Fr. James Martin: Hate confession? Here’s why you should reconsider.

I have a Catholic friend who hates confession. I am not going to break any confidences, but my friend despises confession so much that he hasn’t gone for a decade. He has offered several reasons why he doesn’t go to what is formally called the sacrament of reconciliation. He is afraid that his sins are now too much to confess all at once; he is frightened of what the priest might say (he’s had a few bad experiences); and he is too busy.

My friend is not the only person I’ve met who feels this way. Several years ago, while directing a retreat, I met a woman who said that she hadn’t gone for 20 years. Her reason was also an unpleasant experience with a priest during the sacrament. As I recall, he berated her for not coming in more frequently.

In response, I asked her: “If you had a bad experience with a physician, would you would never see a physician again?” However, even after we talked about her experiences, she was hesitant to return. Our spiritual direction session was brief, and by the time our 20 minutes was up it was time for another retreatant. So, I have no idea if she ever returned to the confessional.

Sometimes I feel nearly tongue-tied in these situations. Not because I judge people in these situations to be bad Catholics, or because I don’t know any helpful responses to these common roadblocks. Rather, it’s because I go to confession frequently. Very frequently. And I like it.

Admittedly, it’s easier for me to do when I live in a house filled with priests, and especially when my spiritual director is a member of my community. If I ever feel burdened by sin, or even a sin, all I need to do is knock on someone’s door and ask.

On the other hand, it’s arguably harder, since these are men with whom I live and, in many instances, work. After confessing your sins to someone, you may see the fellow at breakfast the next morning. Or at an editorial meeting. But that has never bothered me, because I figure that anyone who lives or works with me already knows I am not perfect.

I often ponder what makes me more inclined to go than the people I mentioned. I am certainly not any holier than anyone else—not by a long shot. It’s not that I have fewer sins.

Maybe it’s the frequency. I go to confession once a month, if not more. I’m used to it. Consequently, it ceases to hold any conceivable fear. Something like a person who has a fear of flying taking 50 flights in one year, and then suddenly realizing that he’s comfortable on a plane. He knows there will inevitably be turbulence and can say, “I’m used to this. And it is not as bad as I thought it would be.”

Sometimes I tell skittish Catholics how wonderful it feels to be honest with God in the sacrament. The old argument against confession that you can always tell God your sins is a good one. Of course you can. But often you don’t. Moreover, it helps to verbalize your sins with another person. And hearing the words of absolution, viva voce, is a lot more powerful than intuiting them in prayer. At least for me.

My comfort level may also stem from experiences with confession from the other side. When hearing confessions, and offering absolution, I can see how people feel unburdened. They exhale. They relax. They smile. And I can feel how grateful they are to be forgiven for something they thought was unforgivable. All that makes confession precious to me.

But mainly I like the way I feel afterward, as if God had given me another chance—which, of course, God has. And no matter if I’m hearing confessions or going to confession, I always think of what my theology professor, Peter Fink, S.J., told our class, “Confession isn’t about how bad you are, but how good God is.”

I wish I could invite everyone who has stayed away to come back. And for returnees, I hope you hear some form of what I say to people who haven’t been to confession for years: “Welcome back.”

Nicholas Mazza
6 days 1 hour ago

Great sharing. Thanks

Vincent Joseph
6 days 1 hour ago

Father James,

I confess that I'm not using my real last name here (because confession is supposed to be confidential and I want to talk about it).

I've recently come back to the Catholic Church after leaving as a small child with my parents. Now I also go to Confession about once a month, and it's because I want to receive the full measure of Spirit in the Eucharist. I think if you have sin in your heart, it leaves less room for God.

And I mean it when I say I can feel the difference. For me, all Sacraments are followed about three to five minutes later by an intense inner peace and sweetness, a real physical feeling accompanying mental and spiritual comfort, as surely as a couple of beers is followed by a buzz. Sometimes I feel this less if there's some sin I haven't confessed, so although there might be some embarrassment, I want to confess, then after Reconciliation, I feel that inner peace as though I just received the Eucharist. Then with a clean heart I receive the Eucharist and feel it in full (which is a preview of the peace in the Kingdom of Heaven to come).

I mentioned that I'm a fairly recent revert, and so I went through Catechism as a mature adult. We discussed this inner sweetness and peace a little bit, after I brought it up, and I hear about it in tangental ways in some homilies, but I think we should discuss this more directly and pay more careful attention to it as a guide to help us grow in our virtues. I can think of two reasons why someone wouldn't feel it: they don't really believe that the Eucharist is the actual Body/Blood of Christ (but Jesus said that it is so we can trust that it is), or they have sin taking up too much room in their heart where this sweet peace wants to reside (remember, God told us clearly, he is a jealous God, so he might be easily turned away if we are holding more dearly onto something else).

