I must confess: building a habit of the Sacrament of Reconciliation
When I was a Catholic kid growing up, like most Catholic kids I’ve ever known, I hated going to confession. I hated the sinking feeling in my stomach as I stood in line, palms sweating and heart speeding up as each penitent in line ahead of me disappeared behind the door with the red light overhead. I hated coming up with a list of things I was ashamed of and having to whisper them aloud to another human being, and I hated most of all knowing that Fr. Bob could probably tell just by my voice exactly who I was.
In short, I had a very human (and very typical) understanding of confession. That it was a painful, inescapable, and necessary (but why?) part of being Catholic, and I just had to soldier through it.
I think a lot of people stay in that place of understanding their whole lives. I think that’s why in a recently-released CARA study, data indicated that only around 2% of actively practicing Catholics go to confession at least once a month.
(An aside: the Church only requires us by canon law to confess our grave sins at least once a year. But, like dental hygiene and aerobic exercise, this is definitely one of those “more is more” situations).
When I was a senior in college, freshly transferred to Franciscan University of Steubenville, one of the most striking realizations I had during my first few weeks on campus was how into the sacrament of reconciliation everyone was. Daily Mass was one thing, but to see lines of college students 30, 40, 50 deep, wrapping around the back of the church not only on Saturday afternoons but during every single Mass on campus, seven days a week…that was something else. What was the deal with these kids? Were they struggling that intensely with some habitual sin that merited returning over and over and over again for fresh absolution and more grace?
As it turns out, yes.
But also, no.
Yes, they were in need of more grace, of more frequent absolution, and of greater accountability from their spiritual directors and priests. But it was precisely because they were growing in holiness that the hunger – and the need – for this beautiful sacrament of healing was that much more acute.
To borrow an analogy from the sporting world, as Michael Phelps or Philip Rivers or any other pro athlete increases in ability and performance, so too does awareness of the need arise to log more hours in the pool, to spend more hours watching film.
As God increases His activity in a soul, the sensitivity level rises, so to speak. St. John Paul II made a habit of weekly confessions during his papacy. I remember reading that sometime in my twenties and being like, um, what? WHAT? What could he possibly be getting into that necessitated 4 trips a month while I was getting by with Advent and Lent?
Holiness, it turns out.
Intimacy with the Father, bred through familiarity and a desire to conform oneself more and more closely to the heart of Jesus.
As I began to study about the sacraments on an intellectual level during my classes, (thanks, Dr. Hahn) the reality of the gift I was in possession of by nature of my baptism began to unveil itself to me on a heart level. I found myself wanting to go to Mass more than only on Sundays, not because I had to, but because I felt drawn to the Eucharist by familiarizing myself more and more with Jesus’ presence there. I was attracted to late-night Holy Hours and trips to the Port, not out of guilt or shame but because I was falling in love.
And while I’m no longer in a state of life where I can keep a weekly 2 am Eucharistic rendezvous in a shady adoration chapel downtown (Holla at me St. Pete’s) I can still avail myself frequently of the powerful, healing Sacrament of Reconciliation just by hopping in line on any given Sunday at my parish. (5 priests on staff and confessions before and after every Mass, 7 days a week. I know – we’re insanely fortunate.)
I’ve come to understand that confession is actually less about what I’m doing wrong and more about what God wants to make right in my heart. That bringing my sins into the light of His mercy and refusing to hide behind my own pride – masked as shame, but pride nonetheless – is the bravest thing I can do.
And oh, yeah, while it’s not for everyone, I stopped worrying about whether Father was going to figure me out from behind the screen and started plopping down in the chair right across from him. Half the time I have a squirming baby or toddler on hand, anyway, so what’s the point of keeping up the pretense? He’s heard it all, I’ve confessed the same sins so many times as to be, frankly, bored by them myself, and it’s a good dose of humility for me, to boot. Face-to-face might not be everybody’s jam, but it’s definitely my cup of tea now.
Father isn’t there to judge my heart or my actions on a human level, anyway. In the same way his hands elevate the consecrated host during the Eucharistic prayer, becoming the hands of alter Christus “another Christ,” he embodies the priestly person of Jesus once again in the sacrament of reconciliation.
It’s not magic, but it is mystical. And it’s just another part of our faith that defies explanation. Confess your sins to a priest? How absurd.
Yep, kinda like resurrecting from the dead. A virgin birth. Tongues of fire descending from heaven. Seas parting. Dead men sitting up and hopping out of bed.
Turns out there are plenty of things to choose from if we’re going to chat aspects of Christianity that beggar belief. We moderns just have some we more readily assent to than others.
A final thought and some practical notes on confession: sometimes it doesn’t feel good. Sometimes it feels really mechanized and routine and not at all mystical or transformative. Most of the time, I’d say. It feels about like it feels to fulfill your Sunday obligation and make it through Mass with a writhing lap-octopus whining a sustained C-minor into your ear for 60 minutes straight.
And that’s okay. I’m sure Michael Phelps has plenty of bad workouts and disappointing races. They, too, are necessary components of a larger training program and necessary building blocks in the larger puzzle of his elite-level success, same as the gold medals.
We should do hard things, even if they don’t feel good. We should humble ourselves before the Lord, allowing Him to show us mercy even when we least merit it, and take the chance of being surprised by joy when we least expect it.
I find it helpful to jot down some habitual sins or present struggles in my daily planner/journal/scraps of Target receipts I find in my purse. There’s no shame in bringing a list to the grocery store or into the confessional. And if you think it feels good to cross “cleaning toilets” off your to-do list, imagine how good it feels to drill a fat, black line through “gossiped about mom” or “swore angrily 4 times at that jackrabbit who cut me off on the freeway”.
