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."