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James Martin, S.J.February 18, 2017

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.”

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Nicholas Mazza
7 years 3 months ago

Great sharing. Thanks

Vincent Joseph
7 years 3 months ago

God bless.

Crystal Watson
7 years 3 months 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
7 years 3 months 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
7 years 3 months 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
7 years 3 months 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
7 years 3 months 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
7 years 3 months 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?

Bruce Snowden
7 years 2 months ago

I was in my forties on my way to work early one morning and in a surprising bitchy mood, don’t know why because I'm not given to that kind of mood. My normal route included a Church where Confessions starts in early morning, so I said to myself, “Maybe I need Confession so let me visit the Church .” As I sat in the pew trying to examine my conscience, bitchy mood still hanging around, a lot of negative prayer happened. I wondered to myself why was I bothering with this painful ritual” – actually Confession is not painful but at that moment it seemed like a real pain in the neck!

Answering my “Why?” reminded me I was doing it because Jesus recommended it. While thinking that way, the following words unexpectedly came to mind, “I want you to remember that Jesus Christ is your Friend and your Brother!” Spurred by that reminder I entered the Confessional. Confession done I was shocked out of my wits to hear the priest say in exhortation, “My good man, I want you to remember that Jesus Christ is your Friend and your Brother!”
There was nothing confessed that would call forth that kind of message. Back in the pew I did the Penance and it quietly dawned on me, why was in such a bad mood, as Jesus is both Friend and Brother? This is something I already knew but had somehow forgotten it and now Jesus reminded TWICE of what I already knew. Did my Penance and left the Church buoyant, bitchiness gone! My only regret was that I didn’t have the presence of mind to say to the priest, “Right on, Father!” I imagine priests must often wonder if their exhortation has hit the nail on its head. This one certainly did.

This post may already be too longwinded, but allow one more brief Confession story, my very First at age seven. As a child in our home brown sugar was used and I loved the stuff and used to “steal” a little and run. Looking for a sin in my First Confession I got the idea I was a thief and so my very first confessed sin was “I stole sugar!” A wise priest ‘way back in 1938 set me straight saying, “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 if you wanted bread, or butter, or sugar, you may take some. But if Mom or Dad told you not to do so and you did, you would be guilty of the sin of Disobedience, not Stealing!” I learned early on the need to make “distinctions” when looking at sin. I learned too much later that sin is in the Will, not in any external Act. All helpful stuff. By the way I still remember the name of that wise priest, A Redemptorist, Joseph Hallisey.

John McAllister
7 years 2 months ago

Confession can be good theraphy and a lot cheaper than going to a clinic. It depends on the confessor penitant relationship.

Kate Gallagher
7 years 2 months ago

I totally sympathize with the "skittish". I didn't do confession at all for at least 25 years. Now I'm doing it twice a year and that is plenty for me. I try to do everything „right”, that is, prepare ahead of time, but I still get terrified. No fault of the priests – so far they have all been kind and have said moderately helpful things. Anyway, here’s my advice for the reluctant: revise expectations downward. Don’t expect to feel better, or to get advice on solving your problems, or to be unburdened. Just do it because you can - it’s an opportunity for an encounter with Christ that is unlike any other, and if you believe in the sacramant, you know you are forgiven, even if you aren’t feeling anything. I think that’s plenty. (And many times, you do end up feeling better – if not right away – and you do get some good advice. But those things are a bonus.)

James Richard
7 years 2 months ago

People don't like going to Confession, because of bad confessors, but also, they understand that as the Catechism Says, "Only God Forgives Sin." Jesus gave the power to forgive sin to the Apostles, and they in turn handed it down to their successors. However, they don't exclude God's forgiveness as many Catholics believe, see CAF if you doubt me. They're taught if they don't make it to a priest for Confession before dying, they're going straight to hell. Fact is, the first four centuries of Christianity, private confession was prohibited by the Church. Instead, confessions were made publicly before the congregation, but there were only three sins that had to be confessed this way, and the major one was apostasy. I believe General Absolution during the Penitential Rite of the Mass, is where it should be given, Those who need to talk to a priest, can do so in the confessional. As it is, few go to Confession, but few do not receive Holy Communion at Mass. General Absolution helps with those who might be receiving while in a state of mortal sin. That all being said, Pope Francis is a big advocate of Confession, so I wouldn't be counting on Him to allow General Absolution.

