The lost sacrament
Sabrina Arena Ferrisi explores how the faithful are coming back to Confession . . .
Talk about being in the right place at the right time. During the 2000 Jubilee in Rome, Pope John Paul II made an unannounced visit to St. Peter’s Basilica on Good Friday. He entered through a side door and — after waving to a group of shocked pilgrims — stepped into a confessional. When a papal aide asked if anyone wanted to confess to the Holy Father, pandemonium erupted. People jumped, shouted and begged to be chosen.
The scene in St. Peter’s Basilica stands in sharp contrast to a typical Saturday afternoon in the confession line at most American parishes. There are no clamoring crowds. Often there isn’t anyone at all.
A 2008 Boston College study reported that a typical New York City parish in 1896 had seven priests on staff who listened to 1,500 confessions per week. Today, most American priests are hearing 20 or fewer per week.
Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., believes the plummeting use of the sacrament has to do with a loss of a sense of sin.
“People’s admission of the reality of sin requires honesty and repentance,” he told Legatus Magazine. “We need to do a better job in catechesis so people realize the beauty, liberation and joy that come from a great confession and absolution.”
Patrick Leinen, cofounder of Little i Apps, a company which specializes in Catholic mobile application development, believes that most Americans are intimidated by Confession.
“There also seems to be a disconnect between practicing the faith and partaking in all the sacraments,” he said.
Leinen, his brother Chip, and their friend Ryan Kreager, decided last year to use their computer skills at the service of the Church. They founded their company and produced an iPhone app to help Catholics return to Confession. Aptly called “Confession: A Roman Catholic App,” their $1.99 download came out in February and caused a media firestorm.
“We got calls from all over the world,” said Leinen, a Franciscan University graduate. “When it was released, the Catholic press immediately understood it. The secular press did not. They thought it was digital Confession. In fact, the Vatican even made a statement explaining that you can’t go to Confession with this.”
The Confession application — available for iPad, iPhone and Android — asks each user to type in their age, gender and vocation. It provides a password-protected profile and a step-by-step guide to the sacrament. The app produces an examination of conscience tailored for each individual. For example, the examination of conscience for a young mother of small children is different from that of an older, single man.
“There is already stuff out there like prayer books online, but this is interactive and you can bring it in with you to Confession,” said Leinen.
In fact, when Bishop Rhoades was asked to give an imprimatur — meaning that nothing contrary to faith or morals has been discovered in the work — he realized this was new territory. The app has the first imprimatur of any electronic application.
“I had no idea that it would generate so much publicity,” said Bishop Rhoades. “I was delighted. It has brought many people back to Confession.”
Leinen concedes that the public’s response far surpassed anything he could have imagined. The app has been downloaded more than 50,000 times since its launch. More importantly, people of all ages are now rediscovering the power of the sacrament.
“We got responses from people who were away from the Church for five, 10, 20 and 30 years,” he said. “It’s been overwhelming. Teenagers have written to tell us that they had been scared of Confession. The London diocese in Canada gave out 500 of our apps for free to get people back to Confession this Lent.”
“For a lot of people, the problem is that Confession is only offered for one hour on Saturday,” said Fr. Donald Calloway, U.S. vocation director for the Marians of the Immaculate Conception. “And if you call to make an appointment, you reveal your identity, making people less inclined to do it. If a parish has confession on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday night, people will show up.”
To address this problem, some dioceses hold special penance services during Lent. The dioceses of New York, Brooklyn and Rockville Center teamed up on April 18 to hold six hours of confession in every parish. They’ve also sponsored a video contest for young people to promote Confession. The campaign — online at i-confess.com — solicited videos between 30-60 seconds. The top prize winner received $25,000.
Equally compelling is a somewhat quirky website inspired by Sham Wow commercials. Developed by the dioceses of Brooklyn and Rockville Center, the video’s “Father Vic” encourages people to get “clean from the inside out” by visiting SoulWow.com. The priest invites people to Confession, and the website provides links for Catholics from both dioceses.
Another major problem seems to be a lack of catechesis with regard to the sacrament of Confession. To this end, several U.S. bishops — from New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan to Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles — issued pastoral letters during Lent this year explaining the need for Confession.
Those who follow the Divine Mercy devotion already have a particular appreciation for the sacrament because of the revelations given to St. Faustina Kowalska. In her diary, Faustina writes about her multiple visions and conversations with Christ.
“Jesus said to St. Faustina that souls are to run to his ‘tribunals of mercy’ to experience his unfathomable mercy. He is so passionate and loving in these revelations,” Fr. Calloway explained. “In the diary, Jesus is described as being in tears, begging people to come back to Confession.”
Father Calloway’s order operates the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy and works to spread the message and devotion to Jesus Christ as The Divine Mercy. Father Calloway speaks not only as a priest but also as one who had a radical conversion because of Christ’s mercy. Before his conversion to Catholicism, he was a high school dropout, deported from a foreign country, institutionalized twice and jailed multiple times. Confession was crucial to his personal transformation.
“Why is Confession so important? Because it’s the guaranteed way that Jesus set up so that we could be forgiven,” he said. “It’s 100% reliable, and without it we’re not living Christianity as He set it up to be. We’re just winging it.”
For those who are tired of “winging it,” there’s no time like the present to seek Christ’s radical mercy in the sacrament of Confession.
Sabrina Arena Ferrisi is a Legatus Magazine staff writer.