Michael Sean Winters of National Catholic Reporter is commenting on a video of Pope Francis going to confession before hearing them himself. You can see the video and his commentary at http://ncronline.org/blogs/distinctly-catholic/pope-francis-confessional
Here is my resonse:
Popes, like all medieval royalty, do usually have a private confessor and I am sure this Pope does as well. What the Pope did here is significant for two ways. One is the message that before hearing confessions he will go himself to show he is no more perfect than any sinner and the second is the example of going to confession at all.
Will this start a stampede to the confessional? I doubt it Does that mean no one is confessing somewhere? Not at all. People in 12th step programs confess to the group (like in the early Church) or to their sponsors in a 5th step and many people confess to a shrink or a life coach. God gets through in many of these cases anyway - especially in the recovery setting. Bringing God into individual lives is the point of such programs, even without a priest. Even my confessor recognizes this.
Confession is down, however, because the self-centered obsession with mortal sin has pretty much gone away for most Catholics. The really bad sins are harder to confess (murder, major theft, sexual abuse in some way or another - including someone drunk) becasue they are, well, terrible. The faux mortal sins, like masturbation, eating meat on Friday, contraception and skipping Sunday Mass have fallen off the radar screens of most Catholics. Indeed, I once heard a story that the African priests argued against not banning birth control because birth control use was what kept women going to confession. Else they would have nothing to confess. That is not a bad thing.
Going back to Francis, hopefully he will underline that it is the lapses of charity - both momentary and systemic, that we really need to confess - although people are afraid of these sins too because the likely penance cuts into their comforatable lifestyles - especially if they are underpaying their employees and pocketing the difference.