Is there still a place for Catholic confession?by Nikki Tundel, Minnesota Public Radio
Pope Benedict is calling on Catholics to rediscover the practice of confession. Seeking forgiveness for one's sins is one the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. But participation in the holy ritual has declined drastically over the last four decades. Today 75 percent of American Catholics say they don't see the importance of formal confession.
St. Paul, Minn. — Americans seem to be in the midst of a confession obsession.
Teary-eyed couples sit on Oprah's couch, sharing stories of infidelity. Authors churn out memoirs detailing their drug abuse. And Web sites like mysecret.tv and ivescrewedup.com are flooded with admissions of everything from pornography addiction to embezzlement.
It seems the only place not buzzing with mea culpas is the confessional booth.
The Catholic Church encourages followers to confess their sins to a priest at least once a month. But these days, just 2 percent of American Catholics maintain such a routine.
Bridget Cusick of Minneapolis attends mass once a week, sometimes twice. But this devoted Catholic abandoned the confessional long ago. She's more than willing to admit her sins to God. She just doesn't see the need for a middleman.
"A supposedly, and I believe, all-knowing, all-seeing being probably doesn't need for an ordained minister to say, 'OK, she really does deserve forgiveness,' before it's granted," said Cusick.
Church pews are packed with those who've adopted the do-it-yourself approach to confession.
"Can't I just talk to God? Or can't I talk to the person I sinned against?"
When it comes to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, as confession is formally known, St. Paul's Ann Brady is a bit of a cynic. And she has been since the age of 7.
"I remember going into a box with velvet curtains, and you could kinda see the priest through a screen. Sometimes he'd be flipping through a magazine," recalled Brady. "I'd be like, 'You aren't even listening.' I'd start saying this crazy stuff just to get a reaction, like, 'I set fire to the house. I stole a car. I pushed my mom down the steps.' And the priest wouldn't have any kind of reaction."
"He was probably reading Sports Illustrated in the box and didn't think I could see him," she said.
Brady gave up on confession before she was even confirmed.
Statisticians often label people like her "cafeteria Catholics," meaning they prefer their religious rituals a la carte. Sunday hymns -- yes. Confession -- no, thanks.
Father John Paul Erickson is the director of the Office of Worship for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. He says confession is often equated with counseling or 12-step programs, or any of the other opportunities people have these days to talk through their transgressions.
That interpretation, argues Erickson, overlooks the most important part of confession -- forgiveness.
"To be able to tell people who have done awful, terrible things," explained Erickson, "mothers who have abandoned their child, children who have abandoned their parents, people who have broken vows, to be able to tell them, 'You are loved. You are forgiven. It doesn't make everything all right, but you are forgiven,' that's a tremendous gift."
According to the Church's teachings, when the faithful admit their misdeeds, it's not the priest who forgives them, it's God himself. The priest is simply the medium for the message.
To hear Father Joseph Johnson, rector of the Cathedral of St. Paul, explain it, therapy can help get things off your chest. But only confession can cleanse your soul.
"God is the best psychologist. Not only do I need to say I'm sorry to Him, but I need to hear Him say 'I forgive you.' Otherwise you can't have that peace," said Johnson. "Was I sorry enough? Did I say it loudly enough to God? Did I say it sincerely enough? I need to hear the Lord saying to me, 'I forgive you of your sins.'"
As the overall percentage of Catholics participating in the formal confession process continues to drop, there is one demographic for whom reconciliation is on the rise -- young adults.
Over the last three years, churches across the country have seen a jump in the number of 20-somethings coming in to confess. Among them is John Rogers of Eden Prairie.
"When I was younger, I didn't see it as very necessary. This was something you did if you murdered someone or you stole a bunch of money," said Rogers. "But I realized over time it's necessary to get an honest look at myself."
We all make mistakes, says Rogers. So if your faith can offer a time-honored way to rectify those wrongdoings, why not take it?
"The sin that you have committed is released and you can finally be free. You get very few new beginnings in life. But I think for Catholics, confession is one of them."
And as far as John Rogers is concerned, that's not something you're going to get from spilling your secrets to Oprah.
- All Things Considered, 02/27/2009, 3:47 p.m.