SAN ANTONIO — Archbishop Jose Gomez only has to recall his childhood in Mexico to recognize that people don’t go to confession like they used to.

“In Latin America, it’s part of the culture,” said the Archbishop of San Antonio, Texas. “When I was a kid, the priests would hear confessions on first Thursdays from 4 to 10 p.m. In the U.S., people won’t dare to look for a priest in the confessional unless it’s in the bulletin.”

But things may be changing. Signs abound that confession is making a comeback:

• In the Chicago Archdiocese, St. Mary’s Church in Lake Forest, Ill., offered “24 Hours of Grace” Feb. 23-24, during which penitents could avail themselves of the sacrament. When the program was first offered last year, 70 priests heard confessions and more than 350 people received the sacrament.

• In the Diocese of Colorado Springs, Colo., Capuchin friars continue to offer the sacrament at a storefront called The Catholic Center in the Citadel Mall. More than 6,600 persons have visited the center for the sacrament since its opening in November 2001. The numbers have grown each year, starting with 519 the first year and growing to more than 1,534 last year.

• In recent months, no less than three bishops have written pastoral letters on the subject of confession, placing a new emphasis on the Church’s most underutilized sacrament.

When Pope John Paul II spoke of a crisis in the Church, he meant the crisis of confession. In his 2001 apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte (At the Beginning of the New Millennium), he asked bishops to have “courage, confidence and creativity” in re-establishing the sacrament of confession in their dioceses.

The confession crisis was a constant theme of John Paul’s. In one Holy Thursday letter, he said three times that people in a state of sin should not receive Communion without receiving confession first. On Divine Mercy Sunday in 2002, he dedicated a special apostolic letter to confession. In his 2003 encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia (The Eucharist and Its Relationship to the Church), John Paul II’s language was almost like a formal declaration:

“I therefore desire to reaffirm that in the Church there remains in force, now and in the future, the rule by which the Council of Trent gave concrete expressions to the Apostle Paul’s stern warning when it affirmed that, in order to receive the Eucharist in a worthy manner, one must first confess one’s sins when one is aware of mortal sin.”

And Pope Benedict XVI weighed in. During a Feb. 19 meeting with father confessors of Roman basilicas, he commented: “How many penitents find in confession the peace and joy they were seeking for so long. Christ has chosen us, dear priests, to be the only ones with the power to pardon sins in his name. This then, is a specific ecclesial service to which we must give priority.”

Last year, Pope Benedict recommended the practice of weekly confession, especially for priests, which he follows himself (see sidebar).

It’s undeniable that the sacrament has fallen into disuse in recent years. Because it’s a private matter, statistics on the use of the sacrament are hard to come by. However, surveys from the 1970s showed that the use of monthly confession had fallen from 38% to 17%, while those who rarely or never go rose from 18% to 38%. A 1980 University of Notre Dame study found that 26% of active Catholics never went to confession.

Correcting Abuses

There’s also been a lot of abuse of the sacrament, such as illegitimate use of general absolution under normal circumstances.

Some bishops, though, such as New Ulm, Minn., Bishop John Nienstedt, have been re-educating priests and faithful. General absolution is a topic Bishop Nienstedt has visited at least twice in recent years in his monthly newspaper columns.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913, general absolution, where all eligible Catholics gathered at a given area are granted absolution for sins without prior individual confession to a priest, is lawfully granted in only two circumstances: when there is imminent danger of death and there is no time for priests to hear the confessions of the individual penitents, or when a serious need is present, that is, the number of penitents is so large that there are not sufficient priests to hear the individual confessions properly within a reasonable time (generally considered to be 1 month) so that the Catholics, through no fault of their own, would be forced to be deprived of the sacrament or Communion. The diocesan bishop must give prior permission before general absolution may be given under this circumstance. It is important to note that the occurrence of a large number of penitents, such as may occur on a pilgrimage or at penitential services is not considered as sufficient to permit general absolution.

“Despite the fact that the repeated use of general absolution was never approved as being valid by the Church Universal and never officially sanctioned by my predecessors, it took on a life of its own,” Bishop Niendstedt wrote. “The misuse of the rite has led to confusion about the sacramental nature of grace, a general denial of the seriousness of sin, a lessening of the importance of the priesthood and a loss of countless opportunities for spiritual growth. In my humble opinion, these results are the work of the Evil One.”

It was because of a loss of a sense of sin that Archbishop Gomez released his pastoral letter on confession. It was also part of the culmination of a jubilee year. The Archdiocese of San Antonio marked the 275th anniversary of the founding of the Cathedral of San Fernando.

“A jubilee year is a time of reconciliation traditionally in the Church,” Archbishop Gomez told the Register. “Reconciliation is essential for the future of humanity. ... It’s a concept that has been kind of forgotten or misunderstood in modern society.”

The archbishop encouraged pastors to find new ways to make the sacrament accessible to people given the current situation of their lives, including offering it during the week over lunch and offering more family-friendly schedules. But he also called on Catholics to be responsible.

“Failure to seek God’s mercy in the sacrament puts our eternal souls at risk, and can result in our spiritual death,” he writes in the letter, The Tender Mercy of Our God, which came out on Ash Wednesday. “We must not let ourselves be confused or led astray by a culture that would have us avoid truths of the Gospel we might find challenging or uncomfortable.”

Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., also released a pastoral letter. He said it was inspired by the diocese’s display of the relics of St. John Mary Vianney in Merrick, N.Y., last fall.

“Thousands of people came to venerate St. John Vianney’s heart and availed themselves of the sacrament,” said Sean Dolan, diocesan director of communications.

Lines Growing

Not all have been positive about the effort.

“Confession was instituted by men in the Church, not by God,” read a letter to the editor of The Washington Post. “Why not take the money to be spent promoting confession and use it to help needy families in the region.”

“I don’t think the archdiocese is wasting its money,” responded Msgr. Edward Filardi of St. Stephen Martyr Church on Pennsylvania Avenue. “Poverty of soul goes hand in hand with the charitable drive of the archbishop.”

“Christ instituted it,” said Father Christopher Walsh, author of The Untapped Power of the Sacrament of Penance: A Priest’s View. “It can’t be accidental that the risen Christ’s first words conveyed the sacrament. It was the first important power the Risen Lord wanted to give to his disciples.”

Father Walsh noted that confession and the Eucharist are the only two ongoing sacraments that Catholics receive.

“The sacrament has been marginalized,” said Father Walsh. “We have to uncork this untapped power that Christ put in the Church.”

There’s evidence that people are responding to the efforts to promote confession. As part of the “The Light Is on for You” campaign accompanying Archbishop Donald Wuerl’s pastoral letter on confession, the Archdiocese of Washington produced user-friendly confession guides, a wallet-size card with the Act of Contrition, and bus and subway advertisements. Archbishop Wuerl asked all parishes to make the sacrament available between 7-8:30 p.m. each Wednesday during Lent.

Msgr. Filardi wasn’t sure what to expect on the first Wednesday.

“I was definitely there beyond my shift,” he said. “As these things do, they more readily attract people who have been away [from the sacrament]. It was worthwhile.”

Archbishop Gomez said that some pastors have difficulty finding time to hear all the confessions because there have been so many people.

“At St. Matthew’s they have three confessors,” he explained. “They are hearing confessions for an hour and a half, and there are still people in line.”

In Washington, Father Charles McCann of St. Peter’s Church on Capitol Hill said he doesn’t expect to see long lines, but thinks the new emphasis on the sacrament could have an impact long-term.

“Many people have gotten used to communal penance services followed by private confession,” said Father McCann. “For some, confession without a penance service is a novel idea. I don’t expect an immediate surge, but an increased celebration of the sacrament will come over a period of time.”

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.