Amy Welborn blogged the other day about a very good Washinton Post article about the sacrament of Penance. Some of the comments there are especially enlightening.
A priest, Rev. William Byrne, chaplain at the University of Maryland's College Park campus, is having great success in popularizing the sacrament among college students:
"We have pretty solid lines, probably 30 kids on Sundays before Mass," he said. "The thing that makes me mad is hearing 40- to 60-year-old Catholics talk about 'Catholic guilt' " in the context of confession, said Byrne, who is 39. "I say that's baloney. We're the only ones who have sacramentalized the system of offering absolution and forgiveness for sin. Our emphasis is forgiveness."
I too have heard similar remarks about "Catholic guilt". Usually it comes from lapsed Catholics. I think in many cases that the phrase "Catholic guilt" isn't so much expressing feelings of guilt they're carrying around from the days when they were practicing Catholics, as much as the guilt they're carrying around today, as lapsed Catholics, for all the sins they haven't confessed, and their conscience nagging at them for drifting away from the Faith.
I note the fact that Fr. Byrne and I are the same age, and have a similar reaction to suggestions of "Catholic guilt". Perhaps it's a generational thing. I have no doubt that some people have had bad experiences, in which a priest berated them in the confessional. I hope such people can get past that experience to know the healing touch of Christ. We (that's you and me) have a duty to reach out to those people and reinvite them to the Sacrament of Christ's healing.
I consider the Sacrament of Penance one of the greatest gifts ever given to me. I can say with absolute confidence that I would not be a priest today without the many graces I have gained from it. In fact, I can point to one particular confession as an event which prompted me to start thinking about the priesthood.
I was in college, and had gone through what I call a "bad" period. I was beginning to take my faith more seriously: I had started again going to Mass regularly, and got involved in things like a bible study at the college parish. But I knew things weren't really "right" between God and me. I avoided thinking about it for a while (I hadn't gone to confession since 7th grade), but gradually the conviction grew that I had to go to confession. Luckily the college parish offered confessions every afternoon. So I went, and after a nervous beginning I just poured it all out. The priest's counsel was outstanding. He managed in a few minutes to help me to see the self-destructiveness of sin, and how Christ was inviting me to really and truly live again in Him. In that experience I really learned what mercy meant, and how much of that mercy was given to me. That priest later became my spiritual director, and was of great help to me in discerning my vocation.
I too firmly believe that confession needs to be offered frequently. It seems to me that for a parish to offer confessions "by appointment" only is to implicitly begrudge people the sacrament. The only time I ever say no to hearing someone's confession is if it's less than 10 minutes before I have to celebrate Mass: I need that time to prepare for Mass. But even then I urge the person to see me right after Mass. I say this not to take credit for myself. I think that is simply my duty as a priest.
There has been, in recent years, much talk of a loss of the "sense of sin" among Catholics. I don't know which Catholics are meant by that, but I can assure you that in my experience that attitude certainly isn't to be found in young people. I find them to be very aware of their sinfulness and need for forgiveness. I remember once, shortly after I was ordained, I went to Notre Dame to visit a friend who was on the faculty there. It was a fine evening and we were enjoying a walk around campus before we went to dinner, when we walked by the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. I noticed that confessions were scheduled to be offered in a few minutes, and decided on the spur of the moment to go. I took my place near the confessional, where there were about 8-9 college students waiting. The appointed time for confessions came and went, and no priest showed up. After waiting till ten minutes after the hour, and observing the students getting visibly restless, I resolved to step into the breach. I was dressed in "civvies", so I announced, "I 'm a visiting priest, and if the priest who's scheduled doesn't show up in the next 5 minutes, I'll hear your confessions." Well, he didn't show, so I stepped into the confessional. It was one of the most uplifting experiences I had had up to that time. Those students so clearly desired Christ's mercy, so obviously wanted holiness, and the means by which to become holy, that it "blew me away". Don't mistake me: they were in many senses typical college students, with the sins you might expect from them. But they knew their sinfulness, and wanted better. They were so open to what advice I could give them, it was humbling to me. I saw the power of the sacrament at work in them.
I went to confession frequently as a seminarian, and still do now. I usually go to confession about once a week. I tell people, if they ask me, that I go frequently because "If I skip confession for more than a week, I notice the difference. If I go for more than two weeks, my parishioners will notice the difference. If I go for more than three weeks without confession, everyone will notice the difference.
While in the seminary I learned a lot about the sacrament of confession, and in my final year there my classmates and I even "practiced" hearing confessions. But nothing could really prepare me for what a grace and blessing it is to hear confessions and be the minister of the sacrament as a priest. I have seen people come in to the confessional weighed down and oppressed by sin, and leave with tears of joy streaming down their faces. I have heard women confess the sin of abortion, and offered them the tender touch of Christ's forgiveness, and the possibility of knowing love and life once again. I have heard men confess terrible sins that were long hidden, which had shrunk and vitiated their lives, and seen them emerge whole and more nearly men again. And I have heard the confessions of men and women whose love for God, selflessness, and zeal for Christ have been so strking that, in hearing them, I thought "this person is a Saint, I have no doubt of it." Those people have left me humbled and grateful when they walked out.
Next to celebrating Mass, and holding Our Eucharistic Lord in my unworthy hands, the greatest privilege and grace I have is to be able to hear confessions and, acting in the person of Christ, be his instrument of mercy and forgiveness.