Unfortunately, the rites and the catecheses of sacraments have been poorly explained or not executed so that the experience of sacraments is reduced to mental belief in formulas. The old Baltimore catechisms of my Catholic upbringing promised a great deal from the sacraments, but in my own case, I remember how let down I was after my Confirmation that I felt exactly the same after the rite as I had before. [Years later, the American Benedictine liturgist Aidan Cavanaugh would say of Confirmation that that it takes as much faith to believe the bishop is using oil as it does to believe in the coming of the Holy Spirit.]
This is the fifth post of a series on COVID-19; specifically, the question of how many Catholics who are not presently celebrating sacraments during the pandemic will or will not return as it is deemed safe to do so in the various regions of the country by health officials. My theme throughout these entries has been  to take the longer view of fifty years of Catholic departures, of which Corona is a major but momentary spike in the depletion of parishes, and  to recommend a rethinking of why two or three generations of Catholics have already left for good, looking at how the Church might improve our modus operandi and attract or reunite with the many who are not with us now, regardless of the timing.
I have been focusing on the sacrament of Penance, though the other sacraments will get their turn. But I focused first on Penance because even the best Catholics, those still attending, struggle to experience what the sacraments promise. My father who attended daily Mass and rosary, admitted to me forty years ago on a fishing trip that he never got anything out of confession, and he went “only because your mother said I have to.” I was in my 30’s then, a pastor, and his comments got me to thinking about the wide gulf between even the most faithful of Catholics in terms of what they were experiencing and what the Church promised regarding Penance, and for that matter, all the sacraments.
The heart of Penance is the experience of God’s loving healing through an intermediary ordained to make this love personal and relevant, to help a penitent set aright the areas of life that distract from or dissuade from the journey to the perfect God. The Baltimore Catechism states clearly that we were made to know, love, and serve God in this life and be happy with Him forever in heaven. Spiritual writers through the centuries have advised that in our journey to God, we are either moving forward or drifting backward. Unfortunately, the penitential sacrament became the “automatic pilot” exercise and appears to remain so today, possibly because the term “good Catholic” has become equated to the stable Catholic.
It would probably help Catholics if there was a clearer catechetics about sin and forgiveness. The division of mortal and venial sins, for example, results in something of a paradox. Mortal sin is defined in the Catechism [para. 1861] as “a radical loss of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying [saving] grace, that is, the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices forever, with no turning back….” The Catechism balances the scales by giving devoting large sections to the joys of heaven and directives on living a virtuous, prayerful. All the same, the idea of a hopeless and abandoned existence such as hell tends to dwarf the rest of the conversation. If there is a second category of sins [venial] not deemed sufficiently bad enough to send one to hell, then we have stretched the word “sin” almost to the point of breaking.
The very existence of hell has come under renewed scrutiny throughout my lifetime. Stepping aside from the ivy-cloaked academic halls of theology and related disciplines, the basic catechetics of parish life, starting with the second graders, hammers home not just the reality of hell but also the idea that all of us live very close to the guard rail from eternal damnation. [First Penance, for reasons unclear to me, is presently celebrated before two sacraments of initiation into the Church, First Eucharist and Confirmation.] Given that so little energy was invested in the full Vatican II theology of Penance, and that the full rite of penance is not used even today in many parishes, it is helpful to see what is supposed to happen during individual confession, as in the British Rite of Penance [paras. 15-20]. In 2015 Pope Francis also wrote a personal exhortation to use the full penitential rite [Ordo Paenitentiae, 1973] in personal confession.
I offer here two strands of popular thought that need to be addressed if the sacrament is to become part and parcel of Catholic life.
 God did not have to create us. He did so, we are told, as an act of pure love, and He desires our companionship for all eternity. And yet He has created us with enough free will to land ourselves in eternal torment. Many Catholics find this theology hard to grasp and/or have crafted personal “salvific plans” that they can live with in this world or the next.
 If a mortal sin can actually bring a Christian to such an unthinkable destination, then it would stand to reason that mortal sins must be universally recognized by reasonable folks, such as atrocious deeds, universally despised, in the league of Hitler and mass murderers. But the Catechism  states that “no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man.” The statement suggests that this inborn knowledge of the law of nature is known and easily accessible to all persons. To complicate natural law further, all sexual sins are considered mortal in official Catholic theology because human intercourse was created. Artificial birth control, for example, is considered, ipso facto, a mortal sin, though I would wager that not one in a thousand Catholics has any idea of the Church’s philosophical argument to support this. Or put another way, do the thousands of Catholics who use the pill to space their children either know or believe they are in mortal trouble, so to speak?
 I do not know how many people still publicly argue that “I confess to God directly” rather than to a priest or another human being. The question may be moot as, noted above, it is quite possible that many people sense no need to confess in the first place. However, as a close friend critiqued my thinking for this entry, I have to admit that the Church needs to consider the skills set of confessors to personify the various needs of penitents and the best ways of phrasing Gospel morality to a particular soul. My friend and I are both of the “Required Mandatory Withdrawal from IRA Accounts” age, and we talked about whether newly ordained priests, for example, sufficiently grasp the realities of seniors, spiritual and existential.
According to Canon Law, any priest validly ordained and enjoying the faculties [judicial approval] of his bishop or religious superior can hear the confession of a Catholic of any age and impart absolution of confessed known mortal sins, as well as of venial sins. But nowhere does the Church teach that in the normal liturgical life only the words of absolution constitute the rite. The penitent should have the opportunity to explain and examine what he or she understands about their current life’s journey and how it is intertwined with conduct at this particular instant, negatively and positively.
In my own case, I begin every confession with a very brief but descriptive curriculum vitae, that I am a laicized priest and now a man who is validly married in the Church for nearly a quarter century. I tell my age and talk about the moral challenges unique to this constellation that is me: I have my health, I am not poor, I am happily married, I am trained in two distinct disciplines, theology and mental health. I exercise. Given my advancing age, I know that I do not have unlimited days, so the question of how to do the most good with a racing calendar is always on my mind. I do have doubts from time to time that God loves me or is pleased with the 72+ years body of work I have amassed so far. And with the inevitable wisdom that comes from age and experience, I look back with regrets about the things I have left undone as well as what I have done.
Now it may occur to some that such soul searching would be better done in a counselor’s office or even in spiritual direction. But God did not establish a psychotherapy sacrament; his intention was a sacrament which replicated the ministry of his Son, who advised the enthusiastic young man on his conversion [Matthew 19: 16-22], engaged the Samaritan woman on her marital and doctrinal outlook [John 4: 1-26]; and persuasively led a questioning Nicodemus toward a new vision of his faith [John 3: 1-21].
Since the Council of Trent [1545-1563] the Church has placed a great premium upon the healing exchange of the Sacrament of Penance. The patron saint of parish priests, St. John Vianney [1786-1859], was known throughout Europe for his confessional grace, sometimes spending eighteen hours per day engaged in the Sacrament of Penance. Princes and rulers sought to confess to him; obviously, they were seeking more than a brief, juridical exchange they could easily have received from their personal chaplains. In our time, Pope John Paul II restricted the used of General Absolution [a rite of canonical forgiveness without confession] in favor of the interpersonal experience of the confessional, God’s personal intervention and interaction with his people who, like the proverbial snowflakes, are beautiful and unique.
If this is what we want, how do we get there?