With Lent in full force, Catholic parishioners are being encouraged to confess their sins next month.
Fewer parishioners are confessing their sins than in years past, priests say, and the Washington, D.C., Archdiocese is going so far as to encourage confession through billboards and radio commercials.
"The factor that comes into play is the 'me generation' of the '80s downplayed concept of sin," said Father Patrick Walker of St. Michael's Catholic Church in Morada.
During that time, the theme was that each individual was special, a philosophy that evolved into, "It's not a sin as long as nobody's hurt," Walker said.
But times have changed, Walker said.
"We think we've turned the corner. More people are more in touch with their sins," he said.
Such may not be the case elsewhere.
The Washington Post reports that confession within the archdiocese of the nation's capital has declined so much that it's plastered advertisements on buses and subway cars to encourage parishioners to return to confession.
The Washington Archdiocese has also used billboard advertising and distributed 100,000 brochures to promote what was once considered a sacred part of Catholic life.
However, local priests say that parishioners tend to attend confession - now called "sacrament of reconciliation" -on a regular basis. Confession time is offered each Saturday afternoon.
"We're down a bit, but not all that much," said Father Thomas Hayes of St. Anne's Catholic Church. "Some come weekly. Other people come once a month. We have three priests here (on Saturdays) for 60 minutes, and we're quite busy."
At St. Michael's in Morada, the confession lines are pretty long, Walker said.
There is a major misconception in the Catholic Church, said Father Michael Kelly of St. Joachim's Catholic Church.
"You are only compelled to go to confession if it's a serious sin," Kelly said. "(About) 30-40 years ago, we went every time we went to Communion."
A serious, or mortal sin, is basically something that violates the Ten Commandments, Kelly said. And it has to be with the free will and full knowledge that the act was a sin, he said.
But sins must be put in perspective.
"Is stealing five cents a serious sin? No," Kelly said. "Is stealing $500 a serious sin? Yes."
Lydia Van Steyn, a long-time parishioner at St. Anne's, said she's noticed a decline in Catholics attending confession.
"I could not give one specific reason," Van Steyn said. "People's faith is not that strong, so they don't realize the importance of it.
How to go to confession1. The priest often begins with the Sign of the Cross or a greeting and blessing.
2. The penitent says, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been (how long?) since my last confession. These are my sins."
3. Confess all mortal sins committed since your last confession by kind and number. Hold nothing back. You may also confess any venial, or less important, sins.
4. At the end of confession, say these or similar words: "For these and all the sins of my life, I am sorry." By this, you tell the priest that you are finished. Otherwise, he might think you are still thinking or even trying to summon the courage to tell him "the big one."
5. The priest may ask questions for clarification or give you some counsel on a point from your confession. Answer briefly.
6. The priest will give you a penance. You can refuse a penance if it is too vague or impossible to do in a reasonable time.
7. The penitent makes an act of contrition in these or similar words: "Oh my God. I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all of my sins because of Thy just punishments. But most of all because they offend Thee my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasions of sin. Amen." Memorize a good act of contrition.
8. The priest says, "I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." Do not leave until the priest has given you absolution. He will not refuse you absolution unless it is clear that you are not sorry for your sins or you have no intention of amending your life.
"If they are sincere about it, it's still a good response in a certain way because it shows they still consider going to confession as important," Van Steyn said.
Van Steyn said it's good to confess even minor, or venial sins such as lacking compassion or being greedy, selfish or arrogant.
"Confession is the greatest gift we can receive as God's people," she said. "Even for a small sin, it helps us to grow stronger to resist temptation. It's actually God's gift to grow in holiness, really."
At. St. Joachim's, parishioners don't step into the traditional confessional like they used to, Kelly said.
"We have a booth here with a screen between the priest and person, or if somebody wants to, they can take three steps further and sit opposite the priest.," Kelly said.
More often, the parishioner will just talk with Kelly in his office or in the sanctuary, if there is enough privacy.
Group 'penance services'
In Lockeford, more people save up their confessions for the parish's two communal, or penance services, Kelly said. These are held about 10 days before Christmas and 10 days before Easter.
Priests from St. Anne's in Lodi, St. Joachim's in Lockeford, St. Michael's in Morada and Holy Cross in Linden come together for evening services at each of the four parishes during Lent and Advent to hear confessions.
"A lot of local priests come. You might have seven, eight, 10 priests scattered around," said Sister Terry Davis from the Stockton Diocese. "It is quite a moving experience to watch it, and to watch individually how they do it - just a hand on someone's shoulder. I happen to really love it."
The benefit from confessing at the twice-a-year penance service, Kelly and Walker said, is that parishioners don't have to face their own priest while talking about their sins. They are free to approach a priest from one of the neighboring parishes - someone they don't know personally, Kelly and Walker said.
"It's very humbling when we have the penance service in Lockeford," Kelly said. "The communal part is the preparation, with music, scripture and the Lord's Prayer. Then we invite people to go to individual priests."
Penance services are scheduled for March 26 in Lockeford, March 28 in Lodi and March 30 in Morada. A penance service will also be held at St. Christopher's Parish in Galt, but a date hasn't been set yet.
"We have 500-600 for penance services (in Lodi)," Hayes said. "About 15 priests come in. We go about an hour and a half."
Davis, from the Stockton Diocese, said she enjoys the penance service because you know you're not alone.
"You begin as a community of sinners," she said. "We collectively do things that are hurtful and sinful."
Davis recalls her childhood in the 1960s in Sacramento.
"There was the black box with the disembodied voice of the priest," she said. "It was pretty frightening for a kid."
Mortal sinsThe Catholic Catechism outlines what constitutes a mortal sin, which focuses on the Ten Commandments. Mortal sins are committed if the person commits the act willfully and knows it is wrong before committing it. Sins include:
• Homosexuality, fornication, pornography and masturbation.
• Adultery, divorce and polygamy.
• Failure to do whatever possible to avoid war.
• Failure to honor one's parents.
• Failure by parents to ensure that their children receive an education.
• Working or doing anything to impede worshipping God on the Sabbath.
• Using God's, Jesus', the Virgin Mary's or saints' names in an offensive way.
• Superstition, such as magic.
• Failure to show kindness toward animals.
• Lying, but let the Golden Rule be your guide.
• Looking at a woman lustfully.
• Dressing immodestly.
• Envy - sadness at the sight of another's goods and immoderate desire to have them for oneself.
Source: Catholic Catechism
And it seems that penance ordered by priests have changed over the years. Sinners' punishments were sometimes public, with priests ordering them to have long-term fasts, sit away from other parishioners or banned from church during communion, according to a Washington Post story last week.
Today, penances can involve the traditional order to recite prayers, tell a busy parent to spend more time with a child or mandate a nature hike for the person to gain perspective on God's creation, the Washington Post reported.
"I was never told to take a hike," Hayes said, chuckling.
"The typical penance is to say some prayers for you, to realize you did something wrong," Hayes said.
But Kelly takes a little different tact in Lockeford.
"The penance I give virtually anybody is pray to God," he said. "Then I ask them to look at the things they have confessed to and choose the one they most need to change.
"It's like New Years' resolutions," Kelly said. "If you make 10 resolutions, you won't keep any of them. If you make one, there's a good chance you'll do it."
Although parishioners, at least in Lockeford, tend to wait until the penance services, Kelly said it's good to come more often.
"You don't have to go unless you've committed a 'serious' sin, but we encourage people to go," Kelly said. "It's easy to just run and run and run, but it's good to put on the brakes and stop and smell the roses. It's a good opportunity for them to get a little perspective on their lives and give a good time-out."
First published: Monday, March 5, 2007