Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Our Lips Are Sealed: A Priest Ponders Ways to Get Young Catholics to Confession

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Our Lips Are Sealed: A Priest Ponders Ways to Get Young Catholics to Confession

Article excerpt


He was a 16-year-old Catholic high school student who entered my confessional during a school reconciliation service at a local retreat house where I assist with confessions. "I've done everything," he said, like some penitents when they don't know where to begin or how to get started.

"Ever murder anybody?" I asked, somewhat humorously, to break the ice. His eyes filled with tears, his head dropped, and he mumbled, "Yes." He had lived on the West Coast and got involved in a gang beating where a boy was killed. Although he had not actually struck any blows, he was in the group and, as a result, was carrying around a lot of guilt and pain. He knew it would haunt him for the rest of his life.

He and his morn moved east to get a new start in life, and he was determined to take advantage of the new opportunities and support to make up for the past. He was doing well in school and liked the new environment. We talked for quite a while, and I encouraged him strongly to make a new start with the opportunities ahead of him and make his mother proud, something I sensed was a strong motivating factor in his decision. He would have to live with the memory of the beating but hopefully learn from it.

For several years I have been a confessor at a local youth retreat house and at a diocesan high school. My decision to take on this additional ministry was motivated by a desire to stay in touch with this millennial segment of the Catholic population. Not all encounters with young Catholic penitents are dramatic. Most of the confessions are fairly routine discussions about parental problems, dating issues, stressful school schedules, and similar teen concerns.

Over time I began to notice that in each group a sizable number of students chose not to approach a priest during the penance service in school or at the retreat house. Despite creative penance services, motivational talks from teachers and clergy, contemporary examinations of conscience, and assurances that "It doesn't matter how long you have been away from confession or whether you know the proper formulas or not," many students simply remain seated, busying themselves with reading, listening to music, or chatting quietly.

I was curious about this and decided to find out why. The only way was to ask the students themselves, so I designed a simple questionnaire and, with the help of a religion teacher at a Catholic co-ed high school, I gave the survey to 677 students shortly after a communal reconciliation service. Seventy of the students identified as non-Catholic, although nine had opted to meet with a priest, as they were encouraged to. Of the 607 self-identified Catholic students, 397 had approached a priest while 210 chose not to.

The questionnaire consisted of 10 statements suggesting a variety of reasons why a student would decline the chance to go to confession. Students were asked to prioritize 10 reasons for their non-participation (1 being the most important and 10 the least) or simply a zero if the suggested reason had no impact at all on their decision. The survey was not intended to be a scientific analysis but an informal tool to provide a snapshot of one Catholic educational setting. The results were enlightening but not all that surprising.

Twenty students said they felt "more comfortable" speaking anonymously to a priest, rather than face-to-face. Eleven indicated some fear that the priest would be "angry, disappointed, or harsh." Eleven said it had been "a long time since their last confession" and couldn't remember everything. The most significant reason, however, came from 123 students who said they felt they "could get forgiveness directly from God and did not need to tell their sins to another human person like themselves."

Some of the practical obstacles are easily remedied: provide the option for anonymous or screened confessionals that the church allows and ensure privacy--both visual and audible--for all the confessional stations, even those face-to-face. …

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