The ordinary means of conversion of heart for Catholics after Baptism is the Sacrament of Penance, or Confession. Pope Francis, in addition to setting an example by publicly partaking of this Sacrament himself, has spoken about it frequently, particularly during this Lent.
As a priest once told me, “Confession has always been difficult.” Anyone who has worked with children in sacramental preparation knows that no matter how friendly we make First Penance, with music and family and little fabric sheep, the poor little kids are quite nervous until it is all over. With emotional barriers like this, and with the vast majority of the faithful completely out of practice, it is important to make the Sacrament as approachable as possible.
Here is how not to make the Sacrament approachable: publish a notice in the bulletin that says “Sacrament of Reconciliation by appointment.” That will go nowhere. If the idea of calling the Rectory to make an appointment to confess sins is not intimidating enough, imagine the likely conversation.
Parishioner: “Hello, may I please speak to Fr. O for O’Malley?”
Office Lady: “May I ask about what this is regarding?”
Parishioner: “I… I would like to go to confession.”
Office Lady: “Oh. Yes. Well, Fr. is busy this afternoon. May I take your name and number and he will return your call.”
Any parishioner who perseveres through a parish office’s bureaucracy is probably already such a candidate for canonization that Confession would likely be superfluous. For the rest of us sinners, a more reasonable degree of access is essential.
Perhaps this is why the Holy Father, as well as his Major Penitentiary, have recently exhorted priests to have more of an open-confessional policy. Priests should wait in the confessional for penitents to arrive. In my opinion there are actually two ways of doing this. One is to have several blocks of time (half hours or hours) available each week, and if at all possible, one of these times on Sunday morning, when the faithful are at the church already.
The other way is to have many more times, but published with the starting times only. Under this kind of schema, most of the penitents are waiting for the priest at the stated time, and he leaves when the line is finished. My old good boss scheduled 21 confession times per week in this way, most of which did not take much time. (His brother, as it happens, has recently posted an excellent article on the Scriptural warrants for the Sacrament.)
Various dioceses have found that particularly during Lent it is helpful to have a certain block of time each week during which every parish in the diocese is open for confession. In the neighboring Archdiocese of Washington and Diocese of Arlington, which share an underground metro system, for example, every parish hears confessions every Wednesday evening from 6:30-8 during Lent. It seems to me the “Wednesday” time follows through brilliantly on our most visibly and positively Catholic day of the year, Ash Wednesday. The USCCB promotes the use of the excellent logo graphics that originated in these dioceses, and which are posted in metro cars throughout the region. Many other dioceses do the same.
At the same time, the Holy Father has been steadily exhorting confessors to be agents of mercy in the confessional. I can only imagine how challenging this must be at times, but it is also absolutely essential.