We Need a Reconciliation Revival

I am excited about the USCCB’s plan for a Eucharistic revival over the next three years. I love the Eucharist (obviously) and I love big gatherings: put those two together and I am sold. My experience of falling deeper in love with Christ as a teenager happened at one such gathering: Arlington Diocese’s summer Workcamp, where all the aspects of the Eucharist were brought to life: the Real Presence and service of others. “You are my monstrance,” the Lord (allegedly) said to Gabrielle Bossis.[1] I know Bishop Cozzens and his team to be prayerful people, so I have confidence that this Eucharistic revival is of the Holy Spirit.

That said, I humbly propose a time of “Reconciliation Revival” first. The numbers of regular penitents have long been lower than the numbers of regular communicants. In a Pew survey from 2015, they found that while 39% of Catholics go to Mass once a week, and 43% receive the Eucharist every time they go to Mass, only 7% of Catholics go to confession once a month, and 14% report going several times a year. 43% of Catholics go to confession only once a year, which is the minimum requirement of the precepts of the Church. The minimum requirement for the reception of communion is also once a year, at Easter, so it seems that for the most part Catholics go beyond the minimum requirement for receiving the Eucharist, but not for Reconciliation. In addition, survey respondents that Pew calls “cultural Catholics” or “ex Catholics” sometimes attend Mass or receive communion, but “relatively few cultural Catholics and ex-Catholics receive the sacrament of reconciliation with any regularity.”

In addition, those who do frequent the Sacrament of Reconciliation often have stories of encountering something other than the mercy of God there. Gloria Purvis at America spoke about a bad experience in confession as a child. Other Catholics on Twitter recently shared their stories of inappropriate remarks or verbal abuse in the confessional (see here or here). My own worst-confession-story is that when, among other sins, I confessed anger and gluttony, the priest said that I would become, “fat, suicidal, and alone” because of them. Alrighty then. And, of course, we know that some of the most egregious sins committed by clergy abusers take place in the context of confession. If you are Catholic for long enough, the chances are pretty good that you will have a negative experience in confession at some point, and that can become either a legitimate barrier or a rationalization to avoid the sacrament. (To be fair, out of my hundreds of confessions, I can only think of three negative experiences!)

Catholics may also be nervous that their sins may be turned into weapons. An extreme example of this is in the recent story out of the Diocese of Cleveland. In this horrible incident, a kid’s sin was used against him in a diabolical way, and I do not use that term lightly. This kid – we are calling him Joseph – made a bad decision. He sinned. But then Joseph did exactly what he was supposed to do: He confessed. This is where the full horror of Fr. McWilliams’s crime came in: He used the Sacrament of Reconciliation to wield power over a penitent. Joseph approached Jesus in confession with Fr. McWilliams to say out loud what he had done and tell the Lord he was sorry and would try with His grace not to sin again, and this beautiful act was turned against him. The very man who absolved Joseph’s sins in the name of “God, the Father of mercies,” was Joseph’s tempter and tormenter. It is one of the most diabolical things I have ever heard. We are told that the devil takes what is good and twists it, so surely that which makes heaven rejoice – repentance (see Lk 15:7) – is one of the highest goods that the devil can twist. It turns my stomach to think about. And it didn’t happen just once; it happened again and again. The man giving “advice” in the confessional was really a snake in the grass.

If I were the bishop (don’t worry, I don’t want the job), I would call for some concrete act of reparation for these sins against the Sacrament of Reconciliation—similar to the way that Archbishop Aymond reconsecrated the altar that was desecrated by a priest in 2019. There ought to be some visible, concrete way to show that the sacredness of the confessional was violated in such a serious way here that it demands reparation. Perhaps an exorcism in the church where McWilliams served? Something like that, I don’t know. I just think that the faithful people of Cleveland need to see that there is genuine sorrow over what happened and that the rest of the priests of the diocese are committed to holding sacred that which occurs in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Since the majority of priests would never harm a penitent, at least on purpose, it would be an opportunity to reaffirm their commitment to being a conduit for the mercy of God.

In these days when there is so much discussion about worthiness to receive communion, some kind of “Reconciliation Revival” would be a reminder that there is a sacrament for that. The document on the Eucharist restated the foundation of our beliefs and is meant to remind all Catholics of the great gift of the Eucharist and our call to receive Him worthily. It’s a remarkably simple process to be reconciled to God such that you are prepared to receive His Real Presence: examine your conscience, say your sins out loud to the priest, say you are sorry, have a firm purpose of amendment, receive absolution. In fact, as soon as you finish reciting your sins, if you’re like me, you take a deep breath because basically your part is over. Besides the Act of Contrition, you just get to relax and listen. (And you know what, you don’t even really have to listen, if you are in a bad-confession scenario as mentioned above!)

I heard a story recently about a priest who, when he was teaching the seminarians about confession, said, “If I ever hear that you yelled at someone in the confessional, I will hunt you down and murder you. And then I will go to confession. And be forgiven.” Obviously, this is an exaggeration, but I hope that it stuck with the young men in the class.

When Catholics come to confession, they are making themselves extremely vulnerable. Vulnerability is a human thing; it is a good and beautiful thing, but not necessarily easy. It’s a lot easier to receive Holy Communion or go to adoration than it is to kneel behind a screen (or sit in a room, or wherever) and say, “Here are all the ways I have failed to love in the last two weeks/month/3 months/year.” It’s hard to look at yourself with a clear eye and admit that you are not as good as you like to think you are; not as self-controlled or selfless or kind. But that is also tremendously freeing: God sees you exactly and fully as you are and loves you, warts and all. It’s awesome.

So let’s call those 80,000 Catholics we expect to see in Indianapolis for the Eucharistic Congress in 2024 back to confession –  before we call them to the communion line.


[1] This was in the book, He and I. It’s the kind of private revelation that, if it isn’t true, it ought to be.

Photo by Grant Whitty on Unsplash