(Originally published April 26, 2007)

James Hartnett, an 83-year-old Catholic, figures he hasn't been to confession since before World War II.

Or at least, it's been a really, really long time.

"I don't think it's necessary," he said.

"It seems to me that a relationship between a person and God is something that precedes any church organization."

Hartnett said he would go to confession only if he committed an egregious sin.

"I'm one of those who doesn't go unless there's something serious to confess," he said. "For small things, you just say you're sorry and leave it up to God."

Hartnett grew up in a generation when many Catholics participated weekly in confession, now called the sacrament of reconciliation.

In the 1950s and '60s, three or four priests commonly heard confessions for several hours on Saturday afternoons and evenings in any parish. Research from those decades shows that 80 percent of Catholics went to confession at least once a year.

By the '70s, about 70 percent were doing so, according to the recently published book "American Catholics Today," by William V. D'Antonio and others.

Nowadays, local parishes set aside 45 minutes to an hour for confession, usually on Saturdays -- and, often, there's no need for more than one priest.

Priests are usually available by appointment during the week, but today only about 2 percent of adult Catholics in this country go to confession once a month or more.


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According to a national survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in 2005, roughly 74 percent of Catholics said they go less than once a year or never, and the remainder go once or several times a year.

Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades wants to see longer lines at confessionals.

Earlier this month, he urged priests from around the 15-county Diocese of Harrisburg to preach about the importance of the sacrament and ensure it's readily available to people.

He repeated both Pope John Paul II's and Pope Benedict XVI's encouragement to priests to go to confession regularly themselves and to be generous in the time they devote to hearing others' confessions.

Rhoades isn't the only U.S. cleric pushing the issue. To get Catholics back to confession, Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl launched a media campaign Ash Wednesday that included 100,000 brochures, a billboard and broadcast advertisements proclaiming, "The Light is On for You."

By e-mail, Rhoades explained his concern that the sacrament's been undermined by a loss or weakening of the "sense of sin" in an increasingly secularized culture.

"Connected with this, there is a certain moral relativism in society which tends to deny objective good and evil," Rhoades said.

"There needs to be the restoration of a proper and healthy sense of sin, a correct idea of 'conscience,' and the recognition of the need for conversion."

Catholics who have committed serious sins are expected to confess yearly, and all are encouraged to go to confession regularly. Rhoades and other church leaders emphasize the role of confession as one of the seven rites through which the grace of God is granted.

The sacrament has been undermined by the idea that one does not need to go to confession, Rhoades said.

"This comes from a lack of understanding or belief in the Church's mediation in the process of being reconciled to God," he said.

"We need to do a better job teaching our people that the lord Jesus himself instituted and entrusted to the Church this special sacrament, a gift, for the forgiveness of sins committed after baptism."

The Rev. Robert McCreary, associate pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Springettsbury Township, said he hears a solid hour of confessions each Saturday.

"It's a very beautiful thing," he said of the sacrament. "It's psychological, pastoral, spiritual, human. It's a very close and intimate contact between the priest and the parishioner. How you do that can be a negative experience (for confessors). It's up to us to do it positively."

McCreary noted that some people are afraid to go to confession, so they don't.

Sociologists and clergy have collected other reasons, such as misunderstandings about the sacrament, opposition to the church's stance on birth control, general lack of trust of priests, and doubt about the priest's power of absolution.

As a little girl, Maryellen Bahn of West Manchester Township was taken to confession each Saturday -- often needlessly, she said.

Now, she confesses her sins to a priest at St. Rose of Lima in York four times a year. She thinks of the priest as a spiritual psychologist of sorts.

"I feel, if I've done something wrong, there's a cloud between the presence of God and I. So by going there, I am doing a form of penance," she said.

Although she could sit behind a screen for anonymity, she doesn't.

"I find it most helpful to actually go and sit face to face and look in the eyes of another human being," she said.

Bahn likes the reminder that there's nothing she can do that won't be forgiven.

"That's what I think it is for me. It's very helpful and soul-cleansing. And when I go out afterward, I always have a smile on my face," she said.

"I've shared a burden, something I'm not happy with myself about. I've received the priest's blessing, forgiveness, and I can start new again."

771-2024; mburke@ydr.com

ON THE WEB

Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg, www.hbgdiocese.org

The Light is On for You, www.thelightison.org