Get priests out of sacristies—and into confessionals

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jul 19, 2018

Bishop Robert Barron, who is widely regarded as one of the leading Catholic experts on evangelization, sees a problem with a parish-based approach. It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate parishes. “I love the parish and believe in its importance passionately,” he assures us. The problem, however, is that people aren’t coming to the parishes; the churches are empty. And even among the dwindling ranks of the active parishioners, only a small proportion participate in the parish programs that promote evangelization.

Most of the Church’s resources are going into parishes and their programs, but the parishes and programs aren’t attracting people to—well, to the parishes and programs. Thus far, Bishop Barron is undeniably right. But having accurately diagnosed the problem, he proposes a solution which, I respectfully suggest, heads us in the wrong direction.

Bishop Barron is following up on the suggestion of Pope Francis that we “get out of the sacristies and into the streets.” The title of the bishop’s column (at least as it appears in Catholic World Report) reflect the Pope’s suggestion: “Getting out of the Sacristy.” He promises another column which will, presumably, flesh out this proposal. For now, he writes:

My humble suggestion is that a serious investment in social media and the formation of an army of young priests specifically educated and equipped to evangelize the culture through these means would be a desideratum.

The problem here, I submit, lies in Bishop Barron’s implication that “an army of young priests” will be needed for this new type of evangelization. Why? What is it about the mission to the popular culture that requires priestly ordination? In this, the “age of the laity,” is it not the duty of lay Catholics to evangelize the culture?

The primary duty of priests, on the other hand, is to provide their people with the sacraments and with orthodox teaching and counsel—to nourish the army of evangelizers, and then send them out into the fields to bring in the harvest. The fact that so many Catholics are not attending Mass regularly, that so many Catholics apparently do not feel that they are nourished by the Eucharistic liturgy, points to an urgent need for priests to fulfill their own primary role, rather than looking for new fields to conquer.

Come to think of it, part of the problem is that we don’t often find priests in the sacristies, except for a few minutes before and after each Mass. Perhaps if priests spent more time there, ensuring that the liturgy was celebrated with beauty and reverence, the pews would begin filling up again, and the lay Catholics who did attend Mass regularly would encourage those who did not to give it another try.

Or how about this: If a priest feels the urge to “get out of the sacristy,” maybe he should try getting into the confessional—for more than 20 minutes on Saturday afternoon. Bring lay Catholics back to the sacraments, nourish them in the life of grace, and turn them loose to evangelize their neighbors.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 27, 2018 7:56 AM ET USA

    I think both Phil and Dr. Jeff are right on target- Conversion. The gospels speak of the vital link between grace and faith. Do we imagine it's possible men like McCarrick could do what they did while celebrating Mass daily consecrating daily? If they lacked faith, yes. How many of these men really believe? It's got to be asked. At the root has been a loss of faith and loss of grace. It begins with confession. It begins with sacraments. We need priests who know who they are and who die to self.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Jul. 25, 2018 7:56 PM ET USA

    Really Phil? Now, Bishop Barren has it wrong. Is this a bias because Pope Francis made the original suggestion? You know the solution is not as simple as just being in the Sacristy or in the confessional. If people are not coming into the church, such time is wasted and lost anyway. Duty of lay catholics-yes! Absolutely! But most have not been properly Catechized to know their duty-so now what. I guess we get the priests and the lay faithful to go out after them. Oh, what the Bishop said. Hmmm

  • Posted by: Pop - Jul. 21, 2018 3:23 PM ET USA

    My first thought: how do we get more of the faithful into the confessionals

  • Posted by: FredC - Jul. 21, 2018 2:30 PM ET USA

    When our parish was founded, nobody was going to Confession. Nevertheless, the founding pastor was in the Confessional at 6 pm every night for at least one hour. Confession was offered also on Saturday afternoon. Gradually, people starting coming to Confession. To this day, some 18 years later, many people come to Confession in our parish. When the priest's actions showed how important Confession is, people came.

  • Posted by: leticia.cadiz4543 - Jul. 21, 2018 5:06 AM ET USA

    Sir , You are absolutely right , priests should spend more time in the confessional. By doing so he is truly fulfilling his vocation w/c is to save souls

  • Posted by: - Jul. 20, 2018 9:08 PM ET USA

    Thank you for this article. It does sadden me the BP Barron has taken this stance. I appreciate what he has done for Evangelization, but he does seem soft when it comes to reconciliation. I agree, priests need to prioritize bringing the sacraments to the people.

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Jul. 20, 2018 6:33 PM ET USA

    Bravo. I was impressed that the parish we reside in (not my assigned ministry parish) had confessions between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. one Friday in the summer. Acknowledgement of sin is the first step toward healing, is it not? And so there needs to be someone who can absolve from the sin and encourage toward spiritual healing. That's the priest in the confessional.

  • Posted by: R. Spanier (Catholic Canadian) - Jul. 20, 2018 12:59 PM ET USA

    Hasn’t our Lord already taught, through Fr. (St.) Jean-Marie Vianney, how to successfully evangelize? “The day after his arrival he was almost alone as he made his way toward the altar to celebrate Mass. But a few days later, when some came to see...., the faithful found him on his knees in prayer before the Tabernacle, as though he truly saw Someone: they found him in the same position, morning, afternoon, evening and even at night.”

  • Posted by: MWCooney - Jul. 19, 2018 7:12 PM ET USA

    Since Bishop Barron has assured us several times that it is likely no one is in Hell, why do we need priests in the confessionals? But, since he is incorrect in this destructive belief, what we actually need is more, not fewer, good priests in the parishes, evangelizing those who show up so that they are convinced of the need for the sacraments. He is among the many in the hierarchy who are blind to the fact that is is their watering down of the Faith that is the cause of the problem.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 19, 2018 6:02 PM ET USA

    Phil, I cannot tell you how refreshing it is to read much of what you write. I heard a bishop say recently (between you and me it was in Dillwyn, VA) that the priest is not just an alter Christus. He IS Christ. He emphasized the work of the priest- the abandonment of self- in providing the sacraments and thus in facilitating the participation of the faithful though grace in the supernatural life of the Blessed Trinity. It is this identity that is in crisis today, and it is everything.