Robert Orsi is a professor of religious studies and history and the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair of Catholic Studies at Northwestern University. A native of New York City, where he grew up in an Italian American working-class neighborhood in the Bronx, Orsi taught at Fordham University, Indiana University, Harvard Divinity School, and Harvard University, where he chaired the Committee on the Study of Religion, before coming to Northwestern in 2007. His work draws on historical and ethnographic theories and methods, and he is the author of several prizewinning books, among them The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880–1950 (3rd edition, 2010), Thank You, Saint Jude: Women's Devotions to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes (1996), and Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them (2005). Orsi has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he is currently completing a historiographical study, "History and Presence."
The practice of confession would seem at first glance to be the most private of all Catholic practices, and therefore inaccessible to historical study and perhaps also irrelevant to history. But this overlooks the powerful formative effect confession had on young Catholics throughout the 20th century, when regular confession became more common and expected, who grew up to be American citizens. Beyond the deep impress of the practice on Catholic values, confession contributed fundamentally to how Catholics in the US lived in the world, how they inhabited their bodies, lived their consciences, and understood themselves as persons. This lecturer considers confession in the modern history of US Catholicism and its place in American history more broadly.