Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Light is on for You

That's the slogan you'll be seeing on buses and billboards in some parts of the country to remind Catholics to come to confession. The Diocese of Washington is trying a light-hearted approach to encourage parishioners to participate in what is a dying rite of the church:

Parishes have been cutting back the time they set aside for confessions for years; many now allot only 30- or 45-minute blocks or ask for appointments. Years ago, lines at confessionals were long and priests listened for hours.

Also known as the sacrament of reconciliation, confession involves several mandatory steps: being sincerely contrite, articulating to a priest (who stands in the place of Jesus) what was done wrong, apologizing, receiving an assigned penance and being forgiven.

Why the drop in interest? Busy schedules, the rise of other therapeutic options, a guilt-free society are culprits. But the Catholic Church itself has also changed the understanding of confession:

But the biggest changes, church historians say, came in the 1960s, when clergy began preaching more about the sins of racism, militarism and environmental degradation. The '60s also brought the Second Vatican Council, which said -- among many other things -- that eating meat on Friday was no longer a sin.

Priests began talking about sin in different terms, and Catholics wondered: What is it I'm supposed to confess? said Boston College professor James O'Toole, who wrote a social history of confession. The sacrament has "virtually disappeared," he said.

After Vatican II, "the whole idea was changed, it became a much more positive thing, less emphasis on fault and more on improvement," said Mary Gautier, a researcher with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

I'd never make a very good Catholic. If I went into the confessional I would say to the priest, "You go first."

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