In a bid to get the community's youth comfortable with their faith in a time when they spend more time updating their Facebook status than thinking about God, the Roman Catholic Church has taken the kneeling out of confession in favour of a casual face-to-face chat about how to secure your place in heaven
In April this year, Ferdinand D'Souza was back home for an Easter break from Hyderabad, where he works for an IT firm. On a Sunday evening, the 21 year-old found himself standing in queue at St Joseph's Church round the bend from his Mira Road home. Fifteen people stood before him, as he waited his turn with the local priest. In the overbearing silence, D'Souza pondered over the irony of queuing up to confess his sins and seek forgiveness.
Fr Allwyn Nazareth of Sacred Heart Church, Santacruz, says, when the
community was smaller, the priest knew every parishioner.
PIC/ SHADAB KHAN
A hushed murmur escaped the confessional where a faithful woman knelt, whispering her sins to the priest separated from her by a wire mesh. On the other side of the translucent partition, the priest conducted the Sacrament of Reconciliation, head bowed, and his expression sombre. He listened, nodded gently and finally gesticulated with a sign of the cross to signify the end of the experience. An elderly gentleman moved forward to take her place.
"I don't like the idea of speaking to someone I cannot see. I'd rather speak to a priest familiar to me, someone who can counsel me better because he knows the person I am," says D'Souza.
As it turns out, churches across the country have begun to think along the same lines. So while standard confessions inside an oratory (a small, enclosed booth) are still de rigueur, the practice of the penitent (person confessing) sitting in front of his/her priest is fast catching on.
The Sacrament of Penance, or Reconciliation, popularly known as confession among Roman Catholics, involves admitting your misdeeds before a priest, so that he may absolve you in the name of God, and suggest a few prayers for penance.
In the last five years, the traditional dark confessionals, usually stationed in faraway corners of parishes, have been lying empty. Churches across India are moving towards the open dialogue format, with the penitent sitting at a table across the priest, much like they would during a job interview.
Fr Anthony Fernandes, Director of the Diocesan Youth Centre, says adopting the open dialogue format was especially crucial when coping with the reality that the community's young were avoiding the sacrament altogether. Sitting in his office opposite Bandra's famed Mount Mary Church, Fr Fernandes explains, "The priest is the judge and the healer. He isn't around just to absolve you of your sins. He is there to counsel and aid you in your spiritual journey."
And so, the priest often doubles up as shrink. Fr Fernandes for instance, has completed an advanced diploma in counselling therapy from Don Bosco Counselling Centre Prafulta in Andheri. He is a known face in the Catholic-dominated suburb, and, his easygoing approach has made youngsters from other faiths approach him as readily for advice. "I cannot absolve them of their sins but I can listen to them and guide them. The idea of confession stems solely from the human desire to confide in another person, and introspect," he says, while updating his Facebook status, telling his 'friends of friends' about the upcoming National Youth Talent Festival scheduled for the first week of November.
And with the method, the very reason to confess has altered too. It's no longer a way to wiggle out of facing the wrath of God. "God knows we are human, that we make mistakes. What's important is that I gauge the root of the sin from the confession," he says, offering us an example. "When you sin, you are failing to love intentionally. So if you are sleeping with your secretary, you are failing to love your wife, and in that lies the greater sin."
Along with the knowledge of religion, modern-day skills like dealing with anger, come in handy. Fr Fernandes is known to use unconventional techniques to bring parishioners on track. Those grappling with stress-related rage are handed out tips on harmony. But it's marital counselling that's the most daunting challenge, he confesses. "Sins have undergone a change too. Easy access to technology, for instance, is a recent challenge we are faced with." While earlier, sins were classified as the failure to love God, yourself and others, now the definition has broadened to encompass social and civic behaviour, and even the environment. "The danger to our ecosystem wasn't as palpable as it is now," he offers.
And it's not just redemption that the young are seeking. They often come looking for a debate. The youth are especially keen to seek clarification on key opinions of the Church. The Church's stand on contraception and sex before marriage are popular issues of conversation.
"The Church is very clear -- sex is for marriage. The young may not agree but they are open to debate, and that's always refreshing," says Fr Fernandes, who makes himself available for consultations throughout the day.
