Reconciliation makes strides with the young, converts

Love and understanding await us in confession, as Father Thomas Marks and Denise Morbit, of Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock demonstrate.
Love and understanding await us in confession, as Father Thomas Marks and Denise Morbit, of Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock demonstrate.

Three second-graders from St. Joseph School in Conway peered at the visitor in puzzlement. Less than a month ago, the trio and their classmates completed their first reconciliation and with the memory of that milestone still fresh, fielding questions about confession felt a lot like stating the painfully obvious.

Was it hard to remember what to say?

“There’s a card in there, you can use the card,” said Max Longing. Duh.

Well, pressed the visitor, weren’t you afraid of the priest getting mad at you because of your sin?

“He’d never do that,” said Cooper Berger with a where-did-we-get-this-guy expression.

Asked why it’s important for a Catholic to go to confession in the first place, the mood turns from puzzlement to downright pity for someone who could think up a question that dumb.

“Because,” said Amrey Standridge in a slow, measured tone, “it washes away your sin.”

If it is true, to paraphrase Robert Fulghum’s popular book, “All We Really Need to Know We Learned in Kindergarten,” then all any Catholic ever needs to grasp about the sacrament of reconciliation are things a second grader can easily understand.

Unlike the deeper mysteries to be had in the Catholic faith — transubstantiation, the Trinity, why bad things happen to good people — confession is about as straight-ahead as it gets: We are innately sinful. God is infinitely loving. Lay your sins at his feet with genuine contrition and emerge forgiven.

“It’s one of those deals that’s like going to the dentist, we know it’s good for us, but we still avoid it,” said Father Phillip Reaves, pastor of Holy Rosary Church in Stuttgart. “I tell people it’s a good opportunity to have a spiritual checkup and learn to follow Christ in a better way.”

You’d think the chance to be so easily reconciled with God — to be forgiven, unburdened, washed clean — would make confession a regular fixture in the life of Catholics. Sadly, such is not the case. Next to the Virgin Mary, contraception and pro-life issues, there may be no bigger Catholic lightning rod than reconciliation.

In 2009, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a national, non-profit research center affiliated with Georgetown University, released survey results of more than 1,000 self-identified Catholics regarding the sacraments. Among the findings: While 62 percent surveyed agreed “somewhat” or “strongly” that “Sacraments are essential to my faith,” confession ranked last among the seven as being “very” or “somewhat meaningful” with only 66 percent listing it as such.

As for actual practice, 75 percent of respondents (the equivalent of 37.5 million individuals) went to confession less than once per year and 26 percent sought penance at least annually. Only 2 percent went once a month or more. (Given the study’s 3 percent margin of error, the actual number in this category could very well be, statistically speaking, zero.)

“I think the main reason people don’t go is number one, they don’t know they are being called to go,” said Father Alejandro Puello, associate pastor of St. Raphael Church in Springdale. “Something really great is waiting for them there.”

The study showed a direct correlation between Mass attendance and going to confession. Among those who attended Mass weekly, 63 percent participate in reconciliation at least once a year or more, compared with 39 percent of people who attended Mass at least once per month and only 6 percent among those attending Mass less than that.

However, even this isn’t a given. Jim Limbird, 62, a parishioner at Our Lady of the Holy Souls in Little Rock, grew up in the faith and graduated from Subiaco Academy where the sacraments were celebrated like clockwork. Even so, as life unfolded he found himself increasingly absent from the confessional.

“Once I got to college, my mother wasn’t there to make me go,” he said. “Then you get married and that brings responsibilities and then you have kids and that brings responsibilities. Time-wise it’s hectic.”

Reconciliation fares better as a prescription than as self-medication: Among parents responding to the CARA survey, 77 percent said confession was “somewhat” or “very” important for their children. However, 62 percent of all respondents (and 54 percent of weekly Mass-goers) agreed “somewhat” or “strongly” that one can be a “good Catholic” without participating in the sacrament of reconciliation at least once a year.

All spiritual debate aside, the more common barriers are the well-worn scapegoats of people’s embarrassment confessing their sins to a priest or personality issues with their confessor.

“That’s a vulnerable moment to admit to another human being what you’ve done wrong. Even though that’s really Jesus sitting there, that’s not what it feels like,” Father Puello said. “Even so, people find all kinds of ways to rationalize their actions.”

“Some people will go to confession if they can go to a priest that isn’t in their parish, such as at a penance service,” Father Reaves said. “Others won’t go to anyone but a priest they know.”

Father Reaves suggested some people took the reform-oriented language of Vatican II and ran with it in unintended directions and the Church has been working to reel them back in ever since. The latest appeal came Feb. 19 by no less than Pope Francis who, in his regular weekly audience, coined the rallying cry, “Be courageous. Go to confession.”

“If a lot of time has passed, don’t lose even one more day,” the pontiff said, promising, “the priest will be good. Jesus will be there and he’s even nicer than the priest.”

Such statements should not only embolden the faithful, but provides apt challenge for clergy, said Father Charles Thessing, pastor of St. Michael Church in West Memphis. He said the compassion and tone with which priests receive the penitent in persona Christi is the key factor to whether they ever come back.

“More people want to be reconciled with the Church, but in my opinion there are priests who are an obstacle to that,” Father Thessing said. “I know of priests who will ask penitents if they are married validly and if they aren’t, they won’t hear their confession. That just keeps people out of the Church.”

Every congregant interviewed held this point in common — the difference between going to confession regularly or not often lies with the impact a single priest made in their lives. Limbird, for instance, recalls a conversation with a monk at his alma mater moved him from seldom showing up for confession to today attending about once a month.

“The big step he helped me understand was that I’m not talking to a priest, that’s Jesus,” he said. “Once you get that, it’s easy, it’s all downhill from there.”

So is there any good news when it comes to reconciliation? Anecdotally, yes. Survey participants were overwhelmingly cradle Catholics, more than 80 percent, and those who work with converts say new Catholics tend to embrace the sacraments more faithfully than those born into the Church even though initial trepidation might be higher.

“It’s definitely one of those stumbling blocks that give non-Catholics the most pause,” said Deacon Dan Hennessey, who’s headed up RCIA formation at St. Edward Church in Little Rock since 2002. “It’s not an unusual response to hear, ‘I don’t know if I can do that.’”

Lydia Perry, 25, knows this all too well, having experienced it during her preparation to enter the Church two years ago. Growing up in the Protestant environment — which rejects the necessity of clergy to gain forgiveness for sin — the sacrament was a mountain to climb.

“Coming from a Protestant background where you don’t hear the explanation for it, (Catholic) confession sounds really weird,” said Perry, now a parishioner of Cathedral of St. Andrew. “We were taught to confess our sins to one another. Talking to a priest about your problems was an alien type of mindset.

“But here was the point I didn’t understand: All the time I confessed my sin directly to God I still never felt freedom, that it was actually gone. I didn’t truly understand the difference between darkness and light until getting it out there and actually saying it.”

As a young adult, Perry is part of the demographic clergy say is, on the whole, more faithful in seeking reconciliation than their parents. They also confess differently, less formulaic, but what they lack in vernacular they make up for in devotion.

“The younger crowd coming to confession aren’t as prepared, but they are more conscious of the importance of the sacrament that sometimes gets lost as we mature,” Father Puello said. “As a result they come to confession more often than their parents, more at the rate their grandparents did.”

Dwain Hebda

You can see Dwain Hebda’s byline in Arkansas Catholic and dozens of other online and print publications. He attends Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock.

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