‘The sacrament of confession is alive and well’

By Michelle Martin
Sunday, July 10, 2016

‘The sacrament of confession is alive and well’

Parishioners wait in line for confession at St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish on Divine Mercy Sunday in this 2009 file photo. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Father Joseph Mary talks with Hannah Kubiak during Youth 2000, a religious retreat at St. Benedict Church, 2215 W. Irving Park Road, in this 2008 file photo. (Brian J. Morowczynski/Catholic New World)

For Catholics, the sacrament of reconciliation offers the opportunity to lift a weight off their shoulders, to purge their spiritual lives of “toxic sludge,” to start over on the path towards holiness. People who take advantage of the gift of confession say they walk out of church feeling free and light.

The sacrament is one filled with healing mercy and something Pope Francis has promoted during the Jubilee of Mercy.

“It’s like the feeling when you finish a really good 5-mile run,” said Patti Lechner of St. Norbert Parish. “It should be called the sacrament of joy. So many heavy hearts could be alleviated by a good confession. It’s just the best feeling in the world.”

“It’s chock-full of supernatural graces,” said Christine Kengott, who attends Sts. Faith, Hope and Charity and Sacred Heart parishes.

“Confession is such a gift, and I fully admit that when I came into the church, I didn’t get it,” said Carol Tomaselli, who entered the church in 1990. “It’s a secret that I would love to get out to people.”

Tomaselli said she had been a Catholic for 22 years and was going through a difficult time when she heard a discussion of confession on Relevant Radio. Now, four years later, she works for the Catholic radio network as director of parish outreach and is a regular penitent.

“The beauty of being forgiven is amazing,” she said, and it changed the way she thinks about her relationship not only with God, but with other people. “It’s like having a coach. If you’re really trying to please to the Lord in your everyday life, it’s the perfect opportunity to learn how you can do better.”

Tomaselli said that people who haven’t been to confession for years need not fear returning to the sacrament. “Look at the parables Jesus told — the shepherd leaving the 99 sheep to look for the lost one, the old woman searching her house for the coin she lost, the prodigal son. What does the father do when he sees the prodigal son returning, even from a distance? He runs out to meet him.”

The return of people to the sacrament is something the friars at St. Peter’s in the Loop experience on a regular basis.

“A lot of them haven’t been to confession in 20, 30, 40 years,” said Franciscan Father Mario DiCicco, who has spent about 15 years over two assignments at St. Peter’s.

Many of them don’t know the formal Act of Contrition, so when they reach that point in the rite, DiCicco said, he’ll invite them to express their sorrow and regret and their determination to do better in their own words.

Sometimes, he said, he wishes he could write down what they say and publish it.

“They do it in a powerfully personal kind of way,” he said.

Rumors of the death of confession have been greatly exaggerated, said Franciscan Father Kurt Hartrich, who has been pastor of St. Peter’s for seven years. He estimates that each friar hears 15 to 20 confessions during each 90 minute stretch in the confessional, and St. Peter’s has 72 hours of confessions each week.

Those who come to confession at St. Peter’s usually range from teenagers and college students through seniors.

“There’s certainly the impression that young people don’t go to confession,” Hartrich said. “The sacrament of confession is alive and well. People recognize the need for mercy. It’s one of the best ways they can recognize the presence of God in their lives. We have had some who say they came because of the Jubilee of Mercy.”

It’s natural for people to be anxious before going to confession, according to both penitents and confessors, but the humility that comes from admitting sin out loud — and being assured of forgiveness — are both necessary to the sacrament.

“When you have something that you’re embarrassed about, you’re always a little anxious,” said Ben Ruf, who tries to go to confession every week or two. “I’ve always felt better after confession.”

Admitting sin has become something of a counter-cultural statement as well, said Opus Dei Father John Waiss, pastor of St. Mary of the Angels Parish.

“We’re living in a society where it’s all about performance,” Waiss said. “It’s about being perfect: perfect body, perfect resume, perfect grades. We kind of get in this situation where we believe we’re not lovable unless we’re perfect, but we don’t have to be perfect to be loved. God loves us just as we are.”

Waiss said it’s just like in a family: When one person wrongs another, the apology should be delivered in person rather than in a note slipped under the door. By avoiding the conversation, the transgressor denies the person they wronged the opportunity to respond.

“That’s what confession is,” Waiss said. “Confession is confronting God. When you hear those words (of absolution), it’s a wonderful opportunity to receive God’s mercy. John Paul II put it this way: It’s a personal experience of Jesus Christ.”

Lechner agreed.

“People shouldn’t think of it in terms of an obligatory set of rules. They should think of it in terms of a personal relationship,” she said. “It’s deepening a tremendous friendship.”

The priest’s job is to facilitate that, not get in the way, Hartrich said.

“In our weakness, we can sometimes be an obstacle,” Hartrich said. To try to avoid that, he prays for God’s help to be an instrument of grace when he enters the confessional.

Franciscan Father Elric Sampson, who has been at St. Peter for more than 20 years, said his time listening to confessions has changed him as surely as it has changed the penitents.

“It’s good for me to be here,” Sampson said. “You experience God’s grace by hearing confessions.”

People who have discovered the joy of confession will seek it out, Waiss said. His parish offers confessions five days a week, including Sundays for those who want to receive the sacrament of reconciliation before Mass.

“People come to Mass here because they know they can get confession first,” he said.

Hartrich agreed that people who are regular participants in confession go where they know they can find the sacrament, and St. Peter welcomes many of them. But for the people who have been away for years, the ones who maybe didn’t plan to go to confession but were drawn in by the giant cross on St. Peter’s façade, he hopes the friars can help them.

“I hope we give them a sense of peace,” Hartrich said. “That’s what they are looking for. And I want to make sure they know they are always welcome to come back.”


  • st. mary of the angels
  • sacraments
  • confession
  • reconciliation
  • st. peter

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