By Seth Gonzales
The Texas Catholic
As the Lenten season progresses towards Easter, pastors are extending an invitation to Catholics across the Diocese of Dallas: come back to confession.
“Lent is a penitential season,” said Father Clifford Smith, pastor of St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church in Plano “It’s about correcting our faults, working on our relationship with God, neighbor and self through acts of prayer, penitence and charity. Penance falls into all that.”
The sacrament of confession, also frequently referred to as reconciliation or penance, is one of four sacraments that Catholics can receive more than once. In fact, Catholics are obligated to go to confession at least once a year, and many do. But in recent years, many more Catholics aren’t going as frequently — if at all. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, three quarters of Catholics participate in the sacrament of confession less than once a year or not at all.
Father Smith said much of it has to do with how Catholics view the sacrament.
“It’s a healing sacrament, which not everybody understands,” Father Smith said. “If we don’t work on healing then we get worse. For little things, ‘cuts and bruises’, we can take care of them ourselves and ask God for forgiveness. But if I’m gardening and I cut off a finger, I’m not just going to put a Band-Aid over it. I’m going to go get serious help. That’s what confession is.”
Father James Yamauchi is the parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church. As a canon law student at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, he wrote his thesis on the penance a person receives during confession, and how the church understands it. He said for many Catholics, one word comes to mind when they think of confession: guilt.
“I think there’s a certain tendency where it can all be about ‘Catholic guilt,’” Father Yamauchi said. “It becomes all about themselves and their sins, rather than saying it’s all about God and what He is doing in us. It’s an opportunity to encounter God. It’s an opportunity to encounter his mercy, his forgiveness, and his love.”
That message of mercy, love and forgiveness is one that pastors have been trying to get across to their parishioners and they’ve been getting some help from Pope Francis. On March 28, the pontiff, along with 61 additional priests, led a 24-hour penitential service at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Before the service began, Pope Francis surprised onlookers, and even his master of ceremonies, when he kneeled at a confessional and took part in the sacrament himself.
“Conversion is not the question of a moment or a time of the year, it is an undertaking that lasts one’s entire lifetime,” Pope Francis told those in attendance. “Who among us can presume not to be a sinner? No one. We are all sinners.”
It was a point of emphasis directed not only at lay Catholics, but priests and religious as well.
“Priests go to confession regularly, sometimes weekly, because we need it too,” Father Smith said. “We get upset with people, frustrated, impatient, and mad. We’ve got all the regular stuff, so as a rule, we have to go as well.”
For Father Timothy Church, some of the most inspiring confessions he’s heard are from people who have been away from the sacrament for decades.
“It’s really quite moving as a matter of fact,” said Father Church, pastor of St. Jude Catholic Church in Allen. “There are people I’ve encountered who haven’t been to confession in 70 or 80 years. That’s amazing to me. They come back and they’re so delighted to hear words spoken to them that are not intended to be a cause of embarrassment, but joy.”