I did a double take one afternoon when I spotted a large ad plastered across an MTA transit bus. The elongated placard was from the Archdiocese of Baltimore and bore the words "The Light Is on for You."
The ad caught me off my guard. It was saying to Baltimore's Roman Catholics during Lent: Get up and go to confession. Confess to a priest. 'Fess up - and seek spiritual advice from someone trained in giving it.
Confession, Reconciliation, Sacrament of Penance - whatever its name - went into a sharp decline after the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. It was certainly a major part of my religious education and one of the practices that pointed up the differences from our Presbyterian and Methodist friends. Only the highest of Anglo-Catholic Episcopalians made confessions - and, to my eyes, not nearly as often as their Roman cousins.
In the Baltimore of the 1950s, confession was a part of Saturday afternoon. You'd see the shoppers take the Charles Street bus home and drop into SS. Philip and James, where a little green light about the size of a Christmas tree bulb would be on. The green light (meaning the priest was in residence) was built into the little room, the confessional, where you told all. In those days, there were often lines of penitents - without the help of an advertising campaign.
As a child, I was often fascinated by the popularity of confession. On a Sunday morning, when Monsignor John Duggan was in charge, there would be simultaneous Masses celebrated and confessions heard. The monsignor, as we called him, later retired to a downtown apartment house and frequently walked Charles Street. I knew he was a popular confessor - and heard after his death that he had heard confessions in the open air on the streets of Baltimore.
In the 1950s, people took dressing for church seriously. Men and women routinely wore hats - and women also wore veils. As an 8-year-old, I recall asking my mother why a particular confession-waiting woman had a veil on with deep black trim. She explained that she was a recent widow. That shut me up.
My grandfather, E.J. Monaghan, was a civil engineer and kept meticulous records of everything he did. In going through his papers, I found he even recorded trips to the confessional.
Each church I knew had a slightly different style of confessional, often rigged with electronic devices that showed an all-clear or do-not-enter signal. It was quite a faux pas to enter a confessional if someone where confessing away ahead of you. Kneelers inside the confessionals were fitted with electric relays that flashed an "in use" sign. Some confessionals had little doors. Others had thick curtains that reminded me of a theater.
Another confession mainstay was a sign indicating the priest's name. If a priest was not a regular, he would be known as "Father Visitor." Some priests were known to be sticklers; others were lenient. Some talked too much. Some got it just right, and they had the longest lines.
The usual penances consisted of saying a few prayers, often at the altar rail. To put a nice end to the ritual, many people often lighted a candle as well.