Fr Z. on Priests hearing Confessions (or not)

Friday week ago, I turned up for confession at the Cathedral, to find a line up of about 20 people (all but two of them male). I was astounded. Not only that, but while I was waiting, another ten turned up. It was like St Francis’ Elizabeth Street in rush hour. And the people were of all ages and all walks of life. On one side of me in the line up was a young bloke in workboots, and on the other side was a bloke of about my age in a suit.

Don’t tell me that people don’t want to go to confession. But as I have said before, people who want to go to confession are greatly aided when priests:

1) Make confession available more often than just for half an hour on Saturday morning
2) Make sure that the confessional is manned at the time advertised
3) Take steps to ensure that the sacrament can be received anonymously

On top of that, here is a reflection from Fr Z on the matter:

My ASK FATHER entry (“Quaeritur”) from a lay person asking about the lack of confession times, prompted not only lots of comments, but also emails, from lay people and from priests.

Here is a note I received from a priest reader (my emphases and comments):

That’s an issue [lack of scheduled confession times] I’m dealing with here in my new assignment. The previous pastor had Confessions scheduled at 5 PM, with Mass at 5:30 PM. Oh, and Confessions “by appointment”, of course. The parishioners tell me that he was rarely, if ever, actually in or near the confessional at 5, and was usually busy getting things ready for Mass at 5:15. One of the first changes I made, by the way, was to move Saturday confessions to 4 – 5 PM, and I will be there every time it’s scheduled.
In addition, appointments are still welcomed.

I’m sure the official reason for the limited availability was lack of demand for the sacrament, but I don’t think that was the only reason.

Yesterday, a parishioner told me that they hadn’t heard any homilies calling something a sin throughout the previous pastor’s tenure in this parish. Why weren’t parishioners making use of the sacrament? They don’t believe that sin exists any more. Why don’t they believe that sin exists any more? Father wasn’t preaching on it. [Do I hear an “Amen!”?]

[QUAERITUR:] How do we as priests fix this problem?

First, preach on sin and the necessity of Confession. Sin exists, and it is a serious matter that is being ignored in our culture. If we don’t preach on it, the parishioners won’t hear it.

Second, make Confession times convenient for your parishioners, publicize them as widely as possible, and be there. Even if you spend the hour praying and doing spiritual reading, the parishioners need to be sure you’ll be in the Confessional when they come. If you’re not there when they show up, they may not be as persistent as the reader above. They might come back a second time. Maybe, but it’s more likely that they won’t even bother. If you don’t make Confession a priority, they won’t either.

This is a problem which puts the souls of our parishioners at risk. We as priests need to do everything we can to eliminate this problem.

My priest correspondent has hit the nail directly on its little flat button.

And this tale he tells is not rare.

I was once in a parish where the pastor clearly had contempt for confessions (and for priests who wanted to receive them). They were scheduled for one half hour before the Saturday evening Mass. The priest who was to say the Mass was to hear confessions. But, he demanded that the priest be in the sacristy 15 minutes before Mass. That cut the time in half. Furthermore, he not only had me in residence, but invited in an old friend to say the Saturday Mass every third week. That meant that I would have the chance to hear confessions for 15 minutes every three weeks. There were always lines at my confessional. People would beg me to hear longer when I got out to go to the sacristy. Once I did hear longer, until about 5 minutes before Mass. The pastor screamed at me – literally screamed – in the sacristy, in front of lay people, using vocabulary that verged on violating the 1st Commandment as well. Not only a control freak, but a sign of his hatred for the confessional (and for me). This is the situation for many a younger priest under the eyes of aging-hippie pastors. This is the state of affairs of lay people as well. I am often amazed that so many people are still as faithful as they are, given what we priests have done to them for so many years.

By contrast, I know a priest in his 80’s who hears confessions before every daily morning Mass and before all Masses on Sundays. And when there is a visiting priest to help with Sunday Masses, he hears confessions during Mass (which is both licit and laudable) up to the Offertory.

If priests are reading this – and you are – consider well your own salvation in attending to the confessions of the faithful.

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18 Responses to Fr Z. on Priests hearing Confessions (or not)

  1. Joshua says:

    You’ll recall Neuhaus’ Law: “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be prohibited.”

