It never goes out of style, but confession is undergoing a revival.
This February at the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI instructed priests to make confession a top priority. U.S. bishops have begun promoting it in diocesan newspapers, mass mailings and even billboard ads. And in a dramatic turnaround, some Protestant churches are following suit. This summer, the second-largest North American branch of the Lutheran Church passed a resolution supporting the rite, which it had all but ignored for more than 100 years.
To make confession less intimidating, Protestant churches have urged believers to shred their sins in paper shredders or write them on rocks and cast them into a "desert" symbolized by a giant sand pile in the sanctuary. Three Capuchin friars now hear confessions six days a week at a mall in Colorado Springs., Colo.
Worshippers are answering the call. When priests from five Chicago parishes joined forces last year to welcome penitents from 9 a.m. on a Friday to 9 a.m. the next morning, about 2,500 people showed up.
Several factors are feeding the resurgence. Aggressive marketing by churches has helped reinvent confession as a form of self-improvement rather than a punitive rite. Technology is also creating new avenues for redemption. Some Protestants now air their sins on videos that are shared on YouTube and iTunes or are played to entire congregations. And the appetite for introspection has been buoyed by the broad acceptance of psychotherapy and the emphasis on self-analysis typified by daytime talk television.
"Every day on Jerry Springer we see people confessing their sins in public, and certainly the confessional is a lot healthier than Jerry Springer," says Orlando Bishop Thomas Wenski, who last March sent out 190,000 pamphlets calling on Catholics to confess.
Scholars also say the return to confession is part of a larger theological shift in which some Catholics, mainline Protestants and evangelicals are returning to a traditional view of churches as moral enforcers. Catholic leaders have sought to make the tradition less onerous to keep it from dying, while Protestants are embracing it as a way to offer discipline to their flocks. Several Protestant pastors said they felt their churches had become too soft on sinners, citing the rise of suburban megachurches that seek converts with feel-good sermons, Starbucks coffee and rock-concert-like services, but rarely issue calls to repent.
"I never want to be accused of the namby-pamby, milquetoast, 'Jesus is my boyfriend' kind of worship," says John Voelz, a pastor at Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, Mich. "People want to come face to face with what's going on inside them."
An evolving rite
Confession is no longer strictly a private matter between a sinner, a priest and God. More than 7,700 people have posted their sins on ivescrewedup.com, a confession Web site launched by an evangelical congregation in Cooper City, Fla. Last year, several members of Life Church in Edmond, Okla., appeared in a video sermon titled "My Secret," in which they spoke openly about having an abortion or taking methamphetamine. The video was shown to about 21,000 people. The XXX Church, a Christian antipornography ministry, has videotaped people confessing their addictions to X-rated material and posted the video on YouTube.
Confession has been in steep decline for decades. In 2005, just 26 percent of American Catholics said they went to confession at least once a year, down from 74 percent in the early 1980s, according to researchers at two Catholic universities. After the Vatican softened some of its doctrine on sin in the 1960s, the rite "went into a tailspin," says William D'Antonio, a sociologist at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
There is only so far the Vatican will go to revive confession -- the church has taken a hard stance against technology, declaring in 2002 that "there are no sacraments on the Internet." Some conservative Protestants have also criticized public forms of atonement, arguing they owe more to exhibitionism than contrition.
Confession hasn't always been a forgiving ritual. In Christianity's early centuries, worshippers confessed publicly before the priest and the entire congregation. Penalties were severe. Sinners had to prostrate themselves, fast and wear sackcloths and ashes. Adulterers were sentenced to a lifetime of celibacy and thieves were ordered to give their belongings to the poor. Repeat offenders were banished, says Notre Dame theology professor Randall Zachman.
Private confession, which arose in monasteries in the seventh century, became mandatory for Christians in 1215. Centuries later during the Reformation, theologian Martin Luther took issue with the "acts of satisfaction" that priests required of sinners, arguing that faith alone absolved them. Following the split, most Protestant churches instructed followers to confess to God directly or to each other.
In their attempt to revive the rite, Catholic leaders have portrayed it as a healing sacrament.
Kathleen Taylor, 43, a substitute teacher in Daytona Beach, Fla., hadn't been to confession in some time when she received a mailer from her bishop this March urging Catholics to atone for their sins. She packed her husband and two sons, then 9 and 16, into the car and drove to a nearby church where a priest was waiting in the confessional booth.
Taylor confessed to impatience and anger with her sons. She talked about her marriage. She expressed feelings of guilt over fighting with her first husband, who died two years ago. "It was hard at first. It was scary, the room gets kind of hot. But once you open up it's better."
People are confessing in unlikely places. On a recent Saturday morning in Colorado Springs, seven people lined up outside an office next to a Burlington Coat Factory at the Citadel mall. At the appointed hour, Father Matthew Gross, 72, strode up wearing his brown friar's habit. "Three minutes each, that's all you get," he joked to two women waiting in line.
Since 2001, the Rev. Gross and two other Capuchin friars have come to the mall to hear confessions 11 hours a day, six days a week in a small office with a box of Kleenex and a laminated copy of the Ten Commandments. They now hear about 8,000 confessions a year.
Protestant theologians are also rethinking the rite. This past summer, the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod, a 2.5 million-member branch whose members are spread across North America, voted to revive private confession with a priest. Some theologians have pointed to the writings of Martin Luther and argued that the Protestant reformer, while criticizing the way the rite was administered, never advocated abolishing it. "Some of us were saying, 'Why in the world did we let that die out?' " says the Rev. Bruce Keseman, a Lutheran pastor in Freeburg, Ill.
The Rev. Keseman has sought to revive confession in his congregation by bringing it into pastoral counseling, giving demonstrations to youth groups and preaching about its benefits. Leslie Sramek, 48, a lifelong Lutheran and financial manager who lives near St. Louis, says she never heard about private confession and absolution in church when she was growing up. But two years ago, when the Rev. Keseman announced he would be taking confession privately, she decided to give it a try. At these sessions, the pastor wears vestments and stands near the altar while she kneels and recounts her sins. "I won't say that looking at my sins is pleasant, but they have to be dealt with," says Sramek.
Restoring confession to its heyday won't be easy. Most Catholic parishes set aside one hour or less on Saturdays for the rite. And while the U.S. Catholic population has grown by 20 million in the last 40 years, the number of priests has fallen to 41,000, a 29 percent decline over the same period. Group absolution, while allowed in some circumstances, is discouraged, and bishops have banned Internet and text-message confessions, which had been popular in the Philippines. Says Monsignor Kevin Irwin, dean of the school of theology at Catholic University, "We don't do drive-by confessions."