Last Sunday at Mass, the priest announced what is now a pre-Easter tradition in our parish and others across the country: extended hours for confession so we can be cleansed of our sins as Holy Week begins. Instead of the usual single hour for confessions (4:00-5:00) on Saturday afternoon, there would be several hours--and several priests--available the Saturday before Palm Sunday to hear the reciting of sins and to give absolution. Other parishes will sponsor "communal-penance services" during Holy Week. Participants say the Act of Contrition and other prayers together, then confess their sins individually to priests stationed throughout the church.

It is a meaningful part of my faith.
Doesn't really do much for me, but I go anyway.
Should be thoroughly overhauled.
Is unnecessary. If you're really sorry, God already knows.
Is an outdated idea that should be scrapped.
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This seems like a good thing: more Catholics going to confession. After his trip to the Holy Land last year, Pope John Paul II expressed the hope that the Jubilee Year (2000) would see a return to the sacrament that absolves Christians of their sins.

But a few decades ago, none of these things--announcements from the pulpit, communal-penance services, hopeful utterances from the pope about the sacrament--would have taken place. They would not have been necessary. Not long ago, frequent confession--every month, perhaps every two weeks--was a regular part of most Catholics' lives.

My pastor, an old-timer who is close to retirement, recalls that just before the Second Vatican Council, in the 1960s, long lines of people waited their turn for confession every Saturday. Today, he estimates, the numbers are down to perhaps one-tenth of what they used to be. Many Catholics never go to confession, and most of those who do go just once or twice a year, usually before Easter and Christmas.

The decline of confession, which the bishops of Vatican II neither sought nor expected, has been a great loss for Catholics. Underlying the increasing disuse of the sacrament has been a widespread loss of the sense of sin, and also a loss of belief that the sacrament of penance has any particular efficacy. Many Catholics today seem to believe that participating in the "penitential rite" at the beginning of the Mass (in which they may recite a prayer of contrition in unison) is just as good as going to confession.

I asked half a dozen priests how they account for the decline. In different ways, they said the same thing. Even though the documents of the Second Vatican Council left confession untouched, the "spirit" of Vatican II overtook the church. Almost overnight, historian Charles R. Morris wrote in his book "American Catholic," notions of "hell, damnation, and mortal sin virtually disappeared from the American church." Church discipline fell away and has never really been restored. The belief took hold that Catholics had been too hard on themselves for too long before the council, and now they should lighten up and give themselves a break.

Mass attendance, too, declined, even though deliberately missing Sunday Mass is still a grave sin according to Catholic moral theology. Nonetheless, almost the entire congregation nowadays strolls up to the altar for Communion on Sunday. Concern about being in the necessary state of grace (absolved of grave sin via confession), a necessary condition for receiving Communion, having declined along with the sense of sin itself.

So--confession? Was that still necessary? Some priests waffled, while many more stopped mentioning the rite in sermons. The growing practice of face-to-face confession--without a partition between priest and penitent--didn't help either. The added embarrassment kept some away, while those who accepted the innovation tended to treat it as more a counseling session than a sacrament.