Green Light on the Confessional

Fr. Kenneth Doyle writes one of those syndicated columns in the Catholic press that answers questions about the Church that Catholics pose. Recently, a Minnesota correspondent wrote asking about confessions during Mass. The writer recalled being told in catechism that fulfilling the precept of attending Mass required attendance at the Gospel, offertory, and Communion, but his parish just began hearing confessions during Mass. How did that affect the requirement of Mass attendance?

The author eased the questioner’s soul by assuring him he was “morally present” and, thus, participated in Mass.

For me, the more interesting question was: hearing confessions during Mass. Fr. Doyle admitted “[t]hat practice is a source of some pastoral debate among priests.” He noted, “there is no universal prohibition of the practice. In fact, the Vatican has spoken directly to the point,” saying the Congregation for Divine Worship had said in 2001 that, while confessions were preferred outside of Mass, there was no bar to hearing them at the time of Mass. He added, however, that some dioceses, e.g., the Archdiocese of Chicago, prohibit the practice.

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Let me weigh in.

Yes, not only did the Vatican say confessions could be heard during Mass; it hears them, too. I’ve sat in St. Peter’s Basilica on Holy Saturday evening, during the Great Vigil, while confessors were still absolving penitents. Let me add that, in Poland, it’s also not unusual for a priest to step into the confessional at the beginning of almost every Mass, even on weekdays.

When I was growing up—probably about the same time that Fr. Doyle’s correspondent was—in the late 1960s, I recall going with my mother to “Monday night novena.” It wasn’t just a novena: it was a 7 p.m. Mass in which there were novenas to the Miraculous Medal and St. Jude as well as a sermon. And a priest usually sat in the confessional until he ran out of penitents, then helped distribute Communion.

I know that the vision I just described would probably make some liturgists’ skin crawl. They would certainly argue that hearing confessions concurrently with Mass detracts from Vatican II’s call for the faithful to “take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, #48). They would further argue that the admixture of the Eucharist with popular devotions should be discouraged as detracting from the former, “since, in fact, the liturgy by its very nature far surpasses any of them” (Ibid., #13).

I disagree, because I think these arguments pose false dichotomies. I disagree, too, because I think that over the past half century, we have lost a lot—in terms of spirituality and pastoral care—because of these false dichotomies. (I think the same can be said of the disappearance in some places of confessions from the Paschal Triduum, especially on Holy Saturday, a separate question).

Take my childhood experience. Holy Spirit in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, usually had about 75 people at the novena. Now, 75 people at a weekday Mass was nothing to sneeze at, and these people came, week in and week out (it was, after all, a novena!) A lot of them regularly went to confession and received communion. That’s not bad: there are parishes now challenged to achieve that on Sundays. It strikes me that this was pretty good pastoral care.

Did it detract from the liturgy? No: the fact that the novena was integrated into the liturgy (right after the homily) in fact meant that people were gathering for the central celebration of the Church’s life, the Eucharist. So how did that detract from the liturgy?

That they went to confession? The purpose of the liturgy is not to sanctify people. What they were doing in fact made them even more prepare to participate in the liturgy reverently, worthily, with holiness. Was that a detraction from the liturgy? On the Day of Judgment, do you really think the Lord will be more interested in the fact that they sat through the First Reading or that they were sanctified in sacramental confession?

Yes, I admit that, in a perfect world, it would be wonderful if everyone was in a state of grace before the beginning of Mass, in which they participated with full and conscious awareness. I also admit that I am dealing with human beings.

Let’s look at what mainstream American pastoral praxis in fact looks like. In many parishes, confessions are shoved into a half hour or hour before the Saturday Vigil Mass. In the typical parish, there is no confessional “rush hour.”

We also cannot deny the phenomenon that the number of communicants at the typical Sunday liturgy far outstrips the number of penitents on the typical Saturday afternoon. While I would love to say that this represents the profundity of holiness among contemporary American Catholics, I’d have to confess lying if I did.

I think that, in America and much of the West, the nexus between liturgy and personal holiness has become tenuous, and that would represent a real misunderstanding of the former. The fact that reception of communion is commonplace while the sacrament of Penance has fallen into crisis in many places suggests that my observation is not baseless. Once upon a time, theology spoke of “confession of devotion,” i.e., the reception of the sacrament not in order to be forgiven of grave sin but out of a desire to grow in holiness. That’s what I bet a lot of the people were doing at the Monday night novena I remember. Some might say it was “rote” or “habit,” but—so what? Habits in themselves are neutral, and I’d say what they were doing was a good habit. Shouldn’t we have cultivated that?

Wouldn’t the regular presence of a confessor at the time of the liturgy also reinforce the central message that is proclaimed in the invitation to communion in the Byzantine liturgy: “holy things for the holy!”

Wouldn’t it make it harder to ignore the call to conversion? Wouldn’t it make it harder to put off going to confession?

Even if we were to concede that confessions should not be heard during Mass (dato non concesso), I am still not convinced that the way most parishes schedule the sacrament represents in any way its intelligent promotion. In fact, I’d venture to say it represents inertia.

Once upon a time, most parishes scheduled confessions on Saturday afternoons (and evenings). Then again, once upon a time, confessors (plural) were generally very busy with those penitents on Saturday afternoons (and evenings). Well, the penitents disappeared. The schedule stayed.

In today’s world, does that schedule make sense? Does it really communicate the fact that the Church’s raison d’être is to be a perennial call to conversion, that individual sanctification is the community’s constant business?

At the very least, hearing confessions before every Sunday Mass (if not during them) would truly signify that priority. I understand that parishes today no longer have as many priests as they used to and clergy are time-strapped. I understand that hospitality is important, but I also suggest that shriving souls rather than shaking hands takes precedence.

Perhaps a broader discussion of schedules in parishes might also be appropriate. The contemporary reality of the American weekend—good or not—is that it becomes a time for frenetic rest (an oxymoron) and frenetic activity: a break from the frantic week, but also a narrow window to do everything that the frantic week leaves no time for. In that context, the Sabbath rest in some sense loses its Scriptural significance as “repose in the Lord” and becomes in practice a respite from exhaustion, hardly conducive to spiritual things (which presuppose time and silence).

So, would a parish profit from confessions at other times? Here in the Diocese of Arlington, there are parishes that hear confessions on Wednesday nights from 7:30 to whenever, probably a holdover from the successful “Light is On” Lenten program that encouraged parishes to schedule a weeknight bloc for Reconciliation every week during Lent. One parish allocates time on Friday nights, others schedule around 9 or 9:30 am on Saturdays, just before people hit the road for shopping and other chores. Since “dialogue” is supposed to be the leitmotif of modern pastoral care, perhaps it would be worth polling parishioners?

Regardless of the outcome, however, the Church is a sign, a sign of conversion, and that sign is communicated also by how we allocate that most precious of gifts: time. A parish that sees “the light is on” regularly, when people are in church, know that we attach priority to penance; a parish that does not see that, also draws the obvious conclusions. So, is “the light on” … maybe even during Mass?


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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