Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted issued a new pastoral letter today that urges his brother priests to focus on the importance of the sacrament of reconciliation.
The letter, titled “Apostles of Mercy,” examines the role of the priest as an apostle of mercy, and then discusses the priest as a penitent and a confessor.
It was released today to coincide with the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.
A 2008 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found that nationwide, 75 percent of Catholics never receive the sacrament of penance or do so less than once a year. Two percent said they receive the sacrament at least once a month.
A committee of local priests examined the state of the sacrament of penance in the Diocese of Phoenix. Fr. Anthony Sigman, who founded Corpus Christi Parish in 1985, served on the committee.
“Sacramental confession is a response to our Lord’s great love and mercy for us,” Fr. Sigman said, “and it’s for us to return back to full communion with Him when we have lost that communion through mortal sin. It’s a sacrament of love.”
Confessing one’s sins is also a way to deal with venial sins and the ordinary struggles of day-to-day life, Fr. Sigman said. Preparing for reconciliation, the faithful are faced with the eye-opening task of taking an inventory of their lives.
“Since my last confession, am I growing in my faith, am I standing still, or am I losing ground?” Fr. Sigman said are some of the questions penitents should ask themselves. “If you do not take an inventory, you do not know where you are in your spiritual life.”
Fr. Sigman said he thinks there are several reasons why three out of every four Catholics seldom or never seek the sacrament of penance.
“Number one, we don’t preach about it,” Fr. Sigman said. “If we don’t preach whatever the subject is – purgatory, for example – the people cease to believe in it or see any need for it.”
Bishop Olmsted’s letter to the priests of the diocese addresses the need for more exhortation on reconciliation.
“I am asking that we spend the first three weeks of Lent preaching on confession,” the letter states. “As with our teaching about the Mass to prepare for the implementation of the Roman Missal, we have an opportunity to enliven in the faithful of our diocese a renewed love for this sacrament.”
Fr. Sigman listed two other factors he thinks contribute to low participation in the sacrament of penance.
“We don’t make it available and there’s no presence [of a permanent confessional],” Fr. Sigman said. “Those are the three things I would say are very serious.”
While pastor at Corpus Christi Parish, Fr. Sigman said he expanded confession times, adding Tuesday night. At St. Mary Parish where he currently serves, confessions are heard Tuesday and Wednesday evenings as well as Saturday afternoons.
“We are jammed with confessions. We have to have three or four priests hearing them,” Fr. Sigman said.
New confessional draws faithful
Fr. Sergio Fita, pastor of St. Anne Parish in Gilbert, was also on the committee that studied confession in the local Church.
Last October, Bishop Olmsted blessed a new confessional at St. Anne, where people have been lining up in droves to receive the sacrament. Confessions are heard at the parish at least 25 hours each week. The lines were even longer the week before Christmas.
At a penance service that week,16 priests heard confessions for over two hours. Two days before Christmas, Fr. Fita said the faithful confessed for 15 hours straight, then for 12 hours the following day. People are drawn to the grille of the traditional confessional, he said, and many penitents have told him they’ve been away from the sacrament for decades because they’ve been embarrassed to confess face-to-face.
“When they find out they can confess without having to reveal their identity, a lot of people come after many years,” Fr. Fita said.
Bishop Olmsted’s letter notes that Catholic churches have historically built “confessionals that are conspicuously placed in the church… the confessionals in our churches should be clear expressions of the importance of this sacrament in Christian life.”
According to Church law, Bishop Olmsted’s letter states, confessionals “are to provide a fixed screen for the sake of both the priest and the penitent.”
Jennifer Seaberg and her sister Patty Jemente, parishioners at St. Anne, said they were away from reconciliation for many years. Now they go frequently.
“I love the confessional. When you walk out of there, there is a weight lifted off your shoulders,” Jemente said. “You really can feel the difference in your life the more you go.”
Seaberg said she was nervous about going to confession after a 20-year hiatus, but now regular confession is an integral part of her life.
“It’s kind of like when you take a shower, you feel good,” Seaberg said. “When I walk into confession and I come out, I feel so good.”
Confession, Seaberg said, “is not really about you. It’s about seeing how merciful God is.”
In his letter, Bishop Olmsted wrote that “confession cannot fail to produce great fruit when it is promoted and practiced with renewed devotion and frequency… We priests have the privilege and duty of promoting the sacrament of Reconciliation. Not only are we ministers of God’s mercy in the confessional, we are also called to be its chief promoters.”
“Dedicate yourselves, at the expense of any sacrifice, to the administration of the sacrament of reconciliation,” Blessed Pope John Paul II told the Apostolic Penitentiary, one of three tribunals of the Roman Curia, in 1981.
Bishop Olmsted’s letter emphasizes the need to make the sacrament of penance more readily available to the faithful.
“The most influential factor for renewing the sacrament of Penance is our commitment to offering sufficient opportunities for the faithful to approach the sacrament. The Church asks priests to provide the faithful the ‘opportunity to approach individual confession on days and at times established for their convenience.’ Experience shows that merely offering the sacrament ‘by appointment’ is insufficient. Merely offering an hour on Saturday afternoons rarely meets the needs of our faithful.”
The U.S. bishops have released a statement encouraging Catholics to make going to confession a significant part of their spiritual lives and to use this Lent as an opportunity to do so. “God’s Gift of Forgiveness: The Pastoral Exhortation on the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation” was approved by the full body of bishops during their annual Fall General Assembly in Baltimore, Nov. 13.
The full text of the statement and the links to resources for individual Catholics and diocesan and parish staff on the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation are available online at www.usccb.org/confession.