Real good, I’m telling you.
Let’s make it to confession twice before the year is out. It’s late September, but that seems a reasonable target to hit in the next 14 weeks or so.
Sometimes it’s what God wants to do for us that matters far more than what we are asking for ourselves.
St. Padre Pio, St. John Paul II, St. Faustina, St. John Vianney, and all you other saints who made frequent recourse to the great Sacrament of Healing, pray for us!
*Updated to add: Dear Fathers, pastors of souls, if you are reading this, please accept my deepest gratitude for your sacramental ministry. Thank you for bringing us Jesus. I have heard stories of many of you who sit week after week in an empty confessional on Saturday with nary a penitent in sight. I have also heard from countless parishioners the world over how logistically difficult it is to get to confession, how little they’ve heard it preached about, how inaccessible their current parish model is. Would you consider in your insanely busy, sacrificial schedules, carving out an additional hour or two a week, perhaps on a Wednesday or Thursday night, and letting your flock know the light will be on? Would you consider sloughing off some lesser but organizationally pressing need to an admin or business manager, in order to make this logistically feasible for *you*?
I know it’s a lot to ask and our priests are so busy, but we need the graces of this sacrament so desperately. And I’ve seen it happen in my own parish in real time: if you build it, they will come.
So, if I may be so bold as to implore you: pick a night, open the box, preach it on Sunday from the pulpit, and invoke St. John Vianney as your patron of this new effort towards the holiness of your parish and your parishioners.
Our family makes an appointment with Father once a month for Confession. I would like to say it’s because of my own striving for holiness but I was more motivated by getting my kids there. I read once that it’s good to take your kids regularly because they may feel too embarrassed to ask to go but if it’s just a regularly scheduled thing, they know they have the opportunity. Also, it gets them into the habit of going regularly and makes it less of a scary thing. Some of my son’s classmates haven’t gone since First Reconciliation and so it has taken on scary dimensions in their minds 🙁
“We should do hard things, even if they don’t feel good. We should humble ourselves before the Lord, allowing Him to show us mercy even when we least merit it, and take the chance of being surprised by joy when we least expect it.” This is so beautiful. Now, can you write tips on identifying sins? I go to confession monthly, but I never feel like I’m getting to the root of anything in my examinations.
Thanks for writing on this! Though my faith has grown so much deeper over the past several years, I am still in that place of going twice a year. I want to do better and know I NEED to in order to continue deepening my faith. But there are two things I struggle with:
It is so ridiculously difficult when churches only have confession for a half hour on Saturdays. Having only that or the option of making an appointment is a great way of helping people not go. It’s very frustrating to me that it’s so unavailable.
Second, my understanding is that we are only obligated to confess mortal sins. I may be terrible at judging this, but do most people commit mortal sins all the time? I know it’s not as much about the sins as it is about my heart and continuous conversion, but that’s been a big hangup for me. Would love to hear any thoughts on that!
I feel the same as Laura about not having mortal sins to confess and have not been to confession for about 18 months. I know I should but am unsure what to confess. Also have the same problem of confession is only open one hour before mass on Saturday night. I also work every other Saturday.
When I became a Catholic, I was told we must confess once a year if we have committed mortal sin and then mortal sin was defined as an offense against God committed in full knowledge that we are offending God. Boy did that let me off the hook – or so I thought. The problem now is (like the previous commenter) there is very little time for scheduled confessions in our clustered parishes; I’m not going to make a special appointment to confess my venial sins; and when I do go to confession, usually on retreat, I’m told what I have confessed is not a sin. But I’m often hearing & reading that frequent confession helps you grow in holiness. So why do priests tell me that when I confess faults that I believe interfere with my relationship with God. Would love some feedback on this.
Hello, I suggest you find a church that offers the Mass in latin near where you live. Confession is usually offered before Mass and at times during and after Mass. What a joy it is to find priests that care for the souls of the flock and avail us of the treasures of grace; the sacraments. I’m sure you can find priests in the Novus Ordo who offer confession before Mass. Here are some words from St. Francis de Sales (Doctor of the Church) on confession, found in his book, An Introduction to the Devout life. I suggest you read this great book from “the gentle saint.” It contains such a wealth on the spiritual life. God bless.
“Make your confession humbly and devoutly every week, and always, if you can, before communicating, even although your conscience is not burdened with mortal sin; for in confession you do not only receive absolution for your venial sins, but you also receive great strength to help you in avoiding them henceforth, clearer light to discover your failings, and abundant grace to make up whatever loss you have incurred through those faults. You exercise the graces of humility, obedience, simplicity and love, and by this one act of confession you practise more virtue than in any other.
Be sure always to entertain a hearty sorrow for the sins you confess, however small they are; as also a stedfast resolution to correct them in future. Some people go on confessing venial sins out of mere habit, and conventionally, without making any effort to correct them, thereby losing a great deal of spiritual good. Supposing that you confess having said something untrue, although without evil consequences, or some careless words, or excessive amusement;–repent, and make a firm resolution of amendment: it is a mere abuse to confess any sin whatever, be it mortal or venial, without intending to put it altogether away, that being the express object of confession.”
“That bringing my sins into the light of His mercy and refusing to hide behind my own pride – masked as shame, but pride nonetheless – is the bravest thing I can do.”
Thank you, Jenny. I’ve been inching, clawing, