Confession. Sin. Reconciliation. Do those words strike fear in you?
We may know that we are supposed to go to the Sacrament of Confession at least once a year and whenever we have committed a mortal sin. During this season of Lent, we are encouraged to make a good Confession in preparation for Easter. Still, for most people, there is a sense of dread.
Perhaps it is simply because we do not like to have to confront “that part” of ourselves, the part that we would much rather keep hidden in the shadows. Perhaps we are ashamed to say aloud to the priest what we have done. Perhaps we believe that asking for God’s forgiveness in personal prayer is sufficient. If this resonates with you, here are some tips to help you get over the fear of the Sacrament of Confession.
Finding Joy in God’s Mercy through Confession
Let me be honest: when I was in high school, I went to Confession maybe twice a year because I knew I was supposed to go. I hated every part of it. I didn’t want to say the bad things I had done aloud – especially to a priest I knew.
That changed when I went to World Youth Day when I was in college. On one of the first days we were there, we managed to find a huge room where there was Eucharistic Adoration going on. Right next to it was a room where the Sacrament of Reconciliation was being offered. Something in me urged me to go to Confession because it had been about a year since I had gone, and then fear overtook me and I left without going.
A few days later, something drew me back, and I found myself back in the same room, this time without the rest of my group. I managed to muster up the courage to stand in line for Confession. When it was my turn, something helped to break down my trepidation and be totally honest. The priest was so gentle and caring; he actually seemed happy that I had returned to the sacrament. It was not what I was expecting. The priest offered me helpful advice and assured me of God’s mercy and love for me, no matter what I had done.
As I walked away, my heart was flooded with this indescribable joy that I knew had to be from God. I wondered why I had been afraid of the Sacrament before and what took me so long to experience this joy.
What Will the Priest Think of Me?
One of my big fears as a teen was worrying about what the priest would think. After all, I had to see that priest at Mass next Sunday. Would he think less of me if he really knew all that bad stuff I did? Would I give the old parish priest a heart attack if I told him what I did?
One option is to go to confession with a priest you don’t know. You can go to confession at a neighboring parish. You can also go to confession anonymously behind the screen. The screen muffles your voice so the priest can’t really tell who you are. I’ve been told by many priests that they don’t remember anything they hear in the confessional.
There’s nothing that you can say that a priest hasn’t already heard someone else confess. He is not going to say, “Wow! How on earth could you do that?!” A priest once told me, “Don’t flatter yourself into thinking that you’re so creative so as to find a novel way to sin that no one has thought of in 2000 years!” No matter what you think your deepest, darkest, worst sins are, the priest has heard them in the confessional before.
The priest is not there to lecture or scold you; he is there to show God’s mercy. It is like going to the doctor when you’re sick: you tell the doctor your embarrassing physical problems so that the doctor can help you get better. It does not do any good for you to pretend that you feel fine when you are actually in pain. The same thing applies to Confession: we tell Jesus through the priest our spiritual wounds and sicknesses so that he can heal us. We need to pray for the courage to share honestly our spiritual “pain,” even if it’s uncomfortable to do so, because it is only in so doing that Christ, through the priest, can remedy the pain.
Yes, you might still feel embarrassed but that is actually a good thing! It means you recognize that in some way, you are not as good as you could be. The shame that is felt is really a sense that you were made to be more than your sinfulness and imperfections. Instead of trying to cover up our failings, use it to get yourself in line for Confession so that God can take away that shame and allow you to continue seeking holiness with renewed energy and joy. Believe it or not, the more often you go to Confession, the easier it gets!
What Am I Supposed to Do Again In Confession?
Maybe it has been a while since your last Confession and you can’t remember how it goes. That’s okay. The priest will not exclaim in horror or chastise you. Priests go to school for this and know how it’s supposed to go; they will help you through it if you tell them you’re unsure of what to do.
The first step comes even before you get in line for Confession: pray for the Holy Spirit to help you make a good Confession and to recognize the times you’ve failed to love God above all else. A written examination of conscience can help you remember your sins.
When you get into the confessional, tell the priest how long it has been since your last confession; an estimate is sufficient. Then state all the sins you can remember. The priest will then offer you some counsel to help you live a more holy life and will give you a penance, something for you to do as a sign of your sorrow. The priest will then ask you to make an Act of Contrition. You can use a formal Act of Contrition or use your own words to express your sorrow for your sins. Then, listen as the priest speak the words of absolution and know that God has forgiven you of your sins.
This guide can help you if you are worried about forgetting what you’re supposed to do or say. But above all, do not get too wrapped up trying to do it “right;” it’s much more important that you go and trust the priest to help you if you get nervous.
Just Do It
I have to admit, even now, I can still feel my heart wanting to beat out of my chest when I’m waiting in line for Confession. Even though I know everything I just told you, it is still nerve-wracking to have to tell a priest my sins and I worry that I’ll forget the words of the Act of Contrition (even though that’s never actually happened).
As soon as I get started, though, I feel the nervousness replaced by peace. Often times, the priest is able to offer me some advice or words of wisdom that really encourages me. Always, I am able to leave with joy in my heart because I get to hear the priest speak the merciful words of Jesus:
“God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
So if you’re still nervous about going to Confession, that’s okay. Do it anyway. You’ll be glad you did.