The great (and tragic) comedy of going to confession

When I was younger, my family had to bribe me to go to confession once a year. I went literally dragging my feet and scowling like a demon.

I still do not like going to confession, but I sure do like having gone. Now when I exit the confessional, I have to hang on to the pews so as not to float away. Whatever kid I have dragged with me hears me say the same thing I always say: “You’ll never get a better deal.”

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This week, I began collecting stories about confession from my Catholic social media friends, and I am not even sure why. I will start with one of my own: My husband and I both went to confession one afternoon. I got out first while he was still in line, and he asked me who was in there—the Nigerian nit-picker, the almost-deaf crank or maybe Father Distracto? I reared back in mock horror, rolled my eyes heavenward and whispered, “Um, it’s Jesus.”

I do not like going to confession, but I sure do like having gone.

If you cannot laugh at the ignominy of whispering your wretched little sins through a screen, then when will you laugh? When you don’t have any breath left?

Many parents told me that when the priest raised his hand to absolve their kid on his first confession, the child mistook the gesture and gave father a triumphant high five: Absolvo! Down low—he’s too slow! In peace you go.

Sometimes the joke is more subtle. One woman said that as an adult convert she had a terrible time working herself up to go to confession for the first time. When she finally got there, she was astonished to find there was no priest. No sign, no message, no nothing. She took it as a sign that she was on the right track. If getting absolution were easy, it probably would not be worth doing.

If you cannot laugh at the ignominy of whispering your wretched little sins through a screen, then when will you laugh?

Sometimes there is no joke at all, just the tenderness of Christ. Another woman, a revert, said: “The first confession I made after being away for six years, the priest kindly and patiently listened to me sob out my sins. When I could not go on because I was crying so hard, he gently began to counsel me. My penance was the search for Christ’s love within me. A few days later, I found out I was pregnant with my first child—out of wedlock with my boyfriend whom I then married, and we now have five kids.”

Many penitents have stories of slinking into the box sunk deep in gloom and remorse, only to encounter a jolly priest who thinks everything is fixable, chucks you under the chin, offers you a Tootsie Roll with your absolution and reminds you that you can maybe get over yourself.

More than one penitent somehow pocket-dialed an acquaintance and left a long, emotional, very personal voicemail from the box. And we have all run into priests and penitents alike who are just plain loud, leaving the reluctant audience outside to cough, shuffle their feet, jingle their car keys and conclude that they, too, are bound by the seal of confession, no matter how unwillingly they heard what they heard.

Catholics all over the world suffer the same tragicomedies as they take their chances in the confessional.

There are priests who are hard of hearing or just plain confused and give draconian penances based on sins the penitent never confessed or who holler out, “You did what!,” for all the congregation to hear.

It is strangely comforting to know how universal these stories are. Catholics all over the world suffer the same tragicomedies as they take their chances in the confessional.

There are priests who fold their aching bodies into the box, week after week; priests who put aside their own weariness and malaise to offer hope, encouragement and forgiveness, week after week. Priests who draw contrition out of the defiant, resolve out of the reluctant and peace out of the inconsolable. There are priests who walk in willingly, knowing they are expected to be therapist, referee, mind-reader and punching bag all in one.

Sometimes we must rely on our faith to remember that the sacrament’s power comes not from the man but through him, from God.

And then there are priests who withhold absolution because they do not like the penitent’s tone. There are priests who think the penitent cannot possibly be sorry because she keeps confessing the same thing every week. Priests who lash out, grumble, harangue or even mock.

There are priests who meet the wounded and, in the name of Christ, add to their wounds.

There are priests, in short, who let their human weakness, foolishness, prejudice and personal sin overcome their training and their duty and who run the risk of chasing a sinner away from Christ for good—the very opposite of what he is there to do.

Strange to say, I found this kind of story comforting, too, because most of the people who told these stories did come back. Years later, they were still angry or wounded. Some complained to the bishop. Some left the church for years. But eventually, they did come back, back to the church, back to the sacraments.

Why? Because, as I snarkily reminded my husband, it is Jesus in there.

Sometimes that is obvious. Sometimes we hear exactly what we needed to hear and find peace and healing where none seemed possible. But sometimes we must rely on our faith to remember that the sacrament’s power comes not from the man but through him, from God.

