Confession on the Internet

Confession on the Internet

The Los Angeles Times published an article about Catholic’s and confession. It says in the mid 1960’s thirty eight percent of Catholics went to confession at least once a month, but today only two percent go. Through most of the twentieth century Catholics viewed confession as a sacrament and a solemn Confessional obligation, but no longer. The article says there are now website’s where you can log in and anonymously list your sins. Of course, these are not sites sanctioned by the Catholic church. That would be too much like a drive up confessional. But there are locations like and that are sponsored by Protestant churches where it can be done. You just list the sins you feel guilty about, hit the send button and you’re done. The article says one site actually calculates a penance like five Hail Mary’s and two Our Fathers for you. Sounds very frivolous to me, but it got me reflecting on the practice of confession in the Catholic church.

Traditionally, confessionals were inside the church and usually arranged as three telephone booth size boxes with doors or sometimes curtains for privacy. The priest would be seated in the center one and the other two were for people to go into and kneel down facing the center unit. In larger parishes there would often be more then one confessional occupied by priests whose names would be on the outside. As a youth you learned to monitor such things as which line moved faster which usually meant lighter penance and less lecture then the slower lines. You also checked names for the same reason and selected the priest you favored. Penance usually was a directive to say a prayer or if it was really serious you might get nailed with saying a rosary. Inside each of the two side units there was an small opening with a grate that had a sliding door located at face level as you kneeled there waiting. You would stand in line until a side was vacant, go in and kneel down. When you heard the sliding door open that was an indication the priest was ready to hear confession. The priest couldn’t see the person confessing and it was a private matter. The oath priests took to preserve the confidentiality of the confessional contemplated death before disclosure so you were confident the matter was totaly confidential even if the priest learned your identity some how.

As a cradle Catholic my practice of  going to confession became less and less frequent in the recent years for several reasons. One was the inconvenience of going. For years priests were available at frequent and convenient times. At Blessed Sacrament in Seattle, for example, there were several confessionals inside the church with priests waiting to hear confessions before each Mass. At most churches you could go to confession during the week by arriving early before Mass began because the priest would hear confessions for half an hour before every daily mass. Then that practice became less and less. The sacrament was re-named reconciliation and the priests no longer heard confession before daily and Sunday Mass. It was limited to an hour or so only on Saturday. Other then that time, you were encouraged to make an appointment for confession. Since the saints I had read about and admired were often priests like St. John Vianney or Padre Pio who spent hours in the confessional I had problems with the new practice. If people were encouraged to practice frequent confession, why didn’t the priest make it convenient to do so? In addition, the use of the confessionals booths was  abandoned. Instead, churches created confessional rooms where you would go into a room where the priest was seated and face him to make your confession. While there was an opportunity to stay behind a curtain that was awkward the way the rooms were set up. This new face to face meeting was claimed to be more personal and more caring, but from my childhood the last thing I wanted was for the priest to know who it was that was confessing no matter how insignificant the infractions. What you wanted was total anonymity so you could be totally candid without worrying what the priest would think about you the next time he saw you on Sunday. This feeling carried over into my adult life and I was never comfortable with the practice of sitting down and having a "conversational" confession. As it became more and more inconvenient to practice confession and it was more uncomfortable when I did, the less inclined I was to go. So there’s my confession about confession, but, on the other hand, I am not ready for the Internet confession either. I need to find a middle ground.

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