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.
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.
The liberalization of attitudes was sometimes dressed up as the renovation of orthodoxy. In 1965, the Jesuit magazine America noted that penitents were in danger of succumbing to "a mechanical view of forgiveness." To combat such "rote" practice, the magazine said, a new, more participatory form of "general absolution" service was being tried out in Holland. The advocate of this change was the Dominican priest Edward Schillebeeckx, whose liberal theology would later be much criticized in Rome.
Since then, general-absolution services, in which there is no individual confession to a priest, have flourished, though without Vatican approval. The church allows such services only in special cases (such as when an army is about to go into battle), but those so absolved must intend to confess their sins individually at the next opportunity. Most of today's general-absolution services do not take place under emergency circumstances.
Those who have never gone to confession may not know that it is often followed by a liberating sense of well-being. The novelist Mary Gordon, who has retained an attachment to the traditional practices of her Catholic childhood despite her later commitment to what she calls "Catholic abortion rights," has eloquently described this feeling. "After you had made a good, and sometimes a difficult, confession," she said in "Once a Catholic," a 1987 collection of interviews, "walking out of that church and feeling a lightness and singleness was beautiful and very valuable." She added that she didn't think "the secular world has any replacements for it, including the esthetic experience."
There are small signs of a possible revival of this neglected sacrament. Communal-penance services during Holy Week--which, unlike general absolution, have the church's blessing--are well-attended, and the practice of holding them is ever more widespread. Here and there, as in my parish, priests are extending confessional hours. The hierarchy is at least trying to stir up some interest in confession. We can only hope that John Paul's Jubilee Year wishes will be fulfilled, and that more Catholics will realize what they have been missing in staying away from confession: the certain knowledge that through their words to a priest, God has showered them with forgiveness for even their worst deeds.