What if we all went to confession?

Image by Peter H from Pixabay

A while back, my son Andrew got the idea to crunch a few numbers regarding ratio of priests to Catholics in the Diocese of Orange. According to the Diocese of Orange website, there are 1.6 million Catholics in the diocese and 270 priests, which comes to 5,925 Catholics for every one priest.

What does this mean in terms of the priests’ ability to administer the sacraments to the faithful? For example let’s consider the sacrament of confession. I have heard that spiritual directors typically recommend monthly confession for most people. (Of course, if one falls into mortal sin, one should not wait that long.) Father Matthew Spencer, whom I respect quite a bit, repeats that advice here. Father Edward McIlmail takes it up a notch, describing it as “praiseworthy” to seek confession every week.

If monthly confession should be our goal, what would happen if every Catholic in the Diocese of Orange were to actually start doing that, given the number of priests we have?

Now, those who stand in confession lines on a regular basis know that confession can take anywhere from one to 15 minutes (sometimes even longer than that), but let’s suppose that everyone became really efficient in making their confessions, and we were able to achieve an average time of 2 minutes per confession. With 1.6 million Catholics in our diocese, that comes to 53,333 hours of confession time every month, if I haven’t goofed up the math. With 270 priests in the diocese, that means each priest would have to spend about 197.5 hours per month hearing confessions, or 6 hours and 35 minutes per day.

Even if every Catholic in the Diocese only went to confession once a year, thereby fulfilling the bare minimum of the second precept of the Church, that would still mean that each priest would be hearing confessions for just over half an hour each day on average.

From what I have observed, most parishes offer confession for about an hour or so every Saturday, and maybe for another hour on one weeknight each week.

While it is easy to say that parishes ought to offer more confession times (and a few do), I also recognize that priests do lots of other things besides saying Mass (including daily, Sunday, wedding and funeral Masses), writing homilies and hearing confessions. I would imagine that in some ways running a parish is a bit like running a business, except that whether or not your business receives any money at all is largely up to the benevolence of the customers, who must be served either way.

My point is not to criticize parishes, but that these numbers ought to wake us up to the urgency of the vocational crisis. (Some say that it is not a crisis of vocations, but one of those vocations being answered. I will leave that topic for another day.) We have such a shortage of priests right now that, if Catholics were to all start actively practicing their faith, we couldn’t handle it. (Perhaps this is a good opportunity to plug the Serra Clubs of Orange County, whose mission is to support vocations through prayer and awareness.)

Finding morning confession times

I am always amused when a movie or TV show has a “confession scene” in which a penitent walks into a church after years of walking way from their faith and immediately finds a priest patiently waiting in a confessional, as if (a) you can just show up for confession at any time and a priest will be there waiting, and (b) there won’t be any line outside the confessional when you do. Actually, finding confession times to fit your schedule can sometimes be a challenge.

Most parishes have a designated weekly confession time either Saturday morning or Saturday afternoon, and many offer confession at least one evening during the week. The Norbetines offer confession weeknight at St. John the Baptist in Costa Mesa and at St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado.

However, if you prefer to go to confession on a weekday morning, finding an available time can be more of a challenge. Here are a handful of parishes I have found in the Diocese of Orange that offer weekly confession on weekday mornings:

St. Anne , Seal Beach — 8:30 to 8:50 a.m. Monday-Saturday
Annunciation Byzantine Catholic Church, Anaheim — 8:30 to 9 a.m. Monday-Saturday
Saint Barbara — 8:45 to 9:15 a.m. Mondays
Korean Martyrs Catholic Center, Westminster — 8:30 a.m. Wednesdays
Our Lady of La Vang, Anaheim — 9 a.m. Thursdays
Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano — 7:30 a.m. Fridays.

Additionally, most parishes note that confession is also available by appointment.

(Side note: While Annunciation Byzantine Catholic Church is physically within the boundaries of the Diocese of Orange, it is actually part of the Eparchy of Phoenix. Also, the form for confession is apparently quite different in the Byzantine rite.)

A couple of parishes also have morning confession times once a month, on or before the First Friday:

St. Norbert, Orange — 9:15 a.m. every First Friday
Holy Family Catholic Church, Seal Beach — 9:15 a.m. every First Friday
St. Bonaventure, Huntington Beach — 9:15 a.m. every Thursday before First Friday

Feel free to let me know if I’ve missed any parishes in the diocese with additional weekday morning confession times, or if any of the above information has changed. I initially used MassTimes.org to find these confession times but double-checked them on each parish’s website.

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Be PERFECT? Can’t I just be pretty good?

I’ve been trying to spend more time reading the Bible lately and have been noticing that various passages — often passages that I’ve heard many times over the years — will just jump out at me with new meaning. For example, in Leviticus, we read, “You shall make and keep yourselves holy, because I am holy.” (Lv 11:44) Jesus reiterates this in Matthew, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Perfection is a pretty high standard. I know I’m not there, and I don’t see myself getting there any time soon. I can imagine the response Jesus would get if he were to appear on a modern-day talk show and say those same words:

“Oh, come on! You don’t really expect people to be perfect do you? Isn’t it enough that they try their best?”

“Aren’t you concerned that you’ll make people feel guilty when they can’t live up to this standard? Isn’t this a form of imperfection-shaming?”

“Don’t you think this will alienate imperfect people?”

