I’ve long argued that the way most Catholic parishes in my experience promote and make accessible the Sacrament of Reconciliation offers a very strong message: Not a Priority. That said, I have seen some parishes do a phenomenal job creatively making Reconciliation accessible and attractive, for example by linking its frequent celebration closely to parish-based ministerial outreaches that meet people in their brokenness (e.g. “anonymous” addiction recovery programs, support groups, etc.). A priest in Cincinnati that I once spoke to about his success in this approach said, “Most people don’t see sin as connected to real life problems and relationships, but tend to think of it as a ‘religious’ or ‘churchy’ thing. So what we do is first offer practical support for people where they are weakest and most vulnerable, and then make the explicit connection with the Sacrament of Penance. It’s great when they suddenly get it, seeing that sin and its remedy meet us on the ground right where we are at; and that Jesus’ approach to our darkness is remedial and not punitive. That’s a huge leap of imagination for most, but once they see that, they’re hooked. I mean, who doesn’t want to take advantage of a free and effective cure?”
Reconciliation is, as this priest said, the freely offered divine salve, the Christ-given balm that reconciles us to God and one another, healing the wounds of sin and division; and in a culture like ours that continues its relentlessly progressive moral fragmentation, to not invest some of our best ecclesial energies into re-opening the riches of this Sacrament to the faithful-at-risk is a grave failure.
That said, I know many priests who share this grief, but find their various efforts to revive the Sacrament met with seemingly insuperable challenges, and with an apparent apathy among the people. I absolutely get that there’s no easy “fix,” that the demands of parish life on a priest are many, and that the collapse of the sense of sin in our hyper-psychologized, self-esteem culture makes a Sacrament of repentance seem irrelevant.
Don’t just curse the darkness
What to do? Solid catechesis and preaching on Reconciliation, greater availability of Confession times responsive to actual data (i.e. when are people generally more available?), clear and creative communication of opportunities, just to name a few. That said, the core of our response as believers in Jesus must take into account that it’s precisely when things seem “bad” that God awaits our deepest heartfelt cry for Him to respond in power — a cry that echoes Heart of the crucified Son of God whose “loud cries and tears” (Heb. 5:7) to the Father tore open the Heavens and flooded the entire created order with the superabundant mercies of divine compassion. And as all of the Sacraments flow from the sacrificial death of Jesus, any attempt to “promote” those Sacraments must be equally sacrificial.
St. John Vianney, patron of parish priests, prayed, fasted, kept all night vigils, slept on the floor, sat ‘waiting’ for hours daily in an empty confessional and engaged in all manner of penitential labor for nearly ten years before his parish began to return in earnest to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. That return eventually led to a spiritual reformation of the town of Ars that eventually spread all throughout Europe. Such is the logic of Pentecost, that comes only at the price of the Cross, and only in response to the disciples’ “novena of hunger” for God’s ineffable and undeserved mercy that is all for us. Hence, any pastoral plan for renewing a Sacrament must be grounded in persevering prayer and sacrifice.
I started to think about all this after I had looked at the (below) image of World Youth Day’s wonderfully creative Confessionals. I was so moved by the many photos of countless thousands of young people streaming to the Sacrament of God’s tender compassion, and felt so hopeful that this out-streaming of Christ’s mercy might further empower “God’s revolution” that Bl. John Paul suffered for, Benedict proclaimed and Francis continues to enact. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is the great fruit of the whole of God’s laboring love in salvation history that conspired to heal us of our wounds, raise us from unending death and empower us to do the truth in love, so how can one who believes not feel the Father’s joy that his children are receiving this gift of his Heart? As I looked at these WYD sacramental scenes, this throng of young kneeling penitents struck me as a passionate response to Jesus’ heart-rending lament that he spoke centuries ago to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque:
Behold the Heart which has so loved men that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming Itself, in order to testify Its love; and in return, I receive from the greater part only ingratitude, by their irreverence and sacrilege, and by the coldness and contempt they have for Me in this Sacrament of Love.