It is Jesus in there. If you cannot whisper out your sins through the grill to him while you still have breath, then when? If you will not meet him in the person of the priest, then to whom will you go? It does not matter whose name is posted outside the confessional. It is Jesus in there, and that is why it is always worth coming back.

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Sandi Sinor
7 months ago

It is Jesus in there. If you cannot whisper out your sins through the grill to him while you still have breath, then when? If you will not meet him in the person of the priest, then to whom will you go?

With all due respect for your heartfelt beliefs, it is a human being who sits in the confessional to 'hear" confessions. It is not Jesus who sits in the confessional with you. It is not even God "in the person of the priest". God is everywhere, and God is in us - not just in priests.

One does not need fear that those who don't "whisper their sins" through a grill to a man have nowhere to go. They can go into their room, and confess their sins to God. God listens to all penitents, and does not need a human being to mediate.

go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you Matthew 6:5-6

God can see into our hearts and souls. God understands everything about us - our sins, yes, but also our hopes, our fears and every great and small thing that happens in our lives. No human being can do this.

It is God who forgives our sins, not a man..

Marco Maldonado
7 months ago

Hi Sandi, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and opinions, I liked your post very much. I agree with you 100% in that God does not need a mediator to absolve or forgive our sins, but would you agree that we as the sinful humans we are, we need the guidance of a priest who (we hope) understands God's word and message better than us? and that he can pass that along so that we better understand the meaning of what we should and shouldn't be doing? I kind of see priests as teachers of our faith since they spend a great deal of time studying His message. Anyway, that's why I think confessing to a man, a priest, is helpful. I'm not saying you are against confession, that's not what I read, all I'm saying is we go to priests (and confession) for guidance, just a students go to teachers, or people to go psychologists, psychiatrists, therapies, for guidance. After all, the word "Rabbi" means teacher, just as our Lord Jesus Christ was referred to and people went to him for guidance, just like we go to priests for. Let me know your thoughts. God bless.

Bruce Snowden
7 months ago

One early morning on my way to work, I found myself uncharacteristically grumpy. Passing a Catholic Church offering early in the morning Confession, the thought came to mind to stop in for a visit to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, then to Confession. I felt the visit and the Sacramental Grace might raise my spirit. So in I went, still grumpy asking myself in negative prayer sitting in the pew to examine my conscience "Jesus, why am I going through this painful ritual of Confession?" The following words as if in answer came to mind, "I want you to remember that Jesus Christ is your Friend and Brother."

Immediately as if those words instructed me, I went into the Confessional, confessed my sins and waited for the Sacramental Grace to happen. It happened! Unexpectedly the priest said to me, "I want you to remember that Jesus Christ is your Friend and Brother!" I was shocked at what the priest said and as I listened further I heard him say, "I absolve you from all your sins, in the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. Go in peace."

I left the Confessional no longer grumpy, joyful instead. To this day I marveled that the priest used the same words that I had heard sitting in the pew as his exhortation, especially as there was nothing confessed that might elicit that comment. Yes, if Jesus is my Friend and Brother why be grumpy? This I knew from childhood but in later years my "Friend and Brother" Jesus kindly reminded me
of what I seemed to have forgotten. I'm just sorry I didn't have the presence o mind to thank the priest for being so insightful. I imagine priests must often wonder if they are giving the right advice to the person confessing. My priest surely did!

Reyanna Rice
7 months ago

For some, such as myself who suffered verbal abuse at about age 14 from a priest who did say “You did what?” for everyone in my small town parish to hear before Mass one Sunday morning, even with the most gentle of priests, it will trigger an anxiety attack. Not worth it. If the third rite were once again allowed I would avail myself. But until then, it’s between God and me.

Marco Maldonado
7 months ago

I haven't gone to confession in a long while (there you have it, first confession I need to tell the priest) but in the end, I want to believe confession heals the sorrows about oneself and give us light to move forward, thus giving us a new chance to be back in the path that God made for us. Just as we go to school for teachers to teach us the different subjects, we go to the priests to teach us (from a religious point of view and understanding) how to continue in God's grace.

