One of the first things Roman Catholics do when they enter the confessional is utter how long it has been since their last confession. But Franca Gargiulo can't remember the last time. Gargiulo is a spiritually thoughtful woman who went to Catholic school as a girl and at 44 still attends Mass at St. Dominic Catholic Church in San Francisco. Confession--telling your sins to a priest and receiving absolution--is one of her faith's seven sacraments, but for Gargiulo it now seems as anachronistic as prayer veils and meatless Fridays. "It lost its efficacy for me," says Gargiulo. "It was too much a perfunctory exercise about church rules instead of Christ's teachings."
Increasingly, it seems the only thing U.S. Catholics confess these days is that they rarely if ever confess. In a 2005 survey by the Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate at Georgetown University, 42% said they never go to confession. Only 14% said they go once a year, and just 2% said they go regularly. The fading away of one of Catholicism's best-known traditions has finally gotten alarming enough that bishops have begun turning to modern marketing tools to reverse it. "Confession isn't about rationalizing or explaining away the wrongs we do," says Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl, who has used radio commercials and billboard ads to promote the sacrament in his archdiocese. "It's about having the courage to admit them and experience the healing forgiveness that's waiting."
Any revival effort has a long way to go. Confession has been in steady decline for decades. Reasons range from long-standing doubts about church teachings to the current obsession with public mea culpas that have largely supplanted the confessional booth. One oft mentioned cause is Vatican II, the 1960s church council whose reforms stressed what Pope John XXIII called "the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity." Since confession, with its accompanying penances, is all too often associated with the latter, many Catholics use Vatican II as a cue to scratch the sacrament from their to-do list. Some also cite Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life), which reaffirmed the church's ban on contraception. Because few U.S. Catholics consider birth control immoral, Humanae Vitae has led to a wider re-evaluation of what constitutes sin--and whether confession is really necessary.
The church's sexual-abuse scandal has also taken its toll. Catholics felt that the bishops--many of them accused of enabling pedophile priests--were arrogantly evading the same kind of penance they demand from their flocks. "The very teachers of the sacrament of confession seemed to be ignoring a constitutive part of that sacrament," says the Rev. James Martin, associate editor of the Jesuit-run magazine America. "It made the confession crisis worse." Wuerl, who in fact was praised for taking a hard line on abusive priests, concedes that those are "significant issues." But he also believes that Catholics are tired enough of America's no-accountability culture to make the rite of owning up appealing again--as long as it involves, he adds, a "spirit of gentleness." A campaign Wuerl ran this past Lenten season--dubbed "The Light Is On for You"--made confessions available on Wednesday evenings as well as the traditional Saturday afternoons. Priests were instructed to create warm and well-lit atmospheres at their churches.
Some parishes reported the effort a bust, but many others got results. At St. Patrick's in Rockville, Md., the Rev. Adam Park took a book along the first evening, but instead of reading it, heard confessions for two hours straight. "I think folks rediscovered that getting rid of that weight in a confidential setting can be a freeing experience," he says. Mary Ellen Gwynn, a nurse in Upper Marlboro, Md., who often drove by one of the campaign billboards, agrees: "It reminded me that while telling mistakes to a friend can be cathartic, this seems to do something deeper to help me fix them."
Dioceses in Philadelphia, Phoenix and Toledo, Ohio, say they're planning similar Lenten campaigns for 2008--and some priests are even hearing confessions in venues likes shopping malls. Church watchers like Martin applaud all this as a sign that "the church, like Jesus, is capable of being creative about getting these things across to people." Others, like Gregory Baum, emeritus professor of theology at McGill University in Montreal, call it a belated Hail Mary pass. "Traditional confession," he says, "just isn't part of Catholic spirituality anymore." Maybe, but for now the church is keeping the light on, just in case.