What really happens in confession?

As a Catholic priest, you can generally count on people to be curious about two things in your life: celibacy and confessions. Have a Q&A with high school students, and if you don’t get a question about chastity within the first five minutes, you know it’s because their teacher told them it wasn’t allowed.

When it comes to questions about confession, things get a little more complicated. The sacrament only works if people can trust that what they say in the confessional will stay there. Sometimes in the movies you’ll see one guy telling another about some crazy thing he heard “in the booth.” In my experience, that’s just not done. In fact, to repeat the specific content of any confession is among the most egregious sins a priest can commit.

I was thinking about all this recently after a friend suggested I check out a new blog supposedly written by a Catholic priest about the confessions he hears, called (quite colorfully) “My Dumb--- Parishioners.”

Going to the site, I found five entries, each of them purporting to be the ventings of “Fr. Kevin” regarding his parishioners’ confessions. In response to “Forgive me, Father, I’ve intentionally skipped the last few Sunday Masses,” he writes “Yeah, Mass just wasn’t the same without him. I was so sad...” followed by a gif of an obscene gesture.

Likewise, to the person who confessed eating meat in Lent, he writes, “Earlier today, some lady confessed to a hit-and-run that killed a pedestrian… then this dip---- comes in and tells me he ate some beef?”

Now, this is all a gag. But even so, the blog does hit upon some interesting confession-related issues. For instance, confessions can sometimes center on small issues like an impure thought or fear of not having fulfilled one’s obligations to say prayers or go to Mass. And as a priest it can be hard to see people trapped in that sort of micro-management of self, where every moment of their lives is subject to suchintense (and often cruel) scrutiny. At times, I’ve worried that the sacrament becomes a way of reinforcing these scruples.

But telling people not to worry about the things they’re worrying about is often not a great move, either. In a very real sense, who cares what I think? As Pope Francis has reminded priests repeatedly, the sacrament of reconciliation is not a legal court, therapy or a classroom. It’s a place for people to come as they are and find themselves forgiven and welcomed by God. The priest is only there to help facilitate that.

(Although I also note, one of the most freeing reconciliation experiences I ever had involved revealing something that was deeply disturbing me, and having the priest respond, “Is that it? God, what are you worried about?”)

Sometimes I wish there were a way to invite a person to think in terms of their relationships with others. The church has so trained many of us to focus on the little “crimes” we commit against “ourselves” it can be easy to lose track of the big picture. How am I relating to the people around me? How am I hurting, helping or holding back others in the world?

But that sort of suggestion is material less for the confessional than a homily or examination of conscience that precedes the sacrament. Can you imagine going to confession and having the priest say, “No, no, tell me more about these other sins?”  

I once had a priest keep pushing me to provide more and more details on the thing I was confessing. It was unnecessary, and I left feeling deeply violated. (And I was already a priest myself at the time!) It taught me an important lesson: It’s always okay to ignore or walk out on a bad confessor. Again, the sacrament is for the sinner, not for the priest.

You know what’s really surprising about hearing confessions, though? Teenagers are great at them. You might think in our ever-more-secularized world that couldn’t possibly bet true, and certainly many teens don’t know the act of contrition. (Then again, I wasn’t raised with the “standard formula” myself. The first time I heard it was as a priest, and I have to say, the whole “threat of Hell” business horrified me. The last thing we should be asking people to think about in a moment of contrition and forgiveness is Hell. The very last thing.)

But when it comes to the important stuff, teenagers know exactly where to go. They know what they’re carrying, who they’ve hurt and they just lay it out. I learn a lot from listening to them.

