Mark Simpson grew up Catholic, attended Catholic schools at times as a child in Knoxville and is today a lector and Eucharistic minister at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in East Ridge.
Still, he meets just the church’s minimum requirement when it comes to confession, a sacrament that church doctrine requires Catholics to do at least once a year. Even then, he goes to confession “only when the church goes to ‘full court press’ mode and brings in a number of priests to make it happen,” he says.
“I go when there is an emphasis on the opportunity and I feel obligated to take advantage of it,” Simpson says.
In recent years, Pope Francis and church leaders have put a renewed emphasis on getting Catholics back into reconciliation. In the past, it wasn’t unusual for Catholics to go to confession on a monthly, or even a weekly basis. But a study from six years ago in 2008 showed a minuscule number of Catholics — only about 2 percent — availing themselves of the sacrament once a month or more often. About 26 percent of those surveyed say they participate at least once a year, with 30 percent reporting they go less than once a year and 45 percent saying they never go.
The Rev. Paul Williams, pastor at Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church in Dalton, Ga., says if Catholics in the Dalton area are not going, it’s because there aren’t enough priests to meet their schedules.
“We are finding that the issue is availability,” he says. He and one other priest usually hear about 150 confessions during morning and evening sessions during the week and another 150 on Saturdays, he says. “We typically have lines out the door on Saturday.”
According to the Association of Religion Data Archives, Dalton had 17,549 Catholics in 2010, the last year data was gathered. That number is up 277 percent — or about 4,500 — since 2000. In sheer numbers, Catholics were second only to Southern Baptists in Dalton and Whitfield County, the association reports. The U.S. Census from 2010 reports that Dalton is about 48 percent Hispanic, and Catholicism is the No. 1 religious denomination in many Latin and South American countries.
St. Joseph’s has about 7,000 active parishioners and about three times that who would claim to be Catholic but don’t regularly attend Sunday mass, Williams says. It also operates missions in Chatsworth and downtown Dalton. According to the U., about 10 percent of Dalton’s population is Catholic. The demand for priests and their time is so high, the diocese of Atlanta is assigning a third priest to the parish, he says.
“If we had more priests [for confessions], every hour would be full,” Williams says.
But that’s not the case at some churches around the United States that have waged marketing campaigns to entice Catholics back into the confessional, which these days are rarely the closed-in boxes that you see in movies with “invisible” priest on one side and confessor on the other. Today, confessions often take place in a priest’s office or other room or even a church pew where confessor and priest meet face to face.
Deacon Sean Smith, chancellor/chief operating officer for the Diocese of Knoxville, which covers Chattanooga, says his office doesn’t keep such statistics, but he has not heard of any priest in the diocese voicing any concerns about declining numbers at the confessionals.
“I believe confession is on the rise,” he says.
He points to a recent Eucharistic Congress held last September in Knoxville that drew 5,000 people. Forty-nine priests in 20 confessionals heard 136 hours’ worth of confessions in six languages — English, Spanish, Italian, Vietnamese, Hindi and Malaylam.
He also says that, during Easter week last year, the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville launched a radio ad campaign for confessions “and they had huge lines.”
Smith says going to confession is often a cathartic experience.
“There are always folks who struggle with it whether through embarrassment or shame or just fright, but once you get over that hurdle, it’s one of the most wonderful sacraments and then we find people are more likely to return on a regular basis.”
Most churches in our area have also begun working together during the Christmas and Easter seasons by joining forces. Several priests from different parishes will take turns visiting a church in groups to hear confessions. Fr. Williams said eight priests heard more than 600 confessions at Saint Joseph’s last Christmas.
There are likely several reasons for the declining numbers around the country. Confession was not given the same emphasis after the Second Vatican Council in 1962, which put more of an emphasis on forgiveness than punishment.
“The church has downplayed it a little,” says the Very Rev. Dominic Ciriaco of St. Mary’s Church in Dumont, N.J., told the Record newspaper. “There is not as much emphasis on hell and things of that nature. We want to embrace the God who is all loving and not condemning.”
The sex scandals involving Catholic priests that came to light in the ’80s and ’90s also hurt the images of the priesthood, the very men Catholics would be confessing their own sins to — and, in some cases, priests who were sexually abusing children used the confession as a way to absolve the act.
John Cornwell, author of “The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession,” told the Boston Globe in February that “many priests in the wake of the scandal have admitted to using it as a way of grooming and testing children for their vulnerability.”
“Many priests squared the circle of their offending lives and their pastoral lives by going to confession themselves. There you have the morally weak aspect of confession: this belief that you can commit terrible sins and then go and get them washed away.,” Cornwell said. “There was a case in Australia not so long ago when a priest on trial admitted that he had confessed to sexually attacking children 1,500 times. He’d confessed it 1,500 times.”
Cornwell said he’s heard from many Catholics who prefer general absolution, or the public and communal absolution of sin that doesn’t include confession. Pope John Paul II ended that practice, but Pope Francis might be able to bring it back, he said.
“If Francis were to make a change there, I think you’d find a lot of people coming back to church,” Cornwall told the Globe. “It could happen — but people have got to ask for it.”
Simpson says one reason he doesn’t go to confession more often is fairly simple: He doesn’t need to confess any of the more capitol sins such as adultery or murder, he says, and therefore he relies quite a bit on The Act of Contrition, a prayer of forgiveness that is part of reconciliation, but also a daily prayer for many Catholics.
“We have a median road that is saying the Act of Contrition. I probably lean on that more than the church would like. Thank goodness I don’t have any sins in the extreme.”
Contact Barry Courter at email@example.com or 423-757-6354.
Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...