Click here to be absolved
In the hush of a warm afternoon, Father Larry Solan waits for sinners.
The veteran priest sets aside a half-hour every Saturday to hear the failings of his flock at St. Mark Catholic Church. On a typical week, he sees two penitents, perhaps three. Some weeks, no one comes.
Today, Solan waits 10 minutes, 20.
Two little boys take a bench in the lobby, bowing their heads over a bag of crackers as they wait for afternoon Mass. Their parents chat with friends. Still, Solan’s confessional is empty.
Confession is not what it used to be in the Roman Catholic Church; cultural and theological shifts have pushed the age-old sacrament aside. In the mid-1960s, 38% of Catholics said they went to confession at least once a month. These days, just 2% do. More than 40% never go.
Church leaders have tried to revive interest in the sacrament with tactics as varied as radio ads (this spring in Washington, D.C.) and a strip-mall chapel dedicated solely to confessions (a few doors down from a tanning salon in Albany, N.Y.). More priests are also doing away with the traditional wooden confession booth in favor of relaxed, face-to-face encounters.
Outside the Catholic church too, the rite of confession is being reshaped, this time by Protestant megachurch pastors who see the ritual as a self-help tool for the lost and lonely -- and a marketing opportunity for themselves.
Click over to IveScrewedUp.com, and a black-and-white, Goth-tattoo-style graphic bursts onto the screen. You’re invited to type in a description of your sins, along with your age and hometown. Click “send” and it’s done; you’ve confessed -- to the webmaster of Flamingo Road Church, a Florida congregation affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.
“I’m a patholgical liar. About everything. To everyone.”
“I have a compulsive shopping disorder, I spend way too much money on dresses.”
“I constantly smoke marijuana while I am supposed to be looking for a job. . .”
“I’ve slept with 11 guys and only 1 of them I actually loved.”
“just been a jerk”
The confessions are screened for obscenities or identifying information (but not for typos), then posted for all to read. They fill page after page. Some are wry; some are frightening; many are so sad. Some writers are curt and achingly precise. Others type on and on, as though pounding years of pain into their keyboards.
“A friend of mine was shot and killed last weekend, by a black guy. I’ve always been a bit racist, despite the fact that I knew a few very nice, caring, chrisitan black people. But now that this has happened, I feel like I’ve just lost all respect for them. . . . I really need strength to be able to forgive.”
Though they write anonymously, many sinners ask for help -- from God, or from a stranger who might see their posting and pray for them.
“It does break your heart,” said Flamingo Road pastor Troy Gramling. He and his staff pray over every confession.
“It makes you realize, even in line at Starbucks there are so many hurting people,” Gramling said. “We all get really good at wearing masks.”
Several other confessional sites also hold out the promise of catharsis, with a vaguely religious gloss. The Universal Life Church, famed for do-it-yourself ordinations, offers an online “Absolution of Sins Application Form.” A gossipy secular site, DailyConfession.com, arranges sins by categories that mirror the Ten Commandments.
Catholics can try absolution-online.com, which invites you to fill a shopping cart with your sins (choices include calumny, vainglory, disregard for the environment and use of Ouija boards). The site then calculates an appropriate penance -- say, 228 Hail Marys and 43 Our Fathers.
On a more intimate scale, the Rev. Adam Rodgers asks any sinner “ready to cry out” to e-mail him anonymously through the website for Stoneboro Presbyterian Church, stoneboropres.org. So far, no one has. “We’re a small community in western Pennsylvania,” Rodgers said. “I guess people like to keep their secrets to themselves.”
That’s not a problem at the two biggest church-sponsored websites, IveScrewedUp and MySecret.tv. Unabashedly voyeuristic, the sites allow readers to scroll through pages of angst from anorexic teens, abusive parents and porn-addicted pastors; from a Christian who can no longer believe in God; from a student who feels guilty for dropping out of college; from a man who despises his mother-in-law.
A woman pleads guilty to snooping through her boyfriend’s e-mail. Another admits: “sometimes i really can’t stand my own children.”
It quickly becomes clear that there’s no such thing as an original sin.
Too many Catholics, especially the older generations, it’s inconceivable that such online blathering could stand in for confession. “It would be like cheating!” said one woman at St. Mark, in this suburb south of Denver.
But for Ashley Iodice, a high school senior in Weston, Fla., Internet absolution feels much more natural than talking to a priest.