Mark Cavanaugh
7 years 2 months ago

So much depends on the confessor. One bad experience can set you back for a long time. The opposite is also true. When your confessor shows compassion and spends some time the experience can be positive and even profound. I find the negative experiences to be rare and I don't worry about them too much anymore. It's not the guy on the other side of the box or the Vatican doing the forgiving after all! I have the feeling there is far better training in counseling and psychology than when I was little and it shows.

For those who have stayed away for a long time I recommend giving it another try and if it isn't a great experience don't give up - it is totally worth it.

Tim Donovan
6 years 8 months ago

I know this will be seen as being "conservative," but I do believe that the priest who hears confessions is acting in the person of Christ . I have had only several unpleasant or relatively bad experiences during the Sacrament of Reconciliation, primarily when the priest seemed distant and didn't seem very interested in listening to me. Like many people, I didn't go to the sacrament because I felt my sins were too serious. The sin that I saw as being the most serious was having sex with male prostitutes over a period of several years. I had been celibate for most of my life (I'm 55) but felt a sense of loneliness. I also had sex for a time with a gay friend, but fortunately I decided that my behavior (especially regarding prostitutes) was seriously immoral. I did find a compassionate priest (my quite orthodox pastor, by the way) who I was close to and did feel comfortable talking to him face to face. Although being a single man without a sexual relationship can be difficult, I have found consolation in the sacrament, as well as through my family, friends, and many of the residents of the nursing home/ rehabilitation center where I live. For some time, I now go to confession about once a month, as, like everyone I think, I continue to engage in sins against God and my neighbors.

Tim Donovan
6 years 8 months ago

I was raised in a good Catholic/Christian family ( my father was a devout life-long Catholic and my mother became a Catholic when I was in high school. Why? She was disowned by her father when she married my Irish Catholic dad and was told by her Presbyterian minister that her marriage meant that she couldn't receive Communion. For some years she was a good Methodist, but because she wanted to worship God with my Dad, my sister and brother and me, she was converted by our kind pastor, who like her had been a Presbyterian.). I avoided Confession for many years because I was depressed about being gay, having a childhood case of severe obsessive disorder and anxiety, and had attempted suicide at age 19. Shortly after attempting suicide, my friend told me his 17 year old girlfriend was pregnant. She gave birth after graduating from a Catholic high school, and they were married 9 months later. I was again committed to life (ironically, I had been active in the pro- movement) because I wanted to help my friends raise their baby, and enjoyed my job as an aide for disabled adults. In my early twenties, I graduated from college as a Special Education teacher. My students with brain damage were both challenging but enjoyable to teach. I was further challenged in 1994 when my dear aunt had terminal brain cancer, and my parents and me were assisted by hospice staff in caring for her. She died peacefully in March after having been in a coma for three days. My Dad, who had had a long illness, died in August after being in a coma for a month. A s difficult as these experiences were, there was both consolation and joy: my sister gave birth to her first baby in July. After the pain of a friend and co-worker at the school committing suicide, and learning from her sister that she was gay, I decided to confide in my co-workers about my sexual orientation. Despite the general acceptance of my colleagues, and therapy (which wasn't successful in my case, though I don't dismiss it's necessity and/or benefits for many people), I was still disturbed by being gay and again attempted suicide by an overdose of insulin. My life was saved by a coworker. I finally confided to my family that I was gay and they still loved me. I had been celibate all of my life (I'm now 55) but for several years quite some time in the past I had sex with men. I regretted my behavior, and returned to living a life as a single gay man. Although it can be lonely, I enjoy spending time with my family, friends, and residents at the nursing home/rehabilitation center where I now live. I do go the Sacrament of Reconciliation with a compassionate priest, the pastor of my parish, every month, which I've done for about 8 months, and I will continue to go regularly as like most people, I continue to commit serious sins. I agree that we can and should confess our sins to God, but I do believe that Jesus gave priests, the successors to the Apostles, the power to bind and loose people of their sins. Perhaps because I'm celibate, I feel comfortable confessing my sins to another celibate man. I do believe as is recorded in the Bible, that Jesus was celibate so I believe that a priest, as imperfect as he may be, is a model of Christ.

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