That's a far cry from the 1500s when confessing meant public humiliation. Penitents would approach the priest in large groups, making individual admissions a public affair. They would then be made to wear sackcloth, and excluded from mass. "The mesh was introduced to give the penitent the comfort of privacy. Times must change, and the church must change with it," he smiles.
For him, the logic is simple. Penitents will return only if the previous experience was pleasant.
And with the falling numbers of penitents, the religious order is also concerned with fewer numbers joining the order.
"It isn't that fewer people are getting 'the call'. It's that distract--ions are plenty, and people are choosing to follow other paths," says Fr Fernandes. The skewed ratio often leads to situations where two priests are handed the responsibility of close to 1,500 parishioners.
"Earlier, the community was smaller, and the priest in residence knew every parishioner personally. He would counsel them about the best way to repent, and follow up to see if the penitent had been successful in changing his ways. If you told him you had stolen from a neighbour, he would instruct you to own up to the deed and return the item. These days, penance is symbolic. You are asked to say a prayer, but what is important is that you reflect on what you have done," explains Fr Allwyn Nazareth of Sacred Heart Church, Santacruz, who has been with the parish for the last two years.
For the priest community, the open dialogue method has kept them on their toes. "If anything, it keeps you more alert. We are moving away from the one-word sin. We are able to catch onto expressions and gestures of penitents that often say a lot more than words. We can delve into their psyche, look at the problem holistically -- not just the sins, but why they were committed, and what is to be done henceforth," says Fr Savio de Sales of Our Lady of Victories Church, Mahim.
For the last three months, Fr de Sales has turned into a familiar face for students of the neighbouring St Andrew's College of Arts, Science and Commerce, where he earlier worked as counsellor.
While murderers and adulterers were made into examples for the congregation in the past, the Church today follows a strict confidentiality law. "Even if someone were to tell me he is planning to murder another, I am bound not to divulge what he has said to me in confidence. There are of course, ways to deal with the situation if lives are at stake although we can't speak about it," he says.
The only constant then is change. Post November 27, 2011, members of the Catholic faith may need a refresher course in prayers, as the third edition of the Roman Missal, a ritual text that holds prayers and instructions that priests must follow while conducting the Eucharist or for the celebration of the Mass in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, will be introduced.
In 1965, Pope Paul VI held the Second Vatican Council (also known as Vatican II) at St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican to address relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the modern world. Cardinals and bishops from around the world decided to alter specific rituals of the Church while keeping with original scriptural beliefs. "The biggest change was in the Eucharistic celebration -- the priests would conduct the service in Latin while facing the altar, with their backs facing the congregation. This turned into the people's mass, with the service being conducted in the local language," explains Fr Nazareth.
Pope John XXIII who was named Man of the Year in 1963 by Time magazine, said in a statement released at the end of the council, "I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in."
It was a change for good, but the change was done in a hurry, feels Fr Fernandes. "In a matter of three years, all texts were loosely translated into local languages, which is why you now have the mass in Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, etc. But the translations weren't accurate. Hence the need to release the new Missal, which the committee at the Vatican has spent almost 10 years on."
The task before parishes across the country now is to get the laity accustomed to alterations in prayers and responses during mass. "The archdiocesan has released a DVD titled One Body, One Spirit that explains all the changes. We have held special training sessions for our Eucharistic ministers and lectors who help out during mass. For the congregation, we will print a booklet that will be kept on the pews to help the faithful read the responses till they are accustomed to it," explains Fr de Sales.
Thane-based public relations professional Dimple Menezes, like several youngsters within the faith, was eager to help out at her parish. But the apprehension of teaching at Catechism school (here children are given lessons on the faith after Sunday mass) linked to St John the Baptist Church in her neighbourhood, left her baffled. Menezes wondered if she, a regular 23 year-old, was qualified to speak on the faith. That was until the perks of letting a young mind converse with children, were explained to her. For Menezes, the debate over the method of confession is an issue of choice. "Let's put it this way -- confessing to an unknown priest is easier. Chatting about life's problems with someone familiar, is more productive," she says.
And so, Fr Fernandes is hopeful. He says this generation "is more committed" than the last one. "They are ambitious but they value family. We live in a cosmopolitan world, so there is bound to be confusion about what qualifies as sin depending on who you discuss it with. Teenagers are swayed by the media and technology but they are curious about spirituality, and more importantly, open to share their views. What we are trying to do is simply keep the dialogue open."