Peter FinkApril 30, 2021
A priest hearing confession at a Rome church on March 26, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/Remo Casilli, Reuters)

Almost 50 years ago, Dr. Karl Menninger raised a concern for both psychiatrists and religious leaders. His book, Whatever Became of Sin?, noted that our understanding of the sins which caused us to need healing and forgiveness had passed over to something outside of oneself, the famed excuse that “the Devil made me do it.” Personal responsibility was lost; victimhood took its place. Half a century later, his book still stands as a challenge to our own contemporary world.

In Catholic circles in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, patterns of regular confession that were once in abundance began to fade. And that raises a similar question: Whatever became of confession? While frequent confession became a thing of the past, Catholics continued to receive Communion. A traditionally minded Catholic response was that people treated Communion lightly, and their moral consciences were badly distorted. Those on the other end of the spectrum saw Communion itself as the healing remedy. It did not require confession to prepare for it.

The question remains alive today, perhaps even more so after a year of living through the Covid-19 pandemic. But today it might be rephrased as two different questions for two different audiences: “How shall one go to confession now?” and “Why go to confession at all?” Neither of these questions are necessarily evidence of skepticism, doubt or cynicism. They are carried within the human heart and reflect a grace-filled desire to touch again the sacramental tradition of mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation.

The question of “how to” comes from many Catholics for whom confession has not been available, and who may wonder if their customary pattern makes sense any longer. The question of “why” comes from a different source, from people who have abandoned the church and its rituals for some time, and who now feel that the need for healing and forgiveness is calling out to them. What kind of pastoral response might address these two questions?

In Catholic circles in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, patterns of regular confession that were once in abundance began to fade.

The presence of God

Let me start with a conviction I have had for a long time. By and large, Catholics have not been trained to believe in God. Catholics have been trained to believe in the church and its teaching. The typical Catholic moral stance comes down to this: “The church told me to do this, and I didn’t; the church told me not to do this, and I did.” It is a moral stance based on obedience. It rarely goes deeper than that. Yet when I hear these two questions, “how to” and “why,” I see an invitation to move beyond this level of moral awareness.

To answer these questions, we must first ask what Vatican II did to the practice of confession. The council put both the priest-confessor and the person confessing under the word of God (moving the sacrament away from its previous, more legal model that relied on case studies and manuals), for it is in the presence of God’s word that the true awareness of sin can be recognized. No longer do confessors rely only on already formed answers to already formed sins. Both the confessor and the person confessing need to listen to the word of God first, and that can only happen when the two come together in prayer.

We also need to capture who God is for both the confessor and the one making confession. Human beings create many images of God, not all of which are revealed in Scripture. The revealed God present for the one confessing and the confessor is a loving God who welcomes into his presence anyone who turns to him seeking forgiveness. It is part of our faith that in Jesus Christ all sin has already been forgiven. Confession is not to decide whether God will forgive; that has already happened. In confession the hope is to hear that truth in one’s heart and embrace it.

It is important to remember that confession is a responsive sacrament; it responds to the needs of the people.

Third, we need to take a close look at the reality of sin. We do not understand sin by reading a list of sins. Sin is revealed to us, not simply told to us. Such revelation comes from within the person, not from without. If, for example, you make a choice and then say, “that was a good decision,” it probably stems from God. If instead you say, “I wish I hadn’t done that,” that probably is the claim of sin.

Of course, I am thinking of a person who aims to serve God, not someone who is choosing to move away from God. If your choices are ego-driven and not ordered to God and your neighbor, the opposite is true. In the terms of Ignatian spirituality, the good spirit raises concerns about bad choices, while the evil spirit will cheer you on. The moral life is the journey into this inner tension, the summons of the good spirit (grace) and the temptations of the evil spirit (sin). Our Christian faith tells us that grace will always triumph over sin.

A full answer to the questions “how to” and “why” also requires that we consider the age group we are speaking about. Young children need to understand how to distinguish between good and bad. Teenagers need to understand that God loves and accepts them when they themselves are not so sure. But here let me speak primarily to two groups of mature adults in whom I have found that these questions commonly arise. The first are those for whom confession has been part of their spiritual journey. The second are those who have left the church, or at least left the practice of confession.

It is important to remember that confession is a responsive sacrament; it responds to the needs of the people. If a given ritual no longer serves the people, that ritual practice will either fade or require some reformation. That, I think, is what is happening today. As a matter of fact, the ritual of confession was reformed, but that reformation has not yet fully entered the liturgical practice of the church. The one-on-one practice of confession, which focuses on a “new beginning” (but sometimes is practiced in a “same old” mindset), remains; but another model focuses on the faith of the community expressed in ritual form. For this model, the communal form of confession is more appropriate. Unfortunately, that common form has been silenced, or put forth as a “special case” rather than another way of enacting God’s love and mercy.

The understanding that we are loved sinners is something that claims the human heart.

Those eager to return

Let us begin with the first group, those for whom confession is a regular part of their spiritual journey. Because of the pandemic, they have missed the sacrament and are eager to return when possible. These folks know of things in their lives they want to bring to God for help and support; some of those may be recent, some longstanding. These people still long for the sacrament. Their question is: “How to go to confession now?”

