I have a Catholic friend who hates confession. I am not going to break any confidences, but my friend despises confession so much that he hasn’t gone for a decade. He has offered several reasons why he doesn’t go to what is formally called the sacrament of reconciliation. He is afraid that his sins are now too much to confess all at once; he is frightened of what the priest might say (he had a few bad experiences); and he is too busy.
My friend is not the only person I’ve met who feels this way. Several years ago, while directing a retreat, I met a woman who said that she hadn’t gone for 20 years. Her reason was also an unpleasant experience with a priest during the sacrament. As I recall, he berated her for not coming in more frequently.
Sometimes I feel nearly tongue-tied in these situations. Not because I judge people in these situations to be bad Catholics, or because I don’t know any helpful responses to these common roadblocks. Rather, it’s because I go to confession frequently. And I like it.
I often ponder what makes me more inclined to go than the people I mentioned. I am certainly not any holier than anyone else—not by a long shot. It’s not that I have fewer sins.
Maybe it’s the frequency. I go to confession once a month, if not more. I’m used to it. Consequently, it ceases to hold any conceivable fear.
Sometimes I tell skittish Catholics how wonderful it feels to be honest with God in the sacrament. The old argument against confession that you can always tell God your sins is a good one. Of course you can. But often you don’t. Moreover, it helps to verbalise your sins with another person. And hearing the words of absolution, viva voce, is a lot more powerful than intuiting them in prayer. At least for me.
My comfort level may also stem from experiences with confession from the other side. When hearing confessions, and offering absolution, I can see how people feel unburdened. They exhale. They relax. They smile. And I can feel how grateful they are to be forgiven for something they thought was unforgivable. All that makes confession precious to me.
But mainly I like the way I feel afterward, as if God had given me another chance—which, of course, God has. And no matter if I’m hearing confessions or going to confession, I always think of what my theology professor, Peter Fink, SJ, told our class, “Confession isn’t about how bad you are, but how good God is.”
I wish I could invite everyone who has stayed away to come back. And for returnees, “Welcome back.” – Fr James Martin sj @ America