Now a Baptist, Ashley grew up Catholic; she remembers confession as scary -- and less than sincere. It’s hard be honest about the depths of teenage depravity, she explains, when you’re talking to an elderly priest “who’s committed his whole life to poverty and chastity.”
But at IveScrewedUp, Ashley’s inhibitions melted and she found herself admitting to the world how she’d fallen these last few years: “Drinking,” she said. “And, you know . . . stupid teenage stuff.”
When she was done, Ashley said, her conscience felt newly light. “It sounds odd, but to me, it was much more personal than confessing to a priest,” she said. “You can write exactly how you feel. The anonymity means you can tell everything. It’s a very cool way to do it.”
But what, exactly, does it accomplish?
Gramling sees online confession as a step toward personal healing. “It’s good for the soul,” he said.
MySecret pushes the concept of healing even further. Anyone can comment on posted confessions, starting an anonymous dialogue with the sinner: “you need therapy. get it now.” Or: “In the name of Jesus. . . I pray for a breakthrough with this family and their pot problem.”
The site refers sinners to a long list of self-help books and links to the sponsoring church, a fast-growing, Oklahoma-based congregation named after its website, LifeChurch.tv.
Scott Thumma, who studies the sociology of religion, sees sites like MySecret as marketing tools very much in keeping with modern mega-church philosophy.
Such churches often host spectacular performances (a Cirque du Soleil-style Easter play) and edgy websites (MyLameSexLife.org) to attract “unbelievers who otherwise would never darken the door of a church,” Thumma said.
“Their strategy is not to go out, convert and bring [only] saved people into the sanctuary. The idea is to bring in the masses,” said Thumma, coauthor of the new book “Beyond Megachurch Myths.”
To keep the masses coming back, these pastors often turn sermons into self-help pep talks: How to build a good marriage; how to manage a hectic schedule; how to live debt-free. The brisk practicality of the online confession fits right into that culture.
The Catholic sacrament of confession, by contrast, is not about personal growth. It’s about healing a ruptured relationship with God.
Through much of the 19th and 20th centuries, American Catholics viewed confession as a solemn obligation. At least once a month, they’d kneel in the wood-paneled box and recite the familiar words of contrition: Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been two weeks since my last confession. I yelled at my wife. I kicked the dog. I didn’t say my morning prayers.
By the 1960s, however, confession began to lose its hold on American Catholics. This was the era of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement; priests poured their passion into homilies railing at the sins of militarism and racism. Kicking the dog no longer seemed all that important.
“The clarity about what sin was, was dissipating,” said James O’Toole, a professor of Catholic history at Boston College.
Attendance at confession plunged and has never rebounded.
Many Catholics now participate in communal penance services at Easter and Christmas, when the priest will read aloud a long list of sins -- “for the times I’ve left the poor in the dust; for the times I haven’t been as truthful as I could have been” -- and ask parishioners to reflect silently.
The Vatican requires that all Catholics confess “serious sins” directly to a priest at least once a year. But today’s parishioners often feel they don’t need an intermediary in their conversations with God. Or they’ve simply fallen out of the habit.
“When we were growing up, we did it routinely, but now they just don’t stress it like they used to,” said Yvonne Reuter, 68, a St. Mark parishioner.
In an effort to nudge Catholics back into the habit, the U.S. liturgy office has published an eight-step guide to confession. With the Vatican’s approval, some priests have moved away from the rote and mechanical confessions of the past.
At St. Mark, Father Solan sees most penitents face-to-face, in a warm, welcoming “reconciliation room” with honey-colored walls. Those who want privacy don’t retreat behind a wooden screen; they pull a shimmering curtain to divide the room.
Solan still follows a script -- his words, and the penitents’ response, are outlined in a 12-page booklet -- but he makes clear that he wants to hear more than a laundry list of minor misdeeds. He asks penitents to truly reflect on how they’ve strayed.
It’s not supposed to be easy or convenient, said Stacie Kishiyama, 38, the only penitent to confess to Solan that Saturday. Approaching a priest with humility, even shame, “forces us to embrace our humanity, our failings and our dependence on God,” Kishiyama said.
She doesn’t think of confession as clearing a guilty conscience; to her, it’s about coming back into the fullness of God’s grace. She can’t imagine doing that with a mouse click.
Neither can Solan.
When a priest grants absolution, “you know that you’re back in the community of God,” he said. On the Internet, he asks, “where’s that ‘Welcome home, son’ ?”