But it could also be time to ask what they are doing when they go to confession. These might be the people who say to a priest, “I keep saying the same things in every confession. Can you help me find some progress in my spiritual journey?” With such reflection, they might deepen their appreciation of how God continues to forgive and embrace them. After all, confession is just one element on the religious journey each of us is on.

I see this dynamic play out often in the first week of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola. In that week, you explore God’s mercy and forgiveness and grow to experience just how much God loves you precisely as a sinner. This is a sure step beyond the “do as I am told” morality into the “do as God might invite me to do.” Taking this step can help someone understand sin within his or her relationship with a loving God.

William Barry, S.J., once explained the process of the first week: You may strive to be without sin, but you must face what is said in the First Letter of John (1:8-10): “If we say, ‘We are without sin,’ we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” So the conversion involves recognition that, even though you are a sinner, God will embrace you. The understanding that we are loved sinners is something that claims the human heart. Growth in prayer can help teach each of us what forgiveness and reconciliation mean.

Just as not all doctors have a good bedside manner, not all confessors have good pastoral sensitivities.

Those unsure of the need

For the second set of people, the question is not “how to go to confession,” but “why go to confession at all.” Again, I am not talking about skeptics. I cannot explain to a skeptic why they should do anything, and certainly not “why confession.” I am speaking of people who remember something about this sacrament from their youth, and who may remember why they stopped participating in it, but now wonder if they might find in it again a source of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation. These are the ones likely to say to a priest, “I have resisted this thing for so long, but somehow I have not forgotten it. I think God is slowly calling me back. I am not sure how to go about it.”

They might remember an unfortunate confessional experience, where they felt judged or misunderstood. Just as not all doctors have a good bedside manner, not all confessors have good pastoral sensitivities. Confessors should ask themselves what kind of Jesus-like presence the confession calls for: To see the person who confesses as Jesus sees them is crucial.

For people curious about whether or not they should return, their coming to confession is itself their turning back to Jesus. They do not need to scrupulously bring forth all the sins of their life upon their return. In fact, that would not be a great idea. A confessor’s first response to someone seeking to return to the sacrament should be “welcome.” And, like the father in the story of the prodigal son, the welcome is the embrace of one coming home.

In all cases, the image of God that is presented is so important. Too many have abandoned confession because their own image of God is not helpful (God cannot forgive, God does not care) or because the image of God presented by the confessor (God judges harshly, God is disappointed in you) is not the God revealed in Scripture. There are some dreadful images of God that people continue to live with. These do not allow a God who forgives, a God who cares, a God who not only does not judge you but also asks you not to judge others. Every Christian who seeks to proclaim the mercy of God should ask himself or herself what God they are proclaiming. Not a God who reflects our own fears and concerns, but the God who reminds us: “My ways are not your ways!”

Every Christian who seeks to proclaim the mercy of God should ask himself or herself what God they are proclaiming.

Lessons from Scripture

Perhaps the most important question is not “Whatever happened to confession?”, but instead “How shall the Gospel of Jesus Christ speak to those of us who are sinners?” What does God think of our sinfulness? How might we hear in our hearts what God thinks? One of the great gifts of Vatican II was the restoration of the proclamation of the Word before any sacramental action we might enact. In the ritual of confession, God tells us in Scripture what God thinks of sin. Just listen to it.

A good lesson from Scripture that can be valuable in the confessional is the story of the woman caught in adultery. After the leaders who were ready to cast stones upon her have been rebuked by Jesus and have walked away, Jesus says: “Has no one condemned you? Neither will I condemn you.” Or again, we can look at the parable of the prodigal son. A loving father runs to embrace his son who was thought dead but has now returned home. Or look at Psalm 86:5: “You, Lord, are forgiving and good, abounding in love to all who call to you.” Or Isaiah 49:16: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Yet, even if she may forget, I will never forget you. I have engraved you on the palm of my hands.”

Those who are returning to confession might be looking at their past with a sense of regret for things done or not done; they might also be looking at the present and the things they do or would rather not do. Either way, what they bring is a deeply felt need to be with their God and to hear what God may see in them that is different from what they themselves see. For many, just to express that desire is itself freeing, since it may be a secret held long in their hearts and not expressed to anyone else. So often I hear in confession that “it is good to get it out in the open. I have held it in for so long.”

It is worth pointing out that the last words in the current rituals of confession are “Thank you,” not an expression of relief (though an expression of relief it well might be). Before confronting the challenge of what we must do, we say thank you: Thank you for inviting me back, thank you for welcoming me, thank you for staying with me now and throughout my life.

In some of the sacraments of the church, like marriage, baptism or ordination, “Thank you” is expressed in applause. You probably will not get applause at the end of confession. At the same time, all our sacraments are encounters with God and God’s actions, and all our sacraments are enacted within the renewal of the paschal sacrifice of Jesus. For all our sacraments, even confession, “Thank you” should be the final word.

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