A priest-friend of mine has remarked that every priest should take his weekly confession time (in minutes), multiply by 52 weeks, then divide by the number of individual parishioners over the age of reason. The result is how many minutes each parishioner gets for confession each year. The answer in many parishes may be surprising and/or pathetic.
One of the precepts of the Church is that we should confess our mortal sins at least once a year, during the Easter season (part of our “Easter duty” — though, traditionally, the season of Lent is included in the time that we might fulfill this duty). This precept is expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2042, and in the Code of Canon Law, canon 989. But confession once a year (whether we have mortal sins or not) is really a bare minimum — and do we really want to be “bare minimum Catholics” with the Lord? What would it look like if we were to take that approach consistently through life and, as a result, be unprepared for death (because we died before yearly confession time)? And how will our judgment go if – by some happy provision – we were to die in the state of grace (in spite of our overall lack of generosity with God), yet had offered God basically the bare minimum throughout our life up to death? To do the bare minimum is to aim low and very greatly risk missing the mark.
We should go to confession on a regular basis, even if all we have are venial sins. Those who confess regularly make true spiritual progress. They receive special graces to help them reach the state of perfection even in this life, before the Lord calls them to eternal life. After all, Jesus told us in the gospel, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Yet, do our parish confession schedules really help? Let’s take, for example, a parish that offers confessions from 4 to 4:50 on Saturdays and additionally has a Lenten Penance service with five priests there for 1.5 hours. Let’s further assume that about 2,500 souls above the age of reason attend that parish. So that’s 50 minutes per week times 52 weeks, plus 90 minutes times 5 priests for the extra penance service. Then, divided by 2,500 people. The outcome is 1.22 minutes per person for the year. Not even the most experienced frequent penitent can blurt out his or her sins that fast, recite his or her act of contrition, and receive advice, penance, and absolution in such a time – never mind someone who might go far less frequently!
The reality is that most of our parishes do not take the sacrament seriously, at least as far as the schedule that they offer goes. It doesn’t matter how good the priest is as a priest and as a confessor, if, at the end of the day, he does not schedule enough time for all his parishioners to go regularly. (I count myself in this critique — we do have confessions six days a week in my parish, but we could certainly increase our offering.)
Fathers, how can we preach better use of this sacrament, if we do not offer it? I know well what it’s like to “sit in the box” with no one coming. And yes, while some claim that if we but schedule it “they will come”, I know also that does not always happen. In some places it really is an uphill battle. I’ve also read many fine spiritual treatises that offer a spirituality to the priest who finds himself alone “in the box”. Armed with his breviary and mental prayer, he can still accomplish a lot for the Church, even if the overall traffic that day is light. So in any case… do we offer a schedule that is serious and shows that we are taking the sacrament that we preach seriously?
(Another factor to consider in the above calculation is whether it is reasonable for the majority of parishioners to come from 4 to 4:50pm on a Saturday — or whatever the weekly time might be, where that is all that is offered.)
Life today is overly complex and priests are too busy. I myself have far too much to do for one priest and regularly have to decide between tasks; I also have to live with my decisions and wonder if I decided well and if the Lord will forgive me for what I chose to set aside “for later”. It’s not easy. But there is a certainly priestly priority of things; we all risk losing sight of what is most important: the things that only a priest can do, namely, the celebration of the sacraments.
I liken this to the issue of Holy Day of Obligation schedules. Some priests, seeing that perhaps a certain Holy Day is poorly attended, offers a Mass schedule that might even be less than what is routinely offered to meet the Sunday obligation — or with Masses at inconvenient times. But for the five (generally speaking) Holy Days of Obligation, why wouldn’t we offer at least the same number of Masses as we have for Sundays? In fact, we may need to offer more, given that many people have to work on those days anyhow. In my parish, we have a Saturday anticipated Mass and two Sunday morning Masses; but as of last year I started offering both a Vigil/anticipated Mass for most Holy Days as well as three Masses on the actual Holy Day — in sum, one more Mass than we offer for Sundays.
There is a humorous meme that I have seen on social media, to the effect that no one on his judgment day thinks to himself, “I wish I had spent more time on Facebook”. I doubt there will be many priests on judgment day who think, “I wish I hadn’t spent so much time offering confessions”. The above simple calculation can help us start to set the right priorities. May our Lord help us, then, to carry them out.