    I would add my own corollary: “Whatever is not preached is not believed.”

    ‘Nuff said.

  2. Pax says:

    An accurate picture of the reality facing the laity and their priests. It is good to see the tide is beginning to turn .The sacrament is hated by those who dislike the call to humility that it entails.Pride was and remains at the core of sin.

  3. Gareth says:

    I was struck by the following in the article: “If you don’t make Confession a priority, they won’t either”.

    That goes for much of Catholic pius practices (think the rosary) that have bee thrown out the window in the past forty years.

    From my own experience, when a priest actually promotes and supports such practices, the majority of the laity do not view such practices as outdated at all, but often or not are more than happy to particpate.

    Most of my non-believing friends are even deeply interested in such Catholic practices.

    My experience of the sacrament of confession is a common story. Received my first confession as a young child and then was non-existent throughout teenage years due to it being non-existent in my parish.

    Met an orthodox priest at University who deeply encouraged it and returned to frequency.

    It is a shame that the sacrament where I live is only really taken seriously in the city-based Catholic Church.

    I think I would add to the list for the sacrament to be a winner is that priests need to take spiritual direction seriously during confession. I am simply turned off when a priest replies with ‘don’t worry about it’ or ‘the church doesnt care about that anynore’ or ‘most people do that’. There is no point going to begin with if priests reply like that.

    Instead, priests need to be challenging yet gentle – they need to take each confession as it really is as the person would not be serious unless they were confessing to begin with.

    Priests need serious training in spiritual direction.

    • Schütz says:

      I often go to the Opus Dei parish here in Melbourne for confessions precisely because of the “Spiritual Direction” dimension you mention. Note that in the story, Fr Z. says there were always lineups for his confessional – not surprising, really! The Faithful respond to faithful priests faithfully administering the sacrament!

      • Gareth says:

        Unbelievable David,

        The orthodox priest that I met at University that I refer to above is the current parish priest of Star of the Sea.

        I am not a member of Opus Dei, more of a ‘friend’ but acknowledge from my experience that their priets spiritual direction in regards to Confession or basic catch-up is often outstanding.

        If only some Diocesian priests were as well trained in this important area.

      • Louise says:


  4. Terra says:

    I agree with you David, and with Fr Z’s sentiments. I’m always astounded at the pathetically tiny amount of time allocated to confessions both in my local cathedral and surrounding parishes. Even the traditionalist parish has only very short times even nominally allocated, and these are no longer even advertised on its website!

    Getting people to utilise the sacrament requires both availability (ie a variety of times to suit varying schedules of a reasonable length), visibility and the chance of at least notional anonymity (ie the priest actually sitting in the confessional, not pottering around the Church doing other things) and good catechesis (ie sermons).

    Mind you, it would also help if all priests were put through a refresher in sacramental theology – I regularly encounter priests who refuse to let you make an act of contrition in the confessional (giving that as ‘penance instead), fail to give any discernible penance, tell you something that clearly is a sin isn’t, or fluff the words of absolution. There are ways of dealing with each of these problems of course, but the harder the priest makes it, the more reluctant the penitent will be to go regularly.

  5. joyfulpapist says:

    One of the things that has always bothered me is the ‘say one Hail Mary and one Glory Be’ type of penance. We need to take the temporal consequences of sin seriously. A penance that involved real sacrifice on my part would not only be more in keeping with the seriousness of anything that stands between me and the sainthood I am called to, it would also help me to remember to avoid the next occasion of sin.

  6. Kyle says:

    This was a very significant problem for me. I was received into the Church at 14 and so, receiving baptism and Eucharist on the same day, obviously never had to make a first confession which most Catholic schools will prepare for. The parish priest only heard confession by appointment and I was too timid to approach him at that age. So I never had confession for many years.

    It wasn’t until a seminarian friend of mine very strongly recommended it that I took up the courage to go to the closest church with regular confession. So I ended up making my first confession at the cathedral to a visiting priest who probably wasn’t prepared for an adult making his first confession.

    In many ways this is still a problem. I never received any instruction for confession. Whenever I go in, I am never sure whether I have done it right. I asked one priest whether I had and he said “If you confessed every sin, then you are absolved” but that didn’t really allay my fears about number and kind. I always get the ritual wrong and it doesn’t help that priests tend to do confession differently.

