.- Catholic clergy in England and Wales say more people are going to confession, and many credit both Pope Francis' election and Benedict XVI's 2010 papal visit for inspiring the trend.
“This summer there has been a marked difference in demand compared to last summer...We don’t usually offer confessions in August but have done this year,” one priest said in response to a telephone survey conducted by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales' Home Mission Desk.
The informal survey of 22 Catholic cathedrals in England and Wales sought reports from cathedral deans, priests-in-residence or designated staff members.
One respondent said there is “definitely” an increase in lapsed Catholics seeking to return to religious practice under Pope Francis.
Another credited a “papal bounce” and the “great sense of hope and enthusiasm” prompted by Francis’ election. He cited the Pope’s easy manner of engagement with people, saying this has “a huge impact.”
The same respondent suggested the increase also reflects the influence of Benedict XVI, whose visit to the U.K. had “such a profound effect.”
Pope Francis drew praise for his “approachable manner,” for having a “good connection” to those not in the Church and for “talking their language.”
About 65 percent of respondents to the survey said confessions had increased either because of the impact of Pope Benedict’s September 2010 visit or the election of Pope Francis. Thirty percent attributed the increase to the effects of both Popes.
Another 15 percent said Pope Benedict’s visit was a driving factor, while ten percent said the increase was due to the election of Pope Francis. Ten percent did not comment on the increase or said they weren’t sure what caused it. Another 35 percent reported no increase, but said the number of confessions was steady.
One respondent said their cathedral's Holy Week Reconciliation Service drew 25 percent more people, many of whom had lapsed from regular religious practice.
“They hadn’t been to confession for a number of years and suddenly they felt the urge to come,” the respondent said.
Besides the influence of Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, respondents also credited other factors in the increase in confession, such as priests speaking and preaching more about confession, self-examination among the penitents, and changing the time confession was offered.
Respondents did not neglect to point out that God also works in moving people to confess their sins. One participant also reflected on confession's effects on those who have not gone in years.
“I think very often those who have been away from the sacrament for a long time are very often surprised and delighted to find it such a positive and affirming experience,” the respondent said.
“People just recently, who were expecting to struggle, or be met by an indifferent response from the priest, were struck how their experience was completely different. It is one of the many positive signs concerning the sacrament.”
Study participants said that many returning Catholics did not know what to say and some feared not knowing the prayers.
The survey found increased attendance at some weekday and Sunday Masses. Some people have become interested in becoming Catholic after Catholic friends and family brought them to church.
Bishop Kieran Conry of Arundel and Brighton, who heads the England and Wales bishops’ Department for Evangelization and Catechesis, has called on every parish to reach out to the countries’ four million baptized Catholics who rarely or never attend Mass, the bishops’ conference reports.
“While the lapsation of baptized is not new within the Catholic community, the worry and anxiety experienced by parents, siblings and grandparents of non-churchgoing baptized, is deep and heartfelt,” Bishop Conry said Sept. 2. “We all hold in our hearts at least one person in our family who seems disconnected from the life of the Church.”
He encouraged practicing Catholics to use materials available at their parish church to help them reach out to non-practicing Catholics. He invited lapsed Catholics to come back to church and not be “afraid to embarrass themselves by doing the wrong thing.”
“I would say to them, don’t worry, come in and see. Sit at the back and do what the rest do. You might be pleasantly surprised.”
The Catholic Church in England and Wales observes Home Mission Sunday this Sept. 15, a day of prayer and celebration for the work of evangelization.
Bishop Conry told the Daily Telegraph that “significant numbers” of young people are going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He said this is “a good sign” that means they are connected with church even if they are sometimes not regular Sunday massgoers.
He said confession has moved away from having a “mechanistic shopping list” approach of listing one's sins and more a way to improve one’s relationship with God.