HIGHLANDS RANCH, COLO. — In the hush of a warm afternoon, Father Larry Solan waits for sinners.
The veteran priest sets aside a half-hour every Saturday to hear the failings of his flock at St. Mark Catholic Church. On a typical week, he sees two penitents, perhaps three. Some weeks, no one comes.
Today, Solan waits 10 minutes, 20.
Two little boys take a bench in the lobby, bowing their heads over a bag of crackers as they wait for afternoon Mass. Their parents chat with friends. Still, Solan's confessional is empty.
Confession is not what it used to be in the Roman Catholic Church; cultural and theological shifts have pushed the age-old sacrament aside. In the mid-1960s, 38% of Catholics said they went to confession at least once a month. These days, just 2% do. More than 40% never go.
Church leaders have tried to revive interest in the sacrament with tactics as varied as radio ads (this spring in Washington, D.C.) and a strip-mall chapel dedicated solely to confessions (a few doors down from a tanning salon in Albany, N.Y.). More priests are also doing away with the traditional wooden confession booth in favor of relaxed, face-to-face encounters.
Outside the Catholic church too, the rite of confession is being reshaped, this time by Protestant megachurch pastors who see the ritual as a self-help tool for the lost and lonely -- and a marketing opportunity for themselves.
Click over to IveScrewedUp.com, and a black-and-white, Goth-tattoo-style graphic bursts onto the screen. You're invited to type in a description of your sins, along with your age and hometown. Click "send" and it's done; you've confessed -- to the webmaster of Flamingo Road Church, a Florida congregation affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.
"I'm a patholgical liar. About everything. To everyone."
"I have a compulsive shopping disorder, I spend way too much money on dresses."
"I constantly smoke marijuana while I am supposed to be looking for a job. . ."
"I've slept with 11 guys and only 1 of them I actually loved."
"just been a jerk"
The confessions are screened for obscenities or identifying information (but not for typos), then posted for all to read. They fill page after page. Some are wry; some are frightening; many are so sad. Some writers are curt and achingly precise. Others type on and on, as though pounding years of pain into their keyboards.
"A friend of mine was shot and killed last weekend, by a black guy. I've always been a bit racist, despite the fact that I knew a few very nice, caring, chrisitan black people. But now that this has happened, I feel like I've just lost all respect for them. . . . I really need strength to be able to forgive."
Though they write anonymously, many sinners ask for help -- from God, or from a stranger who might see their posting and pray for them.
"It does break your heart," said Flamingo Road pastor Troy Gramling. He and his staff pray over every confession.
"It makes you realize, even in line at Starbucks there are so many hurting people," Gramling said. "We all get really good at wearing masks."
Several other confessional sites also hold out the promise of catharsis, with a vaguely religious gloss. The Universal Life Church, famed for do-it-yourself ordinations, offers an online "Absolution of Sins Application Form." A gossipy secular site, DailyConfession.com, arranges sins by categories that mirror the Ten Commandments.
Catholics can try absolution-online.com, which invites you to fill a shopping cart with your sins (choices include calumny, vainglory, disregard for the environment and use of Ouija boards). The site then calculates an appropriate penance -- say, 228 Hail Marys and 43 Our Fathers.
On a more intimate scale, the Rev. Adam Rodgers asks any sinner "ready to cry out" to e-mail him anonymously through the website for Stoneboro Presbyterian Church, stoneboropres.org. So far, no one has. "We're a small community in western Pennsylvania," Rodgers said. "I guess people like to keep their secrets to themselves."
That's not a problem at the two biggest church-sponsored websites, IveScrewedUp and MySecret.tv. Unabashedly voyeuristic, the sites allow readers to scroll through pages of angst from anorexic teens, abusive parents and porn-addicted pastors; from a Christian who can no longer believe in God; from a student who feels guilty for dropping out of college; from a man who despises his mother-in-law.
A woman pleads guilty to snooping through her boyfriend's e-mail. Another admits: "sometimes i really can't stand my own children."
It quickly becomes clear that there's no such thing as an original sin.
Too many Catholics, especially the older generations, it's inconceivable that such online blathering could stand in for confession. "It would be like cheating!" said one woman at St. Mark, in this suburb south of Denver.
But for Ashley Iodice, a high school senior in Weston, Fla., Internet absolution feels much more natural than talking to a priest.