One last note, I also enjoy the Sacrament of Reconciliation because it is a moment of confession followed by a longer, helpful talk of encouragement and guidance. Sin is often connected to some inner problem we want to work out, so confessing the sin is a lead in to getting inspired guidance for living a happier life.

God bless.

Crystal Watson
5 days 18 hours ago

I think many people don't go to confession not because they're afraid but because they don't see it as helpful. Why not speak to Jesus/God directly in prayer about your concerns instead of inserting a third party, a priest?

Anne Chapman
5 days 2 hours ago

There are many reasons people don't go to confession, but only one is actually mentioned. While conceding that a human intermediary is not needed to confess to God and be forgiven and absolved, Fr. Martin seems to believe that the main reason people don't go is because of fear and because of bad experiences. Certainly, most Catholics I know would agree that these are very common reasons people avoid the confessional.

But Crystal points up another - they haven't found going to a priest for confession to be helpful to their spiritual lives, to their lives in general. Fr. Martin may not realize it, but this may be partly due to the church's requirement that the confessor be a priest - a male celibate. He is comfortable confessing to another priest. I, and millions of other women (and men) do not find that male celibates are very helpful. They have only a third-person understanding of the lives of the laity, especially of married laity, and even more especially, the lives of married women. I gave up going to confession to a priest when I was about 40 years old.

But I agree, it is sometimes very helpful to work through challenges and spiritual struggles with another person, to speak your sins and temptations out loud, and to have a wise and empathetic listener and guide. I found this in a close friend - a wise and spiritual woman, highly educated in theology and scriptures, an excellent listener, unafraid to hold a mirror up to my sinful soul. She is a married woman, a mother, someone who, like me, has had many struggles within the context of her vocations. No, I don't "confess" to her once/month. But I know she is always there to "hear" my "confession" and provide me the spiritual guidance I need, when I need it. I also sometimes write my "confession" down, talk with God about it, and revisit sometime later. God does not need a priest to mediate, but is available to all who will listen for God's voice.

Ginger Jones
4 days 21 hours ago

I do not frequent confession anymore (at one time in my life, I was going at least once a week) because it does NOT make me feel better. Scrupulous by nature, confession just aggravates the OCD and makes me miserable. My mental state has improved markedly since giving up confession.

My husband, on the other hand, really likes going. Temperament and personality may have a lot to do with how a person experiences something like confession. For me, there is no great experience of relief, there is no feeling of unburdening, it's just a really unpleasant experience.

I am not in favor of women's ordination, and having a woman hear my confession wouldn't fix the OCD/scrupulosity aspect of why I find the sacrament unhealthy and miserable, but I will say that as a teenage girl, confessing sins of a sexual nature to a man was an awful experience for me. I would have felt MUCH more comfortable doing so to a woman. So, to Anne's point, I think there may be an aspect of the male/female difference that makes going confession unhelpful and possibly downright unpleasant for at least some women.

Beth Cioffoletti
4 days 3 hours ago

Every couple of years I make an attempt at confession. Every time I come away confused, as if I'd been somehow inauthentic by playing into something that I'm not sure I believe in. Or given in to a superstition that I learned in childhood. I use my friends to talk honestly with about my sins. I journal. I am well aware that there is deep deception and resentment in my soul as well as little pettinesses and I hold it all before God most every day. I don't know what else to do. I respect Francis more than any other guide on earth, and he says to "go to confession", so I try. But something is off in the way I experience it. Is it me?

Marion Sforza
2 days 14 hours ago

I am sorry so many Catholics miss all that Confession can be. I find it to be one of the most spiritually enriching practices I have. Here's what I do and maybe it will help someone reluctant to go. First of all, look around. Pick out a priest you think you might feel comfortable with. If you're afraid of being "yelled" at, don't pick a crank!!! But, in all seriousness, I find priests most welcoming in the confessional. If you are nervous, tell the priest that upfront. He will help you. Don't be afraid. Secondly, I spend time thinking about what I should confess and why. Sometimes what I do may not be so bad but the intent was kind of wicked, for example. I will spend a week or more taking a few moments here and there to think about anything in my life now holding me back from union with God or any disturbing "trends" I notice. I go by appointment (obviously you can't do that if you want to be anonymous). I have a regular confessor. I go about every 2 months. Not all confession experiences are memorable. But I assure you that when they are you feel gifted, blessed, filled with gratitude and love. Go for it!

Crystal Watson
2 days ago

I guess I don't understand why going to a priest would be necessary to deal with whatever one thought was a problem between them and God. People do the Examen by themselves - a time to examine in God's presence all you've done that day - and no priest is necessary to that. Do people believe God won't forgive them unless a priest tells them that? Is it really for God's forgiveness that people go to confession, or is it for the church's forgiveness?

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