A perverse thought came to my mind just one weekend ago: Have we been breeding white elephants within our Church buildings? The idea arose not from some strange encounters with albino pachyderm excrement, but from a random association between a north-eastern landmark of a train station and an integral part of Catholic Church architecture.
I was a visiting worshipper in a parish church in the northeast. It was the Saturday before Ash Wednesday and I was hoping to go for Confession before the anticipated Sunday Mass (otherwise known as Sunset Mass). So upon entering the church, I stopped to ask one of the wardens about the possibility of having my confession heard.
She pointed me to the Confessionals but warned me that sometimes the priests don't turn up. Notwithstanding her well-intentioned warning, I decided to sit at the pew next to the confessional and wait anyway. The wait was in vain.
Confessionals would surely seem to be architectural anachronisms to a disinterested non-Catholic observer noting their use (or rather their under-utilisation). Have we as Church turned our confessionals into white elephants? Are we not treating them as relics of a bygone era?
Catholics are not afraid of the Sacrament. The long lines at Advent and Lenten penitential services should serve as ample evidence. If that will not suffice, the hunger for the Sacrament is also manifest at St Alphonsus everyday of the week, and especially on Saturdays. The Redemptorists fathers seem to understand well this need, and they work to meet it.
Yet it does seem that the simple anonymity, privacy, and intimacy of the Confessional is no longer preferred in some of our parish churches. Perhaps the Singaporean Catholics of today are more comfortable confessing face to face in the priest's office or elsewhere, but on the basis of (my rather limited) personal experience and discussions with others, I find that quite unliklely. I might be wrong about this, but I think a large majority of local Catholics would be far more comfortable making their confessions within the Confessional rather than without.
It's also a chicken and egg problem of course. If priests don't enter the Confessionals routinely, penitents will not come. Yet if the demand for Confession is perceived to be low, priests will push the hearing of Confessions in the parish Confessionals down their long list of priorities.
Action is what is needed. And this on both sides at once. Parishioners need to be more vocal in expressing their desire for their priests to be available for Confessions, especially before Masses. Priests too should be bold in taking the initiative to make the Sacrament available.
I recall with fondness an old missionary priest (now deceased) whom I knew had a habit of always carrying either his breviary or missal with him. Before each Mass, he would sit waiting outside the Confessional. He was ready at the slightest notice to step in to hear a Confession, even if it was before an early morning Mass. Why are such examples so rare these days? Have we lost something along the way?