After the Rev. Thomas Burke says Mass at St. Paul Cathedral, he enters his reconciliation room to hear confession and offer absolution. Penitents can kneel before a stained glass partition so that Father Burke can't see them, or join him on the other side, seated by a small table with a box of tissues.
Whether it's called confession or penance or reconciliation, "it's one of my favorite sacraments," Father Burke said.
"I try to comfort them and offer hope and healing, and tell them that they shouldn't beat themselves up. This is not the end of the world. I always give them my business card so they can stay in touch," he said.
The practice of confession has waned for decades. As Lent begins today, the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh is pushing for a return, with penance services to be held throughout the diocese. Group prayer will be followed by private confession. The first is tomorrow at 7 p.m. in St. Bonaventure Parish, Shaler.
Private confession is not exclusive to Catholics. It's a requirement for Eastern Orthodox Christians, and is available, but rare, in the Episcopal and Lutheran traditions.
It is said that Jesus started it in John 20:23, when he told his disciples, "If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven."
Confession changed over centuries, but Catholic church law requires it at least once a year. Fifty years ago, Catholics were urged to go each Saturday, so their souls would be clean for Mass. Many priests now say it's not necessary to go more than once a month if you haven't committed serious sin. But the available data suggest few Catholics come close to that.
In a 2005 poll of 1,260 self-identified adult Catholics conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, 42 percent said they never went to confession and 32 percent went less than once a year. Just 14 percent made the once-yearly minimum, 10 percent went five times a year and 2 percent went at least monthly.
But people have an urge to confess, said the Rev. Frank Almade, pastor of the Catholic Community of Sharpsburg.
"A lot of confession goes on today on Oprah," he said. "They're on talk radio. They're in Miss Manners and on Facebook. People have been doing it. They see the wisdom of it. They just don't do it in church with a priest."
The Rev. Thomas Acklin, a priest and psychotherapist who teaches at St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe and the Pittsburgh Psychoanalytic Institute, knows people ask why they should confess to a priest. He believes Jesus gave priests the task because he knew the human heart.
"People need to talk to another person," he said.
"We believe that the sacrament is a very special way that God pours his own life into us.
"Over the years I have seen the most amazingly wonderful ways that people are finally able to come to terms with some things."
What priests hear in the confessional stays there, he said. They would be excommunicated for revealing it and are legally protected from having to testify about it.
"It's amazing how quickly you forget everything you hear," Father Acklin said. "I've heard the confessions of people who committed murder. But the grace and the mercy of God are so apparent. The awareness that 'There but for the grace of God go I,' is always with me. I don't gloat over anybody. I've committed too many sins myself."
An unsympathetic priest can keep people away. Michael Aquilina, a 44-year-old writer and editor from Bridgeville, left the faith in high school and college. When he decided to return to church, he started with confession.
"I came clean, and the priest really gave me the what for. He raised his voice and let me know that I had not been doing right -- which was true. But it frightened me away," he said.
He did the yearly minimum until he encountered a priest who gently delved into his soul and offered direction for his spiritual life. His advice included frequent confession.
"I've hardly missed a week since," Mr. Aquilina said.
He advises Catholics to search for a regular confessor whose spirituality is compatible with theirs, who will get to know them well enough to see their patterns of sin. From such knowledge comes guidance to grow in holiness, he said.
As a primer for adults, Mr. Aquilina also recommends the 1953 Alfred Hitchcock movie "I Confess," about a priest who hears a murderer's confession.
Father Burke advises confession "every few months" unless someone commits a serious sin, like murder or adultery. Then, it's urgent.
The Catholic Church teaches that such "mortal" sins are a direct ticket to hell. "Venial" sins, like rudeness, are bad but don't sever the relationship with God, and can be confessed less frequently. The penitent begins "bless me, Father, for I have sinned" and states how long it has been since his or her last confession.
If it has been many years, "I always say, 'Welcome back. You won't remember every sin that you committed. Just highlight the things that you want to talk about today. God isn't up there counting how many times you swore or told a lie,'" Father Burke said.
Penance is assigned to help repair the damage of the sin. Father Burke rarely assigns prayers. He might tell a man who has neglected his family to spend time with them.
The penitent then says an "Act of Contrition," expressing sorrow for sin and asking for God's mercy. The priest gives a blessing and absolution.
The absence of penance is the main difference between the Catholic and Lutheran rituals, said the Rev. David Gleason, pastor of the First Lutheran Church of Pittsburgh, Downtown. He hears private confessions either in his office or as the penitent kneels at the altar rail in the empty church.
"I'm convinced that if it was more generally used and people understood it better, it would be a tremendous asset in people dealing with emotional crises and other issues that revolve around guilt," he said.
Some parishes ask parents of children preparing for first confession to make one also. Recently, the father of a second-grader at another parish told Father Burke it had been 22 years since his last confession.
"He was crying. He said, 'I missed it. It just feels good to start over,'" Father Burke said.
Ann Rodgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416.