A crash course for priests who hear confessions is being held at the Vatican this week, as part of an effort to restore confidence in the practice among the Catholic faithful.
The sacrament of penance has been "in a serious state of difficulty" for years, said Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, organizer of the course and head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Church tribunal responsible for issues relating to the forgiveness of sins.
Quoting figures from the most recent Catholic survey on confessions, from 1998, Girotti said that about 30 percent of Italian Catholics believe there is no need for priests in confessionals, while 10 percent believe the presence of a priest "impedes direct dialogue with the Lord."
Many faithful also complained about the performance of priests during confession and believe the priests are unable to penetrate the mysteries of the conscience.
People must confess their sins to a priest, and be absolved by him, before they can take communion, according to Catholic doctrine.
While admitting that the survey is dated, Girotti says the practice of penance, a sacrament "so fundamental for the health and santification of souls," is in continual decline. "The sense of sin has come unglued," he told ABC News.
The voluntary, six-day course aims to strengthen the training of priests in an attempt to lead the faithful back to confession.
Participation in the course, which is open to all priests, deacons and seminarians, is high, Girotti says.
"Over 600 people have enrolled in the course," Girotti told ABC News. "Many of them are students and young priests, but also older parish priests and confessors from the sanctuaries who want to refresh their skills." They come from all over Italy, he added.
Girotti himself will be addressing the question of "special penitents," a tricky category that includes divorced and "irregular" couples, and fellow priests or nuns.
Couples who are not married in the Church, or remarried divorcees whose marriages were not annulled by the Church, cannot take communion because they live in a permanent state of sin, according to Catholic doctrine. But many of these are devout Catholics who want to take part in the Eucharist.
For these couples, Girotti said in his speech inaugurating the course, the priest has the obligation to propose ways to "correct" the situation or encourage the couple living together to "transform the relationship into one of friendship and solidarity" in order to be able to take communion.
While Girotti told priests they must follow church rules that forbid communion for remarried divorcees, he did say they should pay special attention to people in this situation, especially if they are ill or in danger of dying, because "advice inspired by the Gospel cannot and should not make anyone despair."
Girotti also told priests that special care must be taken with the confession of fellow priests or other members of religious orders. The attitude of a priest toward their sins should be that of a "just judge" and "good doctor of the spirit," because, he said, being overly hard on them "has often been fatal for many."
"Never assume an apocalyptic tone," he counseled.
Then there are the "complex and delicate cases" involving the devil, or mystical or presumed supernatural phenomena such as possession, obsession and vexation. Girotti's advice: Proceed with caution and call on an exorcist.
And finally, there are those people who have the habit or "mania," as Girotti put it, of running from one priest to another, because they are afraid that the first one or those who followed have not understood their sin, and in any case they feel the urge to confess it again. In this case a good priest must convince them to choose a "permanent confessor and trust him."
So far, the course is a success. "We are very happy with the intense and enthusiastic participation by everyone in the course," Girotti said.