Thursday, 03 June 2010
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. My last confession was three months ago."
The confessional is small and cramped. The natural awkwardness of being inside a box shielded from a man that you know, and who almost certainly knows who you are by your voice, makes the traditional act of confession an almost perverse act of rote repetition and a monotonous checklist repetition of sins, as if reading from the menu in the McDonald's drive-through. Half expecting Father WhatsHisName to ask me if I want fries with my sins, I am almost certain to rush through my list and forget yesterday's double-dip on the Fourth and Eighth Commandments. In most parishes, the Sacrament Penance and Reconciliation (the official name for confession in the Catholic Church) is a scheduled, weekly event that is given an hour of the day. Almost certainly people are milling about, waiting their turn, knowing that I am in there, quietly pointing out how that Megan girl has been in there for a long time. Such a nasty, little teenaged slut she must be!
I hate it. I hate everything about the traditional confession process, and I believe that most Catholics feel the same way. Catholic confession has its roots in the words of John 20:22-23 -- the granting, to the Apostles, of the power to forgive and retain sins in the name of God. We do not reject the non-Catholic Christian belief in confessing directly to God; in fact we believe that we are confessing directly to God, through one who has been ordained with the authority to act on His behalf. Not only is openly telling another person of our sins good for us, but we receive a confirmation of absolution and a guidance in penance that we don't receive on our own. It is this surety that allows us to know we have fully reconciled with God instead of just guessing. For this surety, we need a priest. And we don't have enough of them.
At my university, you can't throw a Bible without hitting a priest. There is a chapel in every residence hall, with a resident Priest; a Basilica; and a local Parish all on a campus that serves fewer students and faculty than most urban parishes. Making an appointment to meet, in private, with a Priest and confessing face to face is easy, a benefit that, unfortunately, many regular parishes are unable to provide due to a shortage of priests. I prefer to sit down with my priest and talk about my sins in a more casual discussion; we pray and follow the standard confessional process without the stuffiness and rush of the confessional.
It is so hard to ask and expect a priest at a busy parish to provide such individualized attention. With all the current problems plaguing the Catholic Church right now, I believe that the shortage of men who are called to the priestly vocation is our most pressing issue. Not all that long ago, there were far more parishes and most parishes were staffed by at least two full-time priests, a Pastor and a more junior priest.
Today, many small parishes do not have a resident priest (almost a third lack one, by some counts) and actually share a priest with a larger parish or another small parish. Most of the time, you will be greeted by a Deacon who cannot validly hear confession or celebrate the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Even ten years ago, due to inquiries from Bishops looking to become more efficient like any business with a labor shortage, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had to clarify that confession couldn't be heard by e-mail or over the phone! The shortage of priests is preventing them from fulfilling one of their most important roles: being direct spiritual advisers to members of their parish. Nothing is going to harm our Church more than priests being too busy to directly connect with their flock and their community.
Have shortages of clergy harmed your local church? How can the Catholic Church address this shortage of priests? Is this trend occurring in other Christian denominations?