New trends in spilling sins

Web sites, updated confessionals used to pull folks to the fold

September 02, 2007|By Stephanie Simon | Stephanie Simon,Los Angeles Times

HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. -- In the hush of a warm afternoon, the Rev. 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 Roman 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 sacrament aside. In the mid-1960s, 38 percent of Catholics said they went to confession at least once a month. These days, just 2 percent do. More than 40 percent never go.

Church leaders have tried to revive interest in the sacrament with tactics as varied as radio ads (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.). Since Vatican II, priests have also been allowed to do away with the traditional wooden confession booth.

Outside the Catholic Church, the rite of confession is also being reshaped, this time by Protestant mega-church pastors who see the ritual as a self-help tool for the lost and lonely.

Click over to IveScrewedUp.com, and 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.

The confessions are screened for obscenities or identifying information, then posted.

Although they write anonymously, many sinners ask for help - from God, or from a stranger who might see their posting and pray for them.

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." DailyConfession.com arranges sins by categories that mirror the Ten Commandments.

Scott Thumma, who studies the sociology of religion, sees sites such as these as marketing tools very much in keeping with modern mega-church philosophy.

"Their strategy is not to go out, convert and bring [only] saved people into the sanctuary. The idea is to bring in the masses," Thumma said.

The Catholic sacrament of confession, by contrast, is more about healing a ruptured relationship with God.

At St. Mark, Solan sees most penitents face-to-face, in a welcoming "reconciliation room" with honey-colored walls. Those who want privacy pull a curtain to divide the room.

Solan still follows a script, but also 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. To her, confession is 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'?"

Stephanie Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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