Confession Done Right

A Facebook friend recently asked me this question in response to a status update I posted after a really good experience with the Sacrament of Reconciliation (aka Confession):  How is confessing to the priest different than acknowledging ur wrongs thru other avenues?

This was my response:

Where to start…First of all, when you do an examination of conscience before hand you really have to look back and think about things you’ve done to offend God and others since your last confession. In the course of your daily life, it’s easy to dismiss “little” things in the moment or try to justify away bigger things to yourself.

Secondly, it is hard to go in a physically say out loud to another person terrible and sometimes embarrassing things that you did wrong, which is funny because at the time you were doing it they were easier to justify because you think to yourself “Well, no one will ever know.” And this uncomfortableness alone can sometimes be a strong encouragement to avoid such sins again.

Third, there is something very powerful in physically hearing that God has forgiven you. Of course that absolution is conditional, assuming that you came to confession with true remorse and honesty and the intention not to consciously commit those sins again. It is also dependent on fulfilling your penance.

Fourth, if you have a very good priest, he can offer ideas for big penances for big offenses and tips for avoiding those temptations in addition to the usual recommended prayers or scripture readings for penance.

In a nutshell, the sacrament of Confession demands a certain accountability that most other avenues in our life do not. Sometimes others don’t know that we’ve done things to offend them, but God always knows and it offends Him as well.

And how many times do we really say that we’re sorry to others for things that we’ve done or make any sort of recompense just because it’s the right thing to do? Most of us routinely sweep such thoughts or minor feelings of remorse to the back of our brain or again try to justify that we were right in doing what we did. Otherwise “sorry” is often reserved for when we get caught or it will make our lives easier (get the person we offended off of our back).

And if you are Catholic, Confession prepares you to receive the Eucharist in a state of grace (aka God’s love). To receive the Eucharist with major sin in your heart and on your soul is sacrilegious. Unfortunately, many of us who went to Catholic schools in the past thirty years were not properly taught this.

I almost put this as “Fifth”, but I made this status post because as I was leaving Confession last night the priest asked me an innocent question that actually addressed an decision I had been struggling with for months. It opened the door for conversation in which I was able to receive his wise counsel on the subject, and I left confession feeling full of God’s love even more. I truly believe that it was the workings of the Holy Spirit that led him to ask me that question. And it has brought me a lot of peace.

Now, the friend who originally asked me this question attended the same two Catholic schools that I did for 12 years.  I assume that she was probably baptized and raised Catholic as well, although I am not sure.  I have a feeling, though, that her experiences with confession during that time were probably not that much different than mine.  This a description of my experience with confession during my school years that I wrote in a previous post:

First Reconciliation was in fourth grade. For that one we had to work with our parents to cut out our names and religious symbols from felt so they could be put on a banner to hang in the church. Unlike what you see in the movies, most churches that I’ve been to do not have confessionals where you slide the little door and talk to an anonymous priest through a window. Whenever we went to confession, we basically went into a regular room with one chair for the priest and one chair for you, and you talked face-to-face. They usually had two to three rooms set up at time and you randomly got which ever priest had the shortest line when your turn was up.

After our first Reconciliation, we were required to go to confession twice a year as a class. Teachers never walked through a true Examination of Conscience with us. They just told us to think about the Ten Commandments, but they never explained how they might apply to an eleven-year old. As a result, these were the thought processes of me and most of my classmates: “Well, I didn’t commit adultery, murder anyone, covet my neighbor’s wife, or worship another God; I’m off the hook for four out of six. I don’t remember stealing anything or using the Lord’s name in vain recently. I’m sure at some point I disrespected my parents. I’ll go with that.” We half-lied because we just couldn’t think of anything “that bad” that required confessing. One year I remember sitting in the pews making up dirty poems with my girlfriends while we waited our turn and still not knowing what to confess.

Now once we entered high school, confession was available during lunch time once or twice a month but it was completely optional.  I wonder if the visiting priest ever had anyone come.  By putting First Reconciliation in fourth grade, two years after First Communion, my grade school/parish had basically made Confession pointless.  There was never a link forged that Confession might be necessary in order to properly receive communion.  And then the actual process that was enforced upon us made it tedious, contemptible,  and even more meaningless.  It is no wonder that I never went to confession once from the time it was no longer mandatory in school until 2008.  And I am sure it has been the same for many of my classmates.  I think, too, that once the fundamental understanding of the purpose of the sacrament has been lost it is easier to buy into all of the criticism it receives from the outside.

There is one thing that constantly amazes me whenever I go to confession now.  God knows us better than we know ourselves.  He knows our good points and our bad points.  He knows us as individuals and as a human race.  He knows what we need even when we do not want it.  This is why God gave us the sacraments and why God gave us the Church:  to guide us, to fortify us, to take us out of our own selfish selves, and to make us into the exceptional people that God knows that we can be.

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