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.

Nevertheless, Sandra Edwardo remained a churchgoer. She did make a decision, though: she would no longer go to confession. "I was very upset. I thought, `I'm not going to do this anymore - I'm not a bad person.' "

Years later she recounted the story to her parish priest, as they were riding in a car. He looked at her and said: "I just gave you absolution."

Yet Edwardo rejects that "a man can forgive me for anything." What matters, she says, is that she "talks to the Lord," lives a good life, and tries not to harm anyone.

The church's current crisis, over priests' sexual abuse of children and its coverup by the hierarchy, only reinforces Edwardo's belief that her faith is between her and God - not between her and mortal men.

"I still believe everything I believe," she says. "I'm just a little disillusioned with the man."

Forty-six percent of American Catholics surveyed during the 1990s reported that, over the course of a year, they had gone to neither confession nor a communal penance service. These results appeared in the book "The Catholic Experience of Small Christian Communities," co-authored by Catholic University sociologist William V. D'Antonio and published in 2000.

Another sociologist, the University of Notre Dame's James D. Davidson, reported in his 1997 book, "The Search for Common Ground: What Unites and Divides Catholic Americans," that 57 percent of Catholics go to confession "never or almost never."

This is not necessarily a sign that Catholics are trying to work their way to heaven on their own, says Boston College's O'Toole, who is writing a book on confession.

Confession, he explains, is just one of the seven Catholic sacraments - with baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, holy orders, matrimony, and anointing of the sick. Some of these others have become more popular; for example, almost everyone attending a Mass usually receives communion.

The picking and choosing among sacraments has prompted the phrase "cafeteria Catholics." But Professor D'Antonio says that the only dish many Catholics are rejecting is the church's teachings on family and sexual matters.

That probably accounts, he says, not just for the rejection of confession. It is also why more Catholics have not left the church during the current sexual-abuse scandal. "The laity," says D'Antonio, "long ago lost faith in the teachings of the hierarchy on sexual matters."

Harvard's Fiorenza says that the laity has lost its "docility": its sense that the church is something "to be obeyed," and that the priest is an "all-knowing, all-wise person."

The theologian notes that even in his own churchgoing, his attendance of confession has dropped. And, he says, he's wondered about it.

"Why," for example, "confess something that the church thinks is wrong and you don't?"

Confession was one thing when he was young and "free and easy," says Frank D'Alessandro, who is 68.

It became awkward, he says, when he became a doctor. For one thing, he disagreed with the church's ban on contraception; it often resulted, he says, in abortion - another sin.

So D'Alessandro had not been to confession in years when, in 1994, he lay in the hospital awaiting bypass surgery. Wanting to make sure he was right with God, he says, he requested a priest and confessed that during his career he had recommended a few abortions - when the women were sick and couldn't risk childbirth.

The priest gave him absolution.

Since then, however, the doctor has not been to confession. Instead, in the car on the way to Sunday Mass at St. Augustine's, he says his version of the Catholic Act of Contrition: "O my God, I'm heartily sorry for having offended thee and for all my sins. I firmly resolve with the help of thy grace to do penance and to amend my life. Amen."

Explains D'Alessandro: "I honestly feel that if I confess directly to God, I am confessing my sins. I am contrite, and I hope to mend my ways and do better, and I will feel holy enough to go forward and take communion."

Victor Capellan, who attends St. Michael, in Providence, can't recall the last time he went to confession. He is, however, an active Catholic: twice a year, he attends a retreat put on by a national Catholic human-rights organization. Of his not going to confession, Capellan, who is 31, and a leader in the Latino community, says: "I have made it a practice to kind of confess my sins directly to God."

To Father Fisette, over at Mount Hope's Holy Name of Jesus, sidestepping the priest is a "cop-out."

Father Fisette, whose Holy Name of Jesus Church sees almost no confessions on Saturdays, does find that on Sundays, before his Latin Mass, some older parishioners will stop in for confession.

He had pictured it differently back when he was training for the priesthood, almost 25 years ago.

At St. Meinrad School of Theology, in Indiana, the rector would rap on the door of unsuspecting seminarians, including a bookish one from Pawtucket, R.I. The rector would demand, "What is the formula for absolution?" Young Fisette would respond, nervously: "I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit."

Now, asks Father Fisette, what went wrong - where are the sinners? "We've got to get people conscious of sin again," he says.

"Cardinal Law used to say," begins the priest - then stops, as if trying to decide whether to speak of the Boston cardinal now so much in the news. He continues with the quotation from Bernard Law: " `The confessional is the loneliest place in town.'

"And he was right," says Fisette.

Holy Name of Jesus Church is 120 years old. Grand yellow-stained glass filters the sun, the brightness making the dark-wood confessional boxes appear luxuriant, their drab-rust curtains a vibrant orange.

When the sun turns, the remnants of a fading rite appear dull again.

Father Fisette runs his hand over a confessional's smooth oak. "They spared no expense on these," he says.

Then he steps to a pew, and eases himself into it. "People will come back. We'll get them back."

When we confess, he says, "we need someone else as a mediator, to keep us honest." The person making the confession must "say it to another person who is representing God" - and who is "also a sinner" - in order for the process to be humbling.

He says people think that if they haven't murdered someone, they are OK and God knows it.

But even criminals are going less and less to confession, says the Rev. Clyde Walsh, a volunteer Catholic chaplain at the Adult Correctional Institutions, where some 30 percent of the inmates are Catholic.

"It's a shame," says the 76-year-old priest.

At Holy Cross Church, on Providence's Hartford Avenue, the Rev. Anthony Mancini may see a couple of confessors a week - "if that."

And yet priests have not given up on confession. In this season, they remind their flocks that they have until Trinity Sunday, May 26, to fulfill their Easter duty of yearly communion - and the confession that should precede it. And the reminder is often unnecessary.

Sidney Callahan, a theologian at St. John's University, in Queens, N.Y., says that confession doesn't "move" her, but "I go at least once a year, because the church tells me I (should) go." She says she always lists the same "sins": "a lack of charity, irritability, didn't push myself."

In Providence's financial district during Holy Week, hundreds of Catholics on their lunch hour went to five communal-penance services at St. Francis Chapel. The priest invited the worshipers to come forward one by one to tell him of a "major obstacle, such as a problem in a relationship," and to say, "Have mercy on me, a sinner."

They formed a line to the altar. The strains of "O Sacred Head, Surrounded" muffled their words as they whispered to the priest, who touched their arms and told them the prayer of absolution.

Down in South Kingstown, four priests were needed for the students who at lunchtime during Lent - unprompted - went to confession at Prout Memorial High School. And in Richmond, a St. Mary - St. James parishioner describes confession as a wonderful healing experience: Barbara Ann Burdick, in her 60s, is committed to the sacraments - even as she questions some of the Catholic teachings. She says, for instance, that the church should consider ordaining women, which is why she joined the Catholic reform group Call to Action. Still, says Burdick: "Stay with the church, and work from within to make it the faith-filled church it ought to be."

With historical perspective, she adds, "We've always been a church in crisis."

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