Tim Donovan
7 months ago

I understand the teaching of Jesus that we should pray to God, which without being immodest, I do daily throughout the day (which I need as an imperfect Catholic --more on that in a moment). However, Jesus also clearly taught to the Apostles, "Who's sins you forgive are forgiven, and whose sins you retain are retained." At one point in my life ( I 'm 56) for a few years I seriously doubted God's existence, though I tried to still follow the teachings of Christ as proclaimed by our Church. I do believe that the Apostles were the first bishops, and unless I'm mistaken, I believe that bishops are mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. Further, the Apostles "appointed" (for lack of a better word) the first presbyters, which is another term for priests. I do believe that God is everywhere, but I do believe that a priest is acting in the person of Jesus. After all, as Catholics we believe (or should believe) that when a priest consecrates the bread and wine, that a miracle occurs (which I certainly don't claim to understand how it happens) and the bread and wine become the Real Presence of Jesus, who gives us His,body and Blood in an unbloody manner.
I understand very well that going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation can often be difficult for different reasons. I'm gay, and because I grew up being often taunted as being a sissy and forgot I felt uncomfortable about going to confession. This was complicated by the fact that I had had sex with men years ago. However, I finally got the courage to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and received forgiveness and consolation from a compassionate priest. I now am fortunate that I live in a quality nursing home/rehabilitation center, and my pastor is kind enough to visit me at my request each month and hear my confession, then give me the Eucharist as well as anoints me. Finally, I agree that, being human, not all priests are very good at performing the Sacrament. It is important to find a holy and compassionate priest. However, I agree with several people who commented that confessing one's sins to a good priest is a worthwhile means of receiving guidance, which is a crucial aspect of the sacrament.

Rhett Segall
6 months 4 weeks ago

St. Augustine, I'm told, went to confession only once in his life. Perhaps he missed out on three special gifts of the sacrament of reconciliation. First, the gift of remembering that we not only commit sins but that we are sinners, i.e. the roots of sin remain within. The grace of the sacrament keeps us alert to that. Secondly, I need to be reminded that sin hurts the body of Christ. Thirdly, it is vital to remember, as mentioned by others, that in the sacred sign of forgiveness I hear the Lord's word: "Don't worry, I'm on your side. We'll work this out."

Bruce Snowden
6 months 4 weeks ago

Hello Mr. Tim, from the land of cotton, pecans, peanuts, peaches, fried okra, grits, and beautiful magnolia, from South Costal Georgia, I write saying I admire your unbridled, honest-to-God honesty, about yourself, maybe more than we need to know, but kin to the scriptural axiom, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free!" Sort of surprised you're in a Nursing Home in rehab and hope your progress to better health is on a fast track.

Let me comment a little on one point in your post, the Blessed Sacrament. You're right, bread and wine becoming the Living, Resurrected Body and Blood of Jesus Christ at the words of the priest through what Aquinas called Transubstantiation, is beyond human comprehension. Fortunately we are not left totally in the dark in that, our body naturally transubstantiates through digestion and assimilation bread and wine we may eat, into the substance our body and blood, a natural process, not a supernatural process through Transubstantiation giving us the fabulous Blessed Sacrament, the Holy Eucharist! It's interesting to note while lesser minds so to speak may find the Eucharist impossible to believe, the brilliant mind of Albert Einstein found it "fascinating!" I've long believed that whatever is possible naturally, is also possible supernaturally, but of course whatever is possible supernaturally, is not possible naturally. Look at our Seven Sacraments to discover natural links to supernatural realities. in endless ways it's true that God builds on nature.

I hope this has not bored you to desperation, at least of some interest to you. I often wonder if posting in like talking into the wind, useless, no one really giving a hoot. At any rate God bless you in all ways!

Barry Fitzpatrick
6 months 3 weeks ago

Thanks, Simcha, for the needed reminder of one of the many reasons I love being Catholic. This sacrament, as you can tell from many of the comments, is such a grace-filled opportunity for us to grow closer to God, if only we take advantage of it. I have recently become a real advocate of trying to get my friends to join me, especially when our local parishes join together for an evening of Reconciliation. Is there a more beautiful sight than a hundred or so penitents with a dozen priests, all in search of God's mercy? It has taken me until this point in my senior citizen life to realize the gift this Sacrament is. We are lucky to include it in our ritual and in our spiritual practice. Recently, after I had confessed my sins, the priest looked at me and said, "He is madly in love with you, you know." Stopped me cold. I guess I hadn't thought of it that way, but He is!

Alice Pat
6 months 3 weeks ago

I love confession and I love this article!
I have heard versions of all these stories. Fortunately for me, I have not experienced a bad confessor in almost 30 years of being Catholic.

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