27 February 2009

If You Preach It, They Will Come

photo above by Christopher Capozziello from the Times story
The New York Times writes about the steps one priest took to encourage frequent confession in his parish, and the remarkable success his efforts have produced. Excerpts from the full story:

In One Church, Confession Makes a Comeback


STAMFORD, Conn. — The day after Msgr. Stephen DiGiovanni was installed in June 1998 as the pastor of St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church here, he walked through the quiet sanctuary, appreciating the English Gothic grandeur and tallying all the repairs it required.

One particular sight seized him. The confessional at the rear of the pews had been nailed shut. The confessional in the front, nearer the altar, was filled with air-conditioning equipment. And these conditions, Monsignor DiGiovanni realized, reflected theology as much as finance.

In the wake of the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, the Catholic Church began offering confession in “reconciliation rooms,” rather than the traditional booths. Even before the setting changed, habits had. The norm for American Catholics was to make confession once a year, generally in the penitential period of Lent leading up to Easter.

Monsignor DiGiovanni, though, soon noticed that there were lines for the St. John’s reconciliation room the only time it was open each week, for two hours on Saturday afternoon. So within his first month as pastor, he pried open the door to the rear confessional, wiped off the dust of decades and arranged for replacing the lights, drapes and tiles.

Then, in the fall of 1998, Monsignor DiGiovanni rolled back the clock of Catholic practice, having St. John’s priests hear confession in the booths before virtually every Mass. By now, as another Lent commences next week with Ash Wednesday, upwards of 450 people engage in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, as confession is formally known, during 15 time slots spread over all seven days of the week. Confessions are heard in English, Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese.

“As humans, we’re always deciding that we are God and breaking his commandments,” said Monsignor DiGiovanni, 58, during an interview this week in his rectory. “But God is savvy enough to know that. And God wants us to come back to Him if there’s a contrite heart. Salvation is not just a one-time deal.”

His message has stirred scores of consciences at St. John’s. And while the frequency of confession, and the return to booths from the reconciliation room, puts the pastor and the parish on the conservative end of the Catholic spectrum, St. John’s is a standard diocesan church with a varied congregation — corporate executives, Haitian and Hispanic immigrants, Stamford’s longtime Irish and Italian middle class.

Rosa Marchetti, an events planner for a family-owned chain of restaurants, had grown up dreading the rite of confession. The reconciliation room, while intended to allow priest and penitent to meet in a reassuring face-to-face manner something like analyst and analysand, filled her with anxiety and shame. Six years ago, Ms. Marchetti began attending St. John’s, and these days she makes a confession at least twice a month. Speaking to an unseen priest through a screen seems to her a comfort.

“I’d always feared that the priests would know it was me, and I never wanted to think I’d done something wrong,” she recalled of her earlier experiences. “But at St. John’s, it was explained to me that I go to the doctor for my physical well being and I have to go to confession for my spiritual well being.”


“You turn on Oprah and you have women crying to her, confessing what they’ve gone through,” Ms. Marchetti said. “Everyone is so quick to tell the world their problems, but they won’t tell a priest.”


It remains to be seen, of course, whether the multimedia effort can change behavior on a grand scale. Monsignor DiGiovanni has changed it within his parish through a theological version of retail politics: reaching individuals and families through a decade of homilies, conversations and columns in the church bulletin.

The movement to revive confession, using the traditional booth, no less, has plenty of skeptics within American Catholicism.

“Confession as we once knew it is pretty much a dead letter in Catholicism today,” the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, wrote in an e-mail message.

Father McBrien, whose support of female ordination and married priest puts him on the theological left wing of the Catholic Church, added in a subsequent e-mail message that “the practice at the Stamford parish is an anomaly, not a sign of anything else” and at best “part of a small minority” of churches.

Majority or minority, the congregants at St. John’s firmly believe they are onto something. John F. X. Leydon, Jr., a lawyer in Stamford, has increased his pace of confession from once a year to once a month. The eldest of his four children, Mary, will be making her first confession this spring.

“The explanation we’ve given as parents is that none of us is perfect,” said Mr. Leydon, speaking also for his wife, Stacey. “However, we have to aspire to be perfect. And that should be a lifelong pursuit.”


Father G said...

“Confession as we once knew it is pretty much a dead letter in Catholicism today,” the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, wrote in an e-mail message.

What a hoot...this guy...I thought he was dead. Oh well, he may as well be. He needs to come to my parish, we have confessions before each mass(weekdays and Sundays) and Saturday afternoon and the lines are long...all year round not just during Lent. Confessions a dead letter...not where I'm from Father...and thank God!

Wm said...

Do away with face to face confession (reconciliation) rooms! If people need a shrink, they should find one in the Yellow Pages. Absolution is for sinners! Guilty, shame-faced miscreants require the hush and anonymity of the confessional booth and the proposition that Christ himself in on the other side of that screen.

Long-Skirts said...

Rev. McBrien and those looking to vilify Bishop Williamson, as the most evil of men, will never be happy until Bishop Williamson completely denies Christ, therefore His Sacraments, i.e. Confession and the Office of the Holy Priesthood and then the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.


I sat upon my back porch step,
One dark, Good Friday noon,
And saw a robin red-breast rest,
To sing a soft, sad tune.