“Why do they need to be perfect if God loves them no matter what?”

“Who’s version of perfect do you mean, anyway?”

While this verse sets a bar that none of us can achieve on our own, the beauty of it is that it doesn’t lower the bar. It challenges us to try to rise up to it until we can reach it. To the extent that we fail, we rely on God’s love and mercy to take us the rest of the way. Nevertheless, spiritual perfection is to be our aim, and our lives a constant journey in that direction. We don’t measure ourselves against the standards of our time, the sins of others or the sins we could have committed but didn’t, but against the standard of perfection.

This verse also implies that, to the extent we are imperfect, it by our own choice. (“Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault!”) There would have been no point in telling us to be something we can’t be. Jesus doesn’t ask us to be perfect students or perfect business managers or perfect drivers, but he commands us to aspire to the spiritual perfection of our Father. We must detach ourselves from whatever imperfections come between us and God and be willing to let the Holy Spirit perfect us.

It is worth noting that the statement is not, “Aspire to perfection.” It is, “Be perfect.” Here in this present moment, we are called to perfection, to turn away from all that is sinful, all that is not of God, and turn back to holiness. What is holding us back in this moment? What graces do we need to ask for and receive? What temptations are holding us back?

Moreover, this verse reminds us that there really is a standard of perfection toward which we can strive. Perfection is not a moving target; it is we who move in relation to that target. We might get closer in one way but further away in another, the bull’s-eye of the target remains in the same spot. We are not told, “Be perfect, as you define perfection for yourself,” but, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It is God’s standard of perfection that matters; not ours.

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What I miss if I miss Mass

There’s an episode of “Seinfeld” called “The Comeback,” in which George is insulted at work and comes up with what he thinks is a clever retort, but only after the moment has passed and he is his car driving somewhere else. I had one of those situations a few days ago. Not that I was insulted or had a great one liner I could have delivered, but I missed what might have been a good opportunity to share my faith in a small way.

While traveling out of state, I was visiting with some rather distant relatives whom I will probably not see again for a very long time, if at all. One was joking about how he never misses Mass, and that he always mentions this when he encounters a priest. The priests are sometimes perplexed, as they never see him at Mass, so they ask what parish he attends. He doesn’t answer, but simply repeats, “I never miss Mass.”

If you haven’t figured it out already, the joke was that he almost never goes to Mass, but that he doesn’t miss going, either.

While on a plane back to Southern California, it occurred to me that perhaps missed an opportunity to share my own feelings toward the Mass. Because, truthfully, I love going to Mass.

This wasn’t always the case. For a long time I went to Mass primarily out of a sense of obligation. I hoped that it would somehow make a difference; that somehow I’d absorb grace through osmosis or something even if my mind wandered the entire time.

This changed one day when my parish had a mandatory, one-day retreat for parents of teens entering the Confirmation program. The Confirmation director deserves some credit for hutzpah, as there must have been at least a few parents who were annoyed at being told they HAD to attend a religious event, as if anyone had the right to suggest that they might have room to grow in their faith. Then, at the retreat, we were asked to consider our own spiritual lives and whether we were serving as good role models in the faith for our teens, or whether there was more we could do in our own relationship with God.

The director suggested we avoid viewing Mass attendance as a chore, using such phrases as, “We have to go to Mass now.” Instead, she suggested that we try to see it as an opportunity to draw closer to God and experience renewal. After all, God didn’t give us the Mass for His own benefit, but for ours. This resonated with me. My spiritual life had grown pretty dry and I knew I needed something more.

When I went to Mass the next day, I decided to spend a few moments in prayer before it began. I asked God to open my mind and my heart to whatever He might want me to hear that day, and to help me be mentally present during the Mass. The priest’s homily that day could have been written me. He spoke of the need to be one person rather than trying to be two — one who attends Mass and another who disregards God’s will throughout the remainder of the week.

The next week, I said the same prayer. Once again, the priest (a different one this time) gave a homily that could have been written just for me. I continued to say this prayer before every Mass, and soon found that I NEVER left Mass without gaining something. Sometimes it wasn’t the homily, but maybe a particular reading, or even one of the short prayers the priest says during various points within the Mass that I used to completely ignore. Sometimes it was just feeling the presence of Jesus.

Two years later, I still begin Mass this way. I also spend a few moments reflecting on the preceding week — how well I followed God’s will, and where I might have done better — and on the challenges in the week to come. I offer prayers for others in need, and I thank God for all of the gifts in my life. Sometimes I run out of words, so I say just say, “Jesus, you know what I need. I trust in you.” And I will just sit and know that he is with me.

This weekly ritual has not only impacted my experience within the Mass, but it has allowed the Mass to impact my life more fully. I am very much still a work in progress and I don’t have the answers, but I do find myself turning to God on a regular basis, asking for His help, and even allowing Him to push me to reach out to others, become more engaged with my family and community and take on new challenges.

Would it have made any difference if I’d spoken up during the conversation I described? I wouldn’t necessarily have needed to give a lecture — a simple, “Actually, I love going to Mass,” might have piqued someone’s curiosity and pushed the conversation in a new direction. Or, maybe I’d have gotten some funny looks. Who knows? In the Parable of the Sower, seeds are scattered everywhere. Some take root, and some don’t. I can only hope if I should find myself in a similar situation again, I will have the presence of mind and the courage to share my own experiences in my faith.

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