I believe it’s God’s way of nudging our consciences. Sometimes I spend a little bit of my time during the week thinking about my 42 years of life and write down things that Enter my mind that I had forgotten about and take this note with me to my next confession. I make sure that I burn the note afterwards. Finally, the Virgin Mary is an amazing intercessor and always comes to our aid if we pray for her help.

  15. Short or sporadic confession times give the penitent the impression that the priest wants the people “in and out”, and so someone who needs a lengthy confession opportunity simply will not go.

    1. Well ok but balance is needed here. If a person needs a “long” confession it is usually best to call and schedule a time. Every priest has to balance the individual need with the common good if there is commonly line.

  16. Connection of Adoration and confession ….. Absolutely. 2Masses a day. With half an hour of confession before eachMass……7 hours ofconfession per week in a parish of 10 years of Perpetual Adoration!! And not a big parish ……they come from other places for adoration and Mass………it is power house!!!!

  17. Connection of Adoration and confession ….. Absolutely. 2Masses a day. With half an hour of confession before eachMass……7 hours ofconfession per week in a parish of 10 years of Perpetual Adoration!! And not a big parish ……they come from other places for adoration and Mass………it is power house!!!! One priest and sometimes visiting priests.

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