You’ve probably had the experience: a priest offers confessions to teens and almost none take him up. I’ve noticed even visiting youth groups or good Catholic schools the percentage of teens who come to confession is low. Why? That’s what I ask myself. I think we who minister to youth need to help raise this percentage.
A few weeks back I was with Ken Yasinski and he said that the goal of all he does running retreats is to bring teens to adoration and to confession. I liked the simplicity of that. For my own ministry, I’d probably add one step of apostle-making.
If confession is a key goal, the rest needs to be organized to achieve it.
Shame: They are ashamed of what they’ve done and don’t want to tell anyone, even a priest in confession. They feel alone like they are the only one with this problem (I think this is particularly the case regarding pornography).
Lack of Preparation: They just don’t know what to say. Or maybe they never have had somebody help form their conscience so they don’t see any sin.
Unreasonable expectations: If we (especially priests but also other adult leaders) seem to be far and distant with hyper-expectations. Teens can sometimes be a little uncomfortable with authority figures; and a bar too high can scare them. This doesn’t mean we should not call them to sanctity but that we need to do so progressively – I can expect the same from a religious brother and a new youth group member.
Self-Consciousness: Teenagers tend to be concerned about what others think about them – even more so than us adults. Peer pressure often prevents the first few from getting up. If you get up, you’re admitting you’re imperfect; while they all know they’re imperfect, they hope nobody else realizes.
No adult models: This is the hardest obstacle to get over but so often the teens don’t have adult models of regular confession. I’ve heard Catholic school teachers mention that they haven’t gone in a decade or more. Greg Araujo said: “they see that their parents are not taking it serious by avoiding confession, so the teens reason that it must not be important for them to go either.”
Independence: Some have told me this is a factor. I think it is a minor factor. Teens can drive but I think this just aggravates the previous obstacles as teens would not skip reconciliation just for this. I think this is often an excuse more than a reason.
Ideas for what we can do:
I do not consider this list exhaustive but I figured I’ll offer those ideas I’ve tried with success or others have told me. Please share more in the comments.
Go to Confession ourselves: We need to go to several times as often as we ask teens to. I go once a week and I usually suggest once a month to the most active or spiritual teens. I don’t make a big deal about it – I don’t tell anyone this unless they ask. I think teens are perceptive to such things and will pick up subconsciously whether we go.
Offer opportunities: So often parishes offer 4-5pm on Saturday and wonder why nobody comes. Unfortunately, many of these priests don’t fully believe in the sacrament and never preach about it either so the schedule can be a symptom of the problem rather than the problem. However, I’ve had the experience of mentioning I’d offer confession and then hearing confessions of adults who’d been away a while. I think the demand will always go up if the supply does.
Human Priest: Sometimes the priest can seem like either too distant or too imposing. We priests need to spend a bit of time with them. Sometimes it helps to mention that we’ve already heard everything – so they don’t feel embarrassed mentioning sin X (although some teens thought it odd when I mentioned my tough neighbourhood while inviting them to confession). You lay people need to make sure you keep us human in your descriptions too.
Prepare: We have all probably helped prepare teens for reconciliation. We need to help them examine their conscious without overwhelming them. Pope Francis reminded us that the confessional “is not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better.” One specific example I heard was using the song “Demons” by Imagine Dragons (YouTube – lyrics) which asks the listener not too get too close for fear of seeing his hidden demons.
Teach them to pray: Mary Becker, who gets 90% of teens to confession at her 10-11 grade confirmation retreats, said, “I think part of the high participation is the preparation beforehand and the provided opportunity to just be still and pray. It is easier to hear God when one is in a quieter place!” I can’t say it better. Prayer makes all the sacraments more fruitful and builds up our desire for them.
I don’t think these are everything but they’re a start. My own record isn’t spotless.
As a conclusion, I need to thank those who added to my ideas by commenting on my Facebook post regarding this question (it’s in a closed group but the admins will let anyone involved in Catholic Youth Ministry join).