HACKENSACK, N.J. — One of loneliest places in church these days is the confession line. The act of confessing one’s sins, a requirement for Catholics, has sharply fallen over several decades with evolving views on sin, penance and the stature of the priesthood.
But now Pope Francis and church leaders, in a push to draw people back to confession, are highlighting what clergy say are the healing, uplifting aspects of the sacrament and focusing less on themes like punishment and condemnation.
Some churches are using websites, newspaper ads and highway billboards to get the message out. Under diocesan guidance, churches have also added one extra day a week to hear confession during Lent, the period before Easter when penance is considered a Catholic duty. And the pope, in an image seen and talked about around the world, confessed to a priest last month in public view.
But will these efforts change attitudes among Catholics, many of whom believe confession no longer is a necessary part of the faith?
“It’s not something I look at as something I need to do to be a good Catholic, but I always know it’s there if I feel a need to go,” said Keith Ahearn, a churchgoer who lives in Oakland, N.J.
Ahearn said seeing Pope Francis’ example of confession did cause him to think twice.
“I have to admit,” he said, “seeing the pope going to confession was a pretty powerful thing.”
Under church doctrine, Catholics should go to confession at least once a year, preferably during the Easter season. Those who commit mortal, or serious, sins like adultery and murder should not receive Communion without first going to confession. The point of confession, according to the church, is to bring about a “spiritual resurrection” and to have people reconcile with the church community.
Church leaders are trying to lure people back by putting out positive messages that confession is about peace and joy and not fear or shame.
Some dioceses are adding an extra day of confession during the Lenten season.
Priests are encouraged to talk about reconciliation during Lent, said the Rev. Kevin Corcoran, vice chancellor of the Paterson, N.J., diocese. Corcoran said the response has been positive and that churches are attracting more people to the sacrament.
“We’re seeing people who were away for 20, 30, 40 years from the sacrament,” Corcoran said.
For church members like Patricia Demarest of the Haskell section of Wanaque, N.J., who recalled long lines for confession in her younger days, the extra day is a welcome change.
Demarest has continued to go to confession and said she goes at least four times a year and sometimes monthly. It helps her to “get straight with God,” she said.
“When you walk out, particularly when you have something serious on your mind, it really is better than any trip to a psychologist,” she said. “You feel forgiven and that you’ve reconciled yourself with God.”
Still, local members of the clergy acknowledge they have a long way to go to revive interest in reconciliation. Decades ago, most Catholics confessed their sins regularly to a priest at church. Now, just 2 percent of Catholics do so once a month or more often, according to a 2008 survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
About 26 percent of Catholics say they participate at least once a year; 30 percent say they go less than once a year, and 45 percent say they never go at all.
Confession became a lower priority in the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council in 1962. The church put more emphasis on forgiveness over punishment, and societal attitudes on sin changed. The church has also allowed face-to-face confessions in “reconciliation rooms,” a setting that is brighter and less formal than the traditional confession box, where the confessor kneels anonymously before a screen with a priest on the other side.
“The church has downplayed it a little. There is not as much emphasis on Hell and things of that nature. We want to embrace the God is all loving and not condemning,” said the Very Rev. Dominic Ciriaco of St. Mary’s Church in Dumont, N.J.
The sex-abuse scandals that erupted in the church during the 1980s and ’90s made it less appealing to confess sins to priests, whose own sins and flaws were being exposed, especially amid reports that confession was used in some cases to groom victims.
“I think that does play into it. It’s what broke the image that priests are infallible,” Ahearn said.
Jennifer Ranu of Wayne, N.J., goes to church every Sunday but said she does not go to confession.
“I believe if I confess my sins, I’m going to tell them to God directly,” she said. “I don’t need to have a human convey those thoughts for me.”
The sex-abuse scandals are not a factor in her decision. She said that she believes most priests are good people. Still, their humanity was a factor.
“They’re human. All humans sin. Why am I going to tell my faults to another human who has faults?” she said.
The Rev. Paul Prevosto of Holy Trinity Church in Hackensack, N.J., said the decline in participation had already happened by the time abuse cases became public. Like other clergy, he believes the drop in confession has to do with the change in the perception of sin.
“Catholics are not aware that the sins that they have committed are sins,” he said. “In today’s culture, look at it, everything goes.” Prevosto gave the example of couples living together before marriage as a situation that many people viewed as acceptable, even though the church considers it a sin.
The Rev. Paul A. Cannariato of St. Mary’s Church in Closter, N.J., also pointed to the secularization of society as a reason.
“In society, we have become desensitized to the reality of sin,” he said. “If you don’t believe something is sinful, you don’t think of forgiveness.”
Pope Francis has talked about the importance of reconciliation in his Lenten messages this year. His action of kneeling before a priest at a confession box to tell his sins, in public view, was talked about widely in the church. The pope also urged priests to draw people to confession by letting them know when the sacrament is available and by being merciful and by speaking with the “charity of God” and “not with the attitude of a judge.”
Some pastors said they would talk about the pope’s words and action in their homilies on Sunday. They believe the example set by the pontiff will also help motivate those in the pews to do penance.