Why is confession so difficult for so many people?

(iStock photo)

This week’s guest is Sonja Livingston, the author of Ghostbread and a recent America article: How Cajun country, an old ambulance and 1,200 frog legs led me back to the confessional.”

In her piece, Livingston describes her own relationship with confession as a Catholic who recently returned to regular practice. “I returned to my childhood church a year or so ago after lapsing for two decades…. I was really drawn back...and enjoyed the experience immensely of discovering the church, the mass the rhythms the traditions. Except for confession! Whenever confession would come up I’d think: ‘Oh, right! Confession’—that was the thing I kept forgetting about or somehow blocked off.”


As a means of better understanding her relationship with confession, Livingston began to research the topic. “I began to become interested in the history of confession or reconciliation and perhaps to justify why I wasn’t participating fully, I wanted to read about others who were participating fully.” One of the people Livingston came across in her research was Father Michael Champagne, who has made it his mission to drive a “spiritual care unit” across the country, offering people confessions on the road.

[Confession] is absolutely transformative on the individual level, but also on a social and cultural level.

As a result of her journey south to meet Father Champagne, and back to the confessional in her own parish, Livingston told America that it was worth working through her resistance to the sacrament. “[Confession] is absolutely transformative on the individual level, but also on a social and cultural level."

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Kester Ratcliff
1 year 4 months ago

At my home parish, where I was received into the Church, confession is usually about half an hour per person or more. Fr Richard expects a person to have thought about it before and maybe prayed through an examen, and encourages us to confess in the form of a thematic analysis of the patterns of our sins and our progress towards God, including mentioning the main types of particular sins. It's in-depth, profoundly personal, always for me includes discussing and deepening my understanding of moral theology and the nature of sin, and at the end Fr prays over us first spontaneously inspired and then the prayer of absolution. The penances I've received so far have all been reading and reflecting on a scripture passage for a week, something specific antidote to the pattern of sins I've been falling into lately. It's both gentler and more rigorous. It really feels like reconciliation, and the penances feel like a relief.

We also have 'Healing Masses' a few times a year when individual confession and healing prayer with lay ministers is available for an extended period during (in the normal place for the penitential rite) the Mass.

When I went to confession at the cathedral at university, it was the extreme opposite. The priest was in a rush to get back to his coffee, wanted no discussion or to give me any reflection or guidance. His only bit of advice to me was so strange to me it not only put me off confession but also put me off going to Mass at all for a while.

I've also tried at a nearby parish in a poorer area than the cathedral - and as normal, the faith is much more richer and more alive there. Fr was also in a bit of a rush because I came just before Mass, but he wasn't just mechanical about it and I did feel listened to and actually reconciled.

I've been back to confession in my home parish again too. I went twice, once to discuss my doubts about understanding or diagnosing my pattern of sins, the second time I mostly listened to Fr's advice and then the sacrament. I realise it wouldn't suit everybody and I'm sure Fr varies how he does it for different people, but he makes time to listen and reflect. He's both incredibly gentle and very rigorous with it.

I don't have a problem with confession, I actually love it, but I do have a problem with a superficial, rushed, quasi-magical ritualistic rather than pastoral approach to it.

Tim Donovan
1 year 4 months ago

Kester, after having been away from confession (the Sacrament of Reconciliation) for many years, like you, I love it and find it to be most beneficial when the priest gives me sufficient time to carefully confess my many sins and shows compassion like Msgr. John does, and provides me with a meaningful penance. I don't appreciate a rushed, superficial approach to such an essential sacrament for our salvation,including receiving Jesus in the Eucharist.

Tim Donovan
1 year 4 months ago

I was raised in a good Catholic/Christian family by a devout, life-long Catholic father and a devout Protestant mother, who after continuing to attend Methodist services until I was about 9, decided to attend Mass so that we could worship God as a family, and then converted to the Catholic faith when I was in high school. (My Mom had been disowned by her father when she married my Catholic father, and was told by her Presbyterian pastor that her marriage would mean she could no longer receive Communion). I stopped attdnding Mass for a time in my late teenage years because I was depressed about my being gay, then attempted suicide when I was 19. Ironically, I was active in the pro-life movement. But I felt unworthy to attend Mass, and despite being on anti-depressants, felt no relief. In my mid-twenties I returned to attending Mass, but felt afraid to confess my sinful behavior (lustful feelings and attempted suicide). At age 19, two occurrences made me feel a recommitment to life. Shortly after my suicide attempt, my best friend told me that his 17 year old girlfriend was pregnant. When she gave birth after graduating from a Catholic high school, I decided helping my unwed friends raise their baby gave my life purpose. My friends did get married in the Church nine months after their son's_ birth. Also, in my early twenties, after working with disabled adults for several years, I went to college, became a Special Education, and found a sense of fulfillment in educating my brain damaged students. My work was challenging but enjoyable. To make my tale shorter, despite medication and therapy, I remained mentally ill with depression, anxiety, and a (continuing) childhood history of obsessive-comp .ulsive disorder. But my work with people with disabilities as well as assisting my friends raise their growing family, plus attending Mass, gave me the meaning in life that years of psychiatric help didn't provide. (By the way, I don't dismiss the value of therapy and/or medication, or its necessity for some people). In 1994, I had the challenge of assisting my parents and hospice staff care for my terminally ill aunt. After she became comatose, we consulted with our pastor about whether (morally) she needed a feeding tube to sustain her life. (I had a student with a feeding tube, so this was of special concern to me). After consulting with a theologian, our pastor told us his decision that a feeding tube wasn't morally necessary since my aunt's condition was irreversible and terminal, so she died peacefully. My Dad passed away after a long illness, and was in a coma and on life support for a month and died peacefully five months after his sister, my aunt, died. My sister had given birth to her first baby just prior to my Dad lapsing into a coma, which though saddened by my father's death, brought joy to my family and me. Another reason to live, caring for vulnerable, ill family members and welcoming a new life. In the wake of all these events, culminating in feelings of challenge, sadness and joy, a good friend at work committed suicide. Learning from her sister, a nurse at our program, that my friend was gay, led me to confide to my co-workers that I was gay. Despite the predominant acceptance from my colleagues, I felt distraught by my friend's death and still unable, despite therapy to resolve my negative feelings about my sexual orientation, I again attempted suicide. I was saved by a co-worker, and decided I'd had enough of keeping secrets, so I disclosed being gay to my family. They accepted me with love, but after years of struggle with various joys and conflicts, loneliness led me for several years to have sex with men. I then regretted my behavior, and decided that though difficult, being celibate again as I had been for most of my life was the best and moral choice. I finally found the courage to confess my many sins to my compassionate pastor, and for some time now have been going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation for forgiveness, consolation and strength each month.
My pastor, though thankfully in my view orthodox, is very caring, listens carefully, and gives me not only prayers to say for my penance, but wise and useful guidance regarding how to be a better person. I now find the Sacrament of Reconciliation to be a gift that I look forward to receiving, both for necessary consolation and so that I can receive Jesus worthily in the Eucharist.


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