The melody, it brought me tears,
As damp, cool winds blew by.
My soul, it felt the stab of spears...
My sins, that made Him die.

But robin of Good Friday noon,
Your blood-red breast reminds...
That we must stop...confess our sins,
Now death...she holds no binds.

And when on dark, Good Friday noons,
Red-breasted robin sings,
Confess your sins at Sacrament
And sprout red-robin wings.

Anonymous said...


The virtual cessation of the practice of the sacrament of Confession WAS a true part of the Vatican II Renewal.

The change was NOT an accident or some misunderstanding of Vatican II.

The popes and the bishops were in full command of the Church over the 40 years that followed the Council.

In the end, you must pick: either be a Catholic, or be a devotee of Vatican II.

All the Catholics who attend mass at places like St. Francis de Sales Oratory have made their choice.

Archbishop Burke, I believe, is secretly dead set against Vatican II and its false, disastrous "renewal," and set up the Oratory as a kind of missionary parish to reach the rest of the Archdiocese with the Catholic Faith.

Pope Benedict XVI, when he lifted the excommunications of the SSPX bishops, showed us clearly that one can reject the doctrinal novelties of Vatican II, since those bishops have said over and over and over again that they do not accept and will never accept the doctrinal novelties of Vatican II.

I don't accept them either.

And you don't have to either, no matter what B'nai B'rith International or Cardinal Roger Mahoney may say.

I hate Vatican II right along with how I hate the Nazi Movement, the Communist Movement, the New Atheists, the Abortion Holocaust, World War II, slavery in America, and the Mexican-American War of 1846-48.

The Vatican II Movement has spiritually killed millions upon millions of people.

I'm not saying anything that the SSPX bishops and priests haven't said over and over again. Check out their publication Angelus Magazine.


Anonymous said...

In my diocese (Phoenix), there are only two parishes that I know of that have the traditional confessional and use it. Those parishes are Saint Thomas and Saint Catherine of Sienna. Both parishes, incidentally, also have daily traditional latin Masses.

All other parishes in the diocese (to my knowledge) have all sorts of other confessional arrangements -- screen/no screen; room with 2 chairs; 2 chairs out in the open; kneeler, no kneeler, kneeler in one room with a screen and a chair; transparent screen with kneeler attached; et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

So, one item of interest that came out of this situation is that the parish of Saint Thomas noted in one of their bulletins a few months back, that many of the visitors to their confessionals were coming from other parishes. I might be wrong in my reasoning; but it appears to me that their use of the traditional confessional is likely a great deal of the reason behind this in-migration.

The traditional confessional works. It makes it as easy as possible for sinners to confess their sins, including the worst sorts of sins that they've ever committed. And the worst sorts of sins, of course, are precisely what the Church should be endeavoring to get Catholics to confess, if at all possible. All other non-traditional arrangements of confessionals, however, appear to make it excessively humiliating and difficult to confess one's sins.

And I have to admit that this appears to be at least part of the reason for the other, non-traditional arrangements -- to make it difficult for people to confess their sins. I don't blame the priests for this, by the way, but evil principalities and power: "For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places." -- The Epistle Of Saint Paul To The Ephesians 6:12.

I simply can't imagine any other reason for holding confessions in any other arrangement than the traditional one. And no, I don't believe that adults or children actually feel that the traditional confessional is 'intimidating'. If that were true, parishes that have non-traditional confessional arrangements would be hearing a demonstrably greater number of confessions; and that doesn't appear to be happening. If anyone has evidence to the contrary, please be sure to submit it here, and I'll take a look at your evidence.

Anyway, there's a question I've had on my mind for a while now, and this is a good opportunity to put it 'out there' for some feedback: In my religious readings, I have come to learn that both the Blessed Mother Theresa and Saint Faustina were not afforded anonymity in their confessions. In other words, their confessors knew whose sins they were absolving.

Also, while I have no evidence, it is also likely the case that other saints and religious have also gone without anonymity in their confessions. And, of course, there are likely many of the Church Militant in small parishes around the world who also go without anonymity whenever they confess their sins, simply because their voice is known to their pastor or confessor.

So, what does canon law have to say on the matter (if anything)? Do Catholics have the right -- or, say, as much right as possible -- to anonymity for confessions that are held during the normally-scheduled confession times? Do they have a right to a truly opaque confessional screen? Do they have the right to a traditional confessional (Crucifix, kneeler, opaque screen, closed door)? Are any of these things to be considered a 'right' of the faithful? Personally, I have had many confessions where my identity was known by the priest hearing my confession (in all sorts of 'confessional' configurations); and I have also had many anonymous confessions in traditional confessionals.

I believe the situation would be improved at least to some small extant if parishes everywhere were to re-adopt the traditional confessional. Or am I wrong? Is it simply the case that whoever is led by the Holy Spirit to confess their sins will do so, regardless of the sort of confessional they find themselves in? Saint Padre Pio said that anyone who has the courage to sin against God should then also have the courage to confess those same sins. At this point in my life I've had many confessions, and I find myself in agreement with Saint Padre Pio -- regardless of the arrangements. But I will make it to a traditional confessional during the appointed confessional hours if at all possible, as that is my strong preference.

What do you think?

thanks in advance for any and all future feedback,

- Keith