PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Easter lilies and varnish scent the sanctuary of the Holy Name of Jesus Church, polished for the springtime bloom of baptisms and First Communions.

Silence fills the wooden confessional booths.

There are few fresh secrets coming in these days to the old Catholic church in Providence's Mount Hope: few admissions of three impure thoughts, two unkind actions . . .At least they aren't reaching the Rev. Kevin Fisette, who waits with the formula of absolution, like a physician with an old-fashioned cure. At 3:30 every Saturday afternoon, Father Fisette starts looking for parishioners. He has noted in the blue-and-white church bulletin that he will hear confessions in the half-hour before Mass. But, he says, "most weeks, no one is waiting."

Confession used to be what Roman Catholics did that their Protestant neighbors did not, says James O'Toole, an associate professor of history at Boston College. The centuries-old sacrament was a mark of being Catholic. Yet studies in the United States during the last decade show that almost half of U.S. Catholics rarely if ever go to confession anymore - even if they faithfully attend Mass. There is, says O'Toole, "nothing to indicate that is turning around."

Father Fisette, who is 46, recalls the days when worshipers would wait in line to tell a priest their sins. He laments that now "they lie on a psychiatrist's couch, when they could get our healing for free." Worse, he says, many Catholics "no longer feel the need to get down on their hands and knees and beg forgiveness from God."

Perhaps, say other theologians, it is the Catholic Church from which these Catholics no longer feel the need to beg forgiveness.

The professor of Roman Catholic studies at Harvard Divinity School, Francis Fiorenza, says that the Catholic faithful still believe in Mass. And they still believe in such teachings as charity toward the poor. But, he says, there is a chasm: Many Catholics see their values diverging from dogma on such matters as birth control, homosexuality, divorce, and women's rights; and, in the wake of child sexual abuse by priests, they see cracks in the institution's own morality. For these reasons, these Catholics no longer accept that the church and its priesthood are the arbiters of what is right and what is wrong.

"The church is losing control in a way," says Fiorenza.

For churchgoer Joseph Brennan, the sacrament of penance and reconciliation - confession's formal name - is the one piece of his Catholicism that has crumbled.

The church baptized, schooled, and married Brennan, who is 39. No Easter-Christmas Catholic, he and his family rarely miss Sunday Mass at St. Augustine's Church, in Providence, R.I. "I don't eat meat on Fridays during Lent," adds Brennan.

A few weeks ago, his daughter received her First Communion and went to her first confession. The priest asked Brennan if he, too, would like to go to confession. He said no. His last confession was 21 years ago.

Brennan's discomfort goes back to when, as a child, he would step into a dark booth and unburden his tiny self to a priest, whom he could not see, sitting behind a screen in the other half of the booth. For his "sins" - he had, perhaps, talked back to an adult - the priest would assign penance, perhaps the recitation of three Hail Marys.

"I just didn't like it," says Brennan. "I remember thinking, `What have I done? I haven't done anything bad.' "

The ritual today is different - gentler, perhaps - than when he was a boy. After Vatican Council II, in 1965, priests began talking less of eternal damnation and more of a forgiving God. Parishioners now have the choice of confessing face-to-face with the priest, and communal penance services are also offered.

Still, Joseph Brennan has always found the idea of being morally sized up by a priest "a little weird." It's enough, he believes, to recite during Mass, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned." How does this differ, he asks, from saying this in the confessional?

It hasn't always been easy for him. "What is the definition of being Catholic - especially nowadays? It isn't supposed to be something where you pick and choose; it's supposed to mean following certain rules." But, says Brennan, "it's different times. It's different times."

Sandra Edwardo, a 60-year-old nurse, attends Mass at St. Dominic Chapel, on the campus of Providence College. She has not, however, been to confession since 1968, when a priest at another church refused to give her absolution, because she had used birth control.

She had asked for absolution because she was pregnant and terrified of dying during childbirth outside the church's graces. Still, the priest refused her. This was the year that Pope Paul VI upheld the church's ban on artificial contraception. Harvard's Professor Fiorenza says that it was this decision that probably drove many Catholics from confession.

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