Fear, anxiety, dread, embarrassment. These are all emotions one may feel when faced with having to go to confession. This is not how it needs to be, in fact it’s not how it’s meant to be. One thing to remember is that the sacrament of Confession is less about us and more about God. How so? Let me explain.
We are going to sin. It is an attribute of our fallen humanity. We must however take heart. The sacrament of reconciliation is the tool by which we can clean our dirty garments. The real awesome thing about the confessional is not the sinner nor the sin. The power of confession is the mercy of God.
We are indeed loved by a merciful God, our Father, who wants nothing more than a one on one personal relationship with each and every one of his children. He knows we are going to stumble. In fact, he knows when we are going to stumble even before we do!
Wisdom from the Past
Tertullian of Carthage in his work On Repentance tells us:
[Regarding confession, some] flee from this work as being an exposure of themselves, or they put it off from day to day. I presume they are more mindful of modesty than of salvation, like those who contract a disease in the more shameful parts of the body and shun making themselves known to the physicians; and thus they perish along with their own bashfulness.
This was written in 200 AD and people were reading Tertullian’s writing then that had the same feelings you may be having now. 1800 plus years later the response is still the same as well. God’s healing mercy is more powerful than fear, anxiety or any other misgiving you may be having. We should keep in mind that the Lord doesn’t demand that we attain every virtue but that we simply keep trying. Taking that one step further Mother Teresa once said, “God doesn’t call us to be successful but to be faithful”.
Tips for Today
Before heading to confession you should you should conduct a good examination of conscience. One popular source to aid in this is Father Larry Richards’ Sin List. A simple straightforward list that covers the gambit of potential sins related to the Ten Commandments. If like me, you prefer to take advantage of technology, there are quite a number of apps on the market today that allow for a checkbox style listing to aid in cataloging your thoughts for the confessional. These are all wonderful aids in jarring your memory so that you do not forget anything during your confession.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl has also written a fantastic resource for those that have been away from the Sacrament. The book, The Light Is On For You: The Life-Changing Power of Confession grew out of the successful program of the same name that was started by Cardinal Wuerl and others. As the Cardinal states: “Leaving the light on is a basic family courtesy. It is a beacon of love, care, concern and safety – the good things we associate with home.” So it is with the confessional whose electric light is the sign for penitents to enter.
When I asked Cardinal Wuerl about his thoughts on how Pope Francis may have an effect on the current trends in the use of the confessional he had this to say.
It would be great to see a “Francis Effect” in the confessional lines. You’re right to say that the Holy Father takes every opportunity to urge Catholics to make good use of the sacrament. He admits that he goes often himself. It was edifying to see the photographs of him making his Confession this Lent. He’s setting an example for all of us to follow.
When it comes to the Francis Effect, sometimes people’s imitation lags a little behind their admiration. This pope is calling us to be better people and to do great things, but he’s not asking anyone to do something he’s not doing himself. We need not just to hear him, but to heed him. Making a good Confession is one way to do that.
We moved on to discuss how we came to the point we find ourselves in that the sacrament of confession seems to have become so under-utilized.
When I was a young priest, in the 1960s and 1970s, there was much experimentation and confusion in the Church. Teachers and clergy were encouraged to communicate an experience of God’s love, but to do it without reference to the Creed, the sacraments, or the tradition.
It didn’t work very well. Catholics grew up with the impression that their heritage was little more than warm, vaguely positive feelings about God. One of the casualties of that period was the sense of sin. Sin is an unavoidably negative reality, and it’s a universal problem, so it can make everyone uncomfortable. The traditional notion of sin did not suit the tenor of the times, and so the topic was ignored. Confession fell into disuse.
Unfortunately, sin did not. But now many people found themselves without the access to God’s mercy, which the sacrament provides.
Those years of experimentation left so many Catholics weak, spiritually and intellectually, and unable to withstand the tsunami of secularism that came in the last decades of the century. We lost many people because we had failed to teach them about right and wrong, about the common good, about the nature of the family and the objective moral order.
Now, I believe, our task is clear. We need to rebuild our faith from the foundations — with the most basic teachings. I have considered that work essential to my vocation since I was a young priest. It’s at the root of our program to promote Confession in the Archdiocese of Washington. We instituted it several years ago and called it “The Light Is on for You.” It was very successful and has been adopted by many other dioceses nationwide.
I consider this book to be part of the same project — restoring something fundamental to Catholic life. The fact that Confession has been lost to so many is an injustice and a disservice. But it does us no good to wring our hands over it or give in to sadness. We need to “leave the light on” for penitents and welcome them home.
Cardinal Wuerl also gave some advice to those that have been away from the confessional for an extended period of time.
Don’t be afraid. Everyone is rooting for you. None of your sins will shock the priest who hears your Confession. He’s heard everything in his years in the confessional. He knows that everybody sins. He wants you to succeed, and he’ll help you.
You’ll be less afraid if you prepare prayerfully, and I hope this book will assist in that task. Please read it and put it to good use. And if you have questions, don’t be afraid to ask your pastor — or the pastor of the parish across town, if that makes you feel more comfortable!
The experience of mercy is an incomparable feeling. Don’t deny yourself this genuine, though sometimes difficult, pleasure of the spiritual life.Read Chapter 20 of St. John’s Gospel, beginning with verse 19. Jesus Christ established Confession not because he needed it, but because we do — and because he wanted to give us peace with the forgiveness of sins.In fact, our Savior bears the name Jesus because he saves us from our sins (see Matthew 1:21). Confession is the ordinary way he established for forgiveness to happen.
Mercy Pours Forth
God’s mercy is abundant. There is nothing you can do that his mercy cannot overcome. That is the true beauty of the sacrament of confession. Saint Isidore of Seville says :
“Confession heals, confession justifies, confession grants pardon of sin, all hope consists in confession; in confession there is a chance for mercy.”
Confess your sins, forget them and move on. The devil wants you to live in the past, God wants you to walk with him in the future.