    Anyway, I agree with you, David. There needs to be a regular time for confession. I also think there needs to be better catachesis for all Catholics so that they are prepared for this sacrament.

  7. Peregrinus says:

    “Don’t tell me that people don’t want to go to confession.”

    Well, it seems we don’t have to tell you that. By your own account, you already believe it; you were “astounded” to find 20 people waiting to go to confession in the Cathedral. Why?

    I’ve posted before about most dioceses having a couple of informally-established but well-recognised “confession centres”, and the diocesan cathedral is frequently one of them. I guess it is in Melbourne, too. And the “confession centre”, it strikes me, is one way of supporting your objective no. 3, to ensure that people can go anonymously – i.e. to a priest who has no idea who they are, and who is unlikely to come across them outside the confessional.

    Other contributors to the thread have mentioned the need for spiritual direction – to which I say, yes, but we need to be clear about what we mean by “spiritual direction”.

    People who go to confession are not going to psychotherapy, or to catechism classes, or even to form a relationship with a spiritual director as commonly understood; they are participating in a sacrament. I don’t think the confessional is the appropriate forum for spiritual direction, except in the very limited sense of talking to penitents about particular moral problems that they face and that they wish to discuss in the context of sacramental reconciliation. That’s about, I dunno, 1% of any comprehensive spiritual direction.

    And, in particular, in the context of the anonymous confession that a confession centre is so well-positioned to provide, there’s always going to be a real tension between providing spiritual direction on the one hand, and celebrating the sacrament in a way that respects the anonymity of the penitent on the other.

    I’m not a priest, and obviously I have no experience of anybody’s confession other than my own. But I suspect most regular confessors soon learn to distinguish between
    – people who want to be absolved;
    – people who want guidance, reassurance or understanding about a specific sin for which they also wish to be absolved; and
    – people who want the kind of spiritual direction that they would be better advised to find outside the confessional,
    and that they learn to take their cue from what the penitent wants or needs.

    • Schütz says:

      “Don’t tell me that people don’t want to go to confession.”

      Well, it seems we don’t have to tell you that. By your own account, you already believe it; you were “astounded” to find 20 people waiting to go to confession in the Cathedral. Why?

      Actually, the Cathedral is not what I would call “a confession centre”. It is a little out of the way for office workers, who prefer St Francis in the City, so usually there are about 10 or so people in the line up – 20 was somewhat unusual.

      But my point is: Confession is not really unpopular among Catholics. It is just that they haven’t been taught about it, or they find it difficult to get to the sacrament, or they may have had a bad experience of the administration of the sacrament.

      Again, I acknowledge what you say about “confession centres”. That is a reality of metropolitan life (mind you, it is so very “urban” – what do we expect rural Catholics to do?).

      So how does a particular parish become a “confession centre”? The answer is:

      Preach and teach about the Sacrament of Penance

      – Offer confession often
      – Offer it regularly
      – Offer it for reasonable periods of time

      Make sure confession can be done anonymously

      Be orthodox and pastoral in the application of the sacramental penances.

      Do this and they will come, as they say in the movies. Do this and your parish could also be a “confession centre”.

      You are, of course, right to distinguish between the roles of spiritual direction and sacramental reconciliation. My wife is currently studying spiritual direction, so I know all about this. However, it is not easy or necessary to apply too sharp a division between the two (and between them and that third thing: counselling). Wise pastors generally know what is required of each situation.

      • Peregrinus says:

        Just a nitpick. Most of the poeple who go to confession at a “confession centre” church don’t go there for any other purpose. (That’s one of the factors that supports anonymity, incidentally.) Thus they will have no idea what – if anything – is preached and taught about the sacrament of penance in that church. So, as good as such preaching and teaching may be, it has nothing to do with establishing the church as a confession centre.

        Some of the requirements are more prosaic. The church needs to be conveniently accessible – so city centre and inner-suburb churches are favoured. It needs to offer confession at convenient times – at [i]all[/i] convenient times, e.g. a CBD church might offer confession at lunchtime, five days a week, and for a couple of hours on Saturday. And this is obviously going to be easier if there is more than one priest attached to the church, so churches attached to monastic communities often fill the role.

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