It’s hard to know how to convince people today that the sacrament could still be worth their time. And if they’ve had a bad experience, I certainly understand reluctance. Maybe we priests and parish teams need to offer a yearly community reconciliation service where we ask our parishioners to forgive us. It’s all part of the human scene. Everybody’s trying, and everybody screws up. That’s why we come to confession in the first place.

ed gleason
6 months 1 week ago
Yes, Communal reconciliation is the key.. and parishes should start it now before the sacrament fades in an ever secular world. You got a decade left at most. .
Crystal Watson
6 months ago
I've only been to confession once, at the end of my RCIA class. I don't know if this is why some people don't go, but I wonder why it seems necessary to go to confession when one can ask God directly for forgiveness.
William Rydberg
6 months ago
Ms Watson, Did your RCIA team explain about the Annual obligation of Catholics (Assuming no complications-check with Pastor if unsure!) to receive Communion? It's customary for Catholics to frequent the Sacrament of Reconciliation and combine both as a Easter Duty. By going to confession one has certainty of the Forgiveness of their sins which is the revelation of God guaranteed by Magisterium, Scripture & Tradition which is far superior to having faith in one's faith. It helps to remove one's subjective uncertainty. And it also confers Grace! Hope this helps... God bless, in Christ,
Mary Wood
6 months ago
In fact the "annual obligation" is no longer part of Canon Law. So there is no obligation. to request this sacrament unless a penitent believes him/herself to be guilty of "Mortal sin." It was a great release when a priest told me this, in confession!
Bruce Snowden
6 months ago
Hello Father McDermott - “What really Happens In Confession.” A very good explanation. Later on in this Post, I’ll explain what happened to me in Confession, nothing terrible and all beneficial in some way. Using this space if I may, to answer poster Crystal’s question on this site, as to why bother with Confession as we can confess directly to God. I Confess to a priest based on St. John’s Gospel where we discover that on Resurrection evening the Risen Jesus cane to the assembled Church hiding in the Upper Room, breathed on the Assembly saying to the Apostles, “Receive the Holy Spirit, whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them and whose sins you shall retained, they are retained.” The second reason is to meet Jesus Sacramentally according to Catholic theology and in that meeting receive Sacramental Grace which deepens the growing relationship between Jesus and me and all my sisters and brothers everywhere, for as Scripture reminds, “How Cn you love God Whom you do not see, if you don’t love your brothers (sisters) whom you do see?” All the Sacraments offer encounters with Jesus and Sacramental Grace appropriate to each. Now my Confession stories previously told on various sites in AMERICA, but worth repeating here. Putting first things first, seventy-eight years ago at age 7 at my First Confession, the very first “sin” I confessed was, “I stole sugar.” In our home brown sugar was used and I loved the stuff and used to swipe it off the dining room table, then run and hide. My first Confessor was a Redemptorist Priest named John Hallisey and when I confessed that I was a thief, the good priest way back in the late 1930s insightfully told me the following, remembered to this day. “Young man, I want you to remember for the rest of your life, you cannot steal what belongs to you. As a member of the family you may take milk, bread, sugar if you wish and would not be stealing. However, if Mom, or Dad told you not to take something and you did, you would be guilty of the Sin of Disobedience, not of Stealing.” That advice served me well over the years alerting me to the need to make “distinctions” when it comes to sin. Circumstances do alter cases. The next Confession experience happened decades later as a family man on his way to work early in the morning. I’m not an angry, or unhappy person, so it was surprising to find myself in an upset mood on my way to work. Remembering that St. Francis of Assisi used to tell his brother friars who seemed moody and out of sorts, to, “go to Confession!” I decided to do so knowing that along the way in NYC there was a Church with Confessions available from early morning on. As I sat in the pew trying to examine my conscience all that I could do was to dwell on negative prayer, asking Jesus why was I going to Confession anyway, saying in answer to the question, “Because You, Jesus, recommended it!” Suddenly an unexpected thought came to mind – “I want you to remember that Jesus Christ is your Friend and your Brother.” Inspired by those words, I entered the Confessional, confessed, and the first words the priest said to me were, “My good man, I want you to remember that Jesus Christ is your Friend and your Brother!” Back in the pew doing my Penance, I was stunned, as there was nothing in my Confession to elicit that kind of advice. It hit me that Jesus had reminded me twice of what I already knew, but needed to hear again, that, He was indeed my Friend and Brother. My moodiness vanished and I felt again like myself. What a good experience! I just regret not having the presence of mind to say to the priest, “Thank you, Father. Your advice hit the nail on its head!” I imagine, priests must often wonder if their Confessional exhortations are making sense to the penitent. The final example of Confession happened when I confessed to a grumpy, old priest, who must have been tired of listening to sin after sin for hours. I entered the Confessional and looked for a place to sit facing the priest as I like to do. I asked Father for a place to sit and he growled at me, “Kneel down!” I felt like walking out which of course I was free to do, as one does not have to put up with Confessional abuse from the priest. I forced myself to stay and after confession the priest said loudly. “Make an Act of Contrition!” I did my usual short form used by me for years saying, “May God be merciful to me a sinner.” Father growled back. “Not good enough! If you were dying it would be acceptable! Say the long form!” I said to Father, “Help me with it as I hadn’t used it in years.” He did help, Confession over, Penance said and I felt pretty angry, wondering if I had sinned some more while being absolved from sin! I decided my anger was justifiable “absolving” myself! However, in my angry mood which the Confession caused I decided to report that priest to the Pastor, but the more I thought about it, the more I decided to just let it go. After all the priest was an old man, maybe suffering from acid reflux which I’ve experienced and I kept finding reasons to just pray for him. A good experience in that, while I was experiencing God’s merciful forgiveness, I was given the gracious opportunity by Jesus to be Godlike and also forgive. I did. Sorry this is so long, but hopefully not boring. By the way, Communal Confession is not a bad idea as Ed Gleason mentioned.
William Rydberg
6 months ago
The priest is there in persona Christi...
Crystal Watson
6 months ago
Yes, RCIA did go over the confession requirements, but like over half of other Catholics in the US (everywhere?) I don't go. I understand that the church makes certain claims but I can't be the only Catholic who doesn't believe every single one of them. Why wouldn't someone just talk to Jesus/God directly in prayer about their concerns? When the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, he advised talking directly to God, not going to a mediator.
Anne Chapman
6 months ago
Crystal, did your RCIA go through the history of the development of practices of confession in the church? One on one confession in the church was not SOP for the first hundreds of years. The practice in the early church was pretty severe - it was reserved for the very worst of sins, betraying the christian community in some way, usually be denying it. People were kicked out and if they wanted to come back, they had to confess publicly to the leader of the community, (after a while these were bishops), pay severe penances and it was a one time only thing. If they messed up again, they were out of the community forever. Others might choose to confess when death is near, even if they did not betray the community through a serious offense. Basically, it was the Emperor Constantine who founded the imperial church that has persisted all the way to today, when he adopted christianity to support him in his empire building after claiming to see a vision of a cross. Christians were not very popular at that point, but Constantine needed their help,and later he made christianity the official religion of his empire. It was he who called the Council of Nicaea, because he needed the christians to stop their internecine fighting. The bishop of Rome (there really were no official popes until after Constantine) did not even attend. Constantine gambled, waiting for baptism and his once in a liftime confession until he was dying. One on one confession was introduced into Irish monasteries, as an improvement over the humiliating practice of the monks having to confess their "sins" in front of the whole community (still done in many religious orders), including others in formation. Senior monks were assigned to "junior" monks and they also provided a chance for private spiritual direction and guidance. A couple of centuries later, Irish monks introduced the practice to Europe. Eventually it became written in stone at Trent. There is no legal obligation for a Catholic to confess even once a year unless they believe themselves to be in a state of mortal sin, which is a pretty hard thing to do for most people. Just a whole pile of little venial sins. But some people look at confession as a type of superior and cheap grace. They go regularly because they seem to think that God's grace (available to all, everywhere and at all times) comes in "grades", like gasoline. They see sacramental grace as sort of high test level of grace and so they fill up regularly. It has not been my observation, strictly third hand and mostly from reading about those who haunt the confessionals, that much transformation goes on there. Which is the point. Although some people find a good confessor/priest and receive good guidance. In my experience discussing this with Catholics, a good confessor is a pretty rare find. So, as you note, the practice that may have been appropriate for Irish monks in the 6th century is not necessary for ordinary Catholics today, although it is helpful for some As you note, God does not need a human being to mediate. God alone can read our hearts and souls and God alone forgives. The man in the box may be helpful, but often is not, and so few people bother anymore. Also, at some point in Catholic history, confession to a priest really did serve as a way to "control" people, people who were often illiterate and could not read scripture themselves, and who were also superstitious, putting priests sometimes in an overly powerful position out of fear. These circumstances no longer prevail in most of western Catholicism. Some people like to go to individual confession and may have found a good spiritual guide in a particular priest. For the first 30 some years of my life I dutifully went to confession - monthly when marched to the church by the nuns in my parochial school, annually later, and, finally realizing that not a single confession had ever helped me in any way, and one was a downright creepy experiences with a priest who seem to be a bit voyeuristic in his questions about my husband's and my intimate married life, I realized that this man-made law was something I could easily forgo. So I stopped going. However, many of us need a trustworthy person with whom we can discuss our weakneses and personal challenges in trying to be better people. As a married woman, a mother, I found a great "confessor" in a close friend - highly educated theologically (although that is not really very important), a woman of great spiritual depth and insight, who knows me very, VERY well (since we were teens), and who can guide me to seeing things that I don't see in my own spiritual blindness. Since she is also married, and a mother, and living much the same kind of life and challenges as I do, she can get at the heart of things in ways that male celibates do not. Of course, I only have turned to her a few times, when facing some very complex challenges. I don't bother her with the little stuff! Perhaps if the church had married women priests, more women would go to official confession. I have not missed that particular ritual after I stopped going more than 30 years ago. I am, however, very grateful for the willingness of my friend to hear me out and help me see more clearly. The Episcopal church offers individual confession to those who want it. Their motto is "All may, some should, none must". Like so much in the Episcopal church, this is a very commonsense approach.
Crystal Watson
6 months ago
Hi Anne. Thanks for the information. My RCIA class was very superficial - they didn't really go into the history of anything but spent more time on trying to bond us together with stuff like Enneagram discussion groups. Worried we might jump ship, I guess :)
Anne Chapman
6 months ago
For instance, confessions can sometimes center on small issues like an impure thought or fear of not having fulfilled one’s obligations to say prayers or go to Mass. Why does this happen? Because the church teaches it and some Catholics quake in their boots over all church teaching. It's in the catechism. According to the CCC, missing mass on Sunday without a near-death reason is a "mortal" sin. Also according to the CCC, if a person dies without having confessed this mortal sin, they are bound straight for an eternity in hell. As kids, if we ate a hamburger on Friday with friends after the football game, the guilt would eventually set in and we were terrifed of getting into a fatal car accident going home. Fear drove us to the confessional. After a while, most of us realized that we needed to distinguish between man-made church teachings, and the teachings of Jesus. Fortunately, Jesus doesn't dwell much on the man-made laws, and sometimes found them to be counter to true spiritual development.
William Rydberg
6 months ago
Ms Chapman, Don't know who 'we' are but when last checked the moral law and the precepts taught in the CCC still apply to Roman Catholics. Culpability is another matter. I am not a priest, but you might consider making an appointment with somebody at your local parish-DREs are well qualified as well. Grace & Peace. in Christ,
Derrick Weiller
3 months 2 weeks ago
While the Catholic Catechism must be sincerely regarded by Roman Catholics, it may be a pernicious distraction for those who walk The Path of Christ liberated of Absolutism. Whether this liberation is an act of profound Christian Courage, or of a detestable Pride, is better left to Divine Judgment than to the pulpit; but it is surely so that The Holy Spirit needs no middleman, and that what the searching Soul needs is sincere companions with whom to walk The Path. Ms Chapman might better have been advised to pray quietly, or walk with a Companion, than to appoint with some "well-qualified" official middleman. Grace and Peace... in Christ through The Holy Spirit.
Robert O'Connell
6 months ago
Confession invites a measure of humility. One thing about Jesus always stands out to me. With all His grace, divine nature, knowledge & power, He nonetheless (a) knelt to pray and (b) deferred to His Father. To me, that is part of being Christ-like or "Christian" -- and human. Confession also offers "reconciliation" which might not be limited to absolution but could in a rekindled friendship. Right now I think we could acknowledge and appreciate the availability of confessors.
Lisa Weber
3 months 2 weeks ago
The comments are most interesting, partly because they focus on the requirement to go to confession. The sacrament can be very helpful, but to learn that it is helpful and how, a person has to celebrate the sacrament regularly for a while. And the value of the sacrament is partly dependent on the capability of the confessor.

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