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Confession, absolution and The Big Lebowski

Yesterday I came across an ABC News/Nightline request for help with a story they're hypingreporting:

"Leboswki" fans unite! One die-hard fan of "The Big Lebowski" has taken the Coen Brothers' film to a whole new level with founding The Church of the Latter Day Dude, an emerging religious movement based around the "life and teachings" of Jeff Bridges' character, "The Dude."

"Nightline" is looking for "Lebowski" enthusiasts, who are already following the word of "The Dude," or who would consider following it, for an upcoming segment. To participate, you must be 18 or older and be able to be in New York City the afternoon of Monday, April 23. Fill out the form below and a "Nightline" producer may be in touch with you.

One fan, eh? Way to build a huge story around a major trend involving ... "one die-hard fan." And they wonder why folks are cynical about religion news coverage.

But I wanted to highlight one story that I thought did a great job of looking behind-the-scenes at something many religious adherents deal with in their daily worship life: confession.

The Washington Post's Theresa Vargas looked at how some Catholic priests are trained for confession. Here's how it begins:

Steven Rohlfs sets the scene. It’s a Saturday afternoon, and a line has formed outside the church confessional. An elderly woman walks into the screen-divided booth and kneels.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” Rohlfs croaks in his best old-lady voice. “It’s been two weeks since my last confession.”

Doctors and pilots aren’t the only ones who practice before leaping into high-stakes vocations. So, too, do priests.

This weekend is the holiest of the year for the nation’s more than 65 million Catholics, drawing both the devout and the casual attendee to church. Many will also use the occasion to step into a confessional and divulge all manner of wrongdoing.

For penitents, it can be an intimidating encounter, even in an age when misdeeds often take the form of unapologetic status updates. But they may not be alone in their fears. For a priest, at least at the beginning, hearing confessions can be a nerve-racking task — which is why four men about to be ordained gather in Monsignor Rohlfs’s office on a recent afternoon to practice.

I'm not Catholic but Lutherans have private confession as well. I didn't avail myself of the practice until I went through training many years ago. We had a congregational seminar and an expert (the sainted Dr. Ken Korby) explained to us how it would work. He had heard confessions for decades and told us that he'd heard people confess to breaking every single commandment. He lingered as we contemplated what that meant. He also explained how absolution worked. It was wonderful training and it got me to my first confession.

As anyone who has confessed their sins individually knows, it can be a terrifying and dramatic experience. And one of the things that I actually don't like to think about is how difficult it may be for a pastor or priest. Still, this article handled that issue quite well, perhaps because it was focusing on priests in training rather than seasoned veterans. There are some great quotes in the piece:

“You wouldn’t want to throw anyone in without any experience,” says Rohlfs, who has been rector of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary since 2005. “It would be like going to the emergency room and the doctor says, ‘I’ve never seen a patient.’ ”

There is a fascinating look at what a practice confession looks like and some discussion about how many people go to confession. For instance:

Rohlfs say he believes that more people are going to confession than they did a decade ago, but not as many as did 50 years ago. Little data exist on confessions, but the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University looked at the rates in 2008. That study found that about 24 percent of Catholics go to confession once or several times a year and that only 2 percent go once a month or more. The rest go less than once a year or never.

The purpose of the class isn't just to prep the seminarians but to also teach them how to get people to go to confession more often, including adding hours for confession year-round.

We get some great details about the lives the seminarians lived before seminary, including one who was conflicted about becoming a priest because of the child sex abuse scandal and another who was a tobacco executive.

The one thing that really stuck out for me was that nowhere in the piece did it mention absolution -- that is, the forgiveness of the sins being confessed. I'm now curious if this was a reporting error or if it's a doctrinal distinction between Catholics and Lutherans. For Lutherans, the most important job of the pastor is to pronounce the absolution.

I also wondered if they received training in what we would call the confessional seal -- the prohibition against revealing anything that a penitent confesses. I imagine that many priests and pastors would love such training.

It's just a great idea for an article and a fascinating read. But now I'm curious about the distinctions between how churches handle this as well as the training they offer.

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