Catholics in confessionals
Fr Pawel Rozpiatkowski
Confession is the most difficult sacrament from the psychological point of view. One need not explain why. The one who often confesses sins or the one who seldom goes to confession and even the one who never confesses knows that. Your faith is reflected in this sacrament like in a mirror. Since crises of faith usually begin when one has problems with the sacrament of penance and reconciliation.
What is the attitude of Polish practising Catholics towards confession? ‘Niedziela’ ordered a survey concerning confession from the Institute of Statistics of the Catholic Church. The survey was conducted at the beginning of Lent.
‘We have chosen Lent on purpose since it is the time of the most intensive ‘conscience clearance’, explains Rev. Msgr Ireneusz Skubis, the editor-in-chief of ‘Niedziela’. Lent is marked by retreats that are always connected with a day for confession when people often must ‘queue’ to the confessionals. These are almost besieged.
A general conclusion that can be drawn from the research confirms the observations: Polish Catholics go to confession and the sacrament of penance is not an empty ritual for them to ‘rattle off’ once a year because it is a commandment. The Institute asked 686 Catholics who believed in God and practiced their faith. The survey was conducted on 13-17 February 2008. The respondents answered nine questions. They were asked how often they go to confession and take Holy Communion and how they prepare themselves before their confessions. The other questions concern the penitents’ expectations concerning confessors. Do they prefer a confessor they know or do they go to some unknown one; do they prefer to have the same confessor or just go to any confessor; do they want him to be understanding or strict? Is confession to have elements of dialogue or should it be rather a monologue?
There was also a question whether Catholics see confessors as ‘judges who administer penance; ‘doctors who treat their sins’; ‘merciful fathers, full of God’s mercy’ or ‘spiritual directors who help you make right choices.’
Another open question concerned what kind of help people expect to receive during confession.
‘It has been ... since my last confession’
In Poland most penitents prepare themselves by recollecting their sins from memory – 49.6 %, they rarely use prayer books – 34.1 % and other use other means – 15.6 %. The majority go beyond the minimum, which is the fourth commandment of the Church: to confess at least once a year. Only 1.7 % say that they confess once a year; almost every second respondent, i.e. 51.7% go to confession several times a year and 46.5% declare to confess once a month. Women (51.3%) more than men (42.4%) practice the First Friday devotion. The interesting thing is that the bigger the city the more often Catholics go to confession. From time to time priests still hear the wrong conviction that in order to receive the Eucharist one must necessarily go to confession first. The survey ordered by ‘Niedziela’ shows that only few people think so. Only less than 3 % of the respondents admitted that after confession they received Communion only once. A majority (three out of four) received Communion several times.
‘For these and all the sins of my life I am sorry...”
What are the social effects of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation, which the Catechism calls the sacrament of Christian healing? Almost all Catholics say that it helps them work on their characters. 85.9% of the respondents admitted that confession helped them conquer their vices. Over half of the respondents said that confession made them acknowledge their sins and they could forgive other people (53.6%). The sacrament of penance helps families since thanks to it we are better towards family members.
Fewer respondents declared that confession had a wider dimension of help. Every third respondent (35.4%) said that they showed goodness to neighbours and acquaintances, and every fourth (26.4%) saw some positive aspect in that they performed their work better.
‘For all these sins and for those I do not remember, I ask pardon of God with my whole heart, and penance and absolution of you, my spiritual Father”
What is an ideal confessor according to the respondents? Whom would they like to meet at the confessional booths? Firstly, they want to meet some stranger, secondly, someone understanding who would help them by asking questions and they would like to meet a merciful father rather than a judge; a spiritual director rather than a physician.
Polish Catholics rarely have constant confessors. Only one out of five (18.4%) declare to have a spiritual director. It is not good since the ideal would be to confess to the same priest. This reluctance results from the fact that two thirds of the Catholics prefer to confess to a priest they do not know than to a priest they know and a priest who knows them. Only one third of the Catholics prefer to speak to God about their weaknesses through a confessor they know.
A confessor must be understanding. 78.7% of the respondents expect that. Only one in every five respondents wants to hear some reprimand. Most people, 77.1%, expect the priest to help them by asking questions. What is interesting is that the older a respondent is the fewer questions he expects. More young people, up to 25 years of age, (91.6%) than the older ones, after 60 (66.7%), expect confessors to ask them questions. The same proportion is when you ask whether a confessor should be strict or understanding. More young penitents than the older ones expect to receive a strict reprimand. But one should say that respondents of all group ages expect understanding. 55.7 % of the respondents see confessors as ‘merciful fathers showing God’s mercy’. 47.4% see them as ‘spiritual directors who help them make right choices’ and 9% see them as judges who give penance, whereas 34.7% of the respondents see confessors as ‘doctors who treat their sins.’
The research was conducted by the Institute of Statistics of the Catholic Church on a group of 686 practicing Catholics. They were randomly selected and the Institute has the list of the respondents.