The Confessions Crisis

A priest hears a confession during a penitential celebration at St. Peter's Basilica.
A priest hears a confession during a penitential celebration at St. Peter's Basilica. (photo: Reuters)

In his letter to priests yesterday to mark the beginning of the Year for Priests, Pope Benedict XVI drew attention to the sacrament of confession, which has been declining in parts of the Western world, particularly Italy.

“Priests ought never to be resigned to empty confessionals or the apparent indifference of the faithful to this sacrament,” he wrote. “In France, at the time of the Curé of Ars, confession was no more easy or frequent than in our own day, since the upheaval caused by the revolution had long inhibited the practice of religion. Yet he sought in every way, by his preaching and his powers of persuasion, to help his parishioners to rediscover the meaning and beauty of the sacrament of penance, presenting it as an inherent demand of the Eucharistic presence.”

A recent study in Italy by the Apostolic Penitentiary, cited in today’s La Stampa, found that confessions had become “too secularized.”

Nowadays, the research found, the believer tends to turn to the confessor not as a judge of their own sins, but as a resolver of small daily problems and emotional difficulties, especially concerning relations in the home. It also found that 32% of Italian Catholics aged 18-30 never went to confession, and only 2% went more than once a month.

The main cause of the decline, the study found, was a “loss of the sense of sin.”

The Apostolic Penitentiary stressed that the priest is obliged to ensure the “freedom” of the faithful and allow confession to be spontaneous, La Stampa reported. If the confessor sees that the penitent would say more but cannot, he can help with questions, but “with tact and with respect for privacy.” The penances, it continued, should “be relevant to the sin and assess the situation of the faithful.”

The Register has learned that the Vatican is planning to issue a directory of guidelines for priests on the sacrament of confession, but its publication date is unknown at this stage.

Much of it will no doubt draw on the example of St. John Mary Vianney.

From him, wrote Benedict in his letter published yesterday, “we can learn to put our unfailing trust in the sacrament of penance, to set it once more at the center of our pastoral concerns, and to take up the ‘dialogue of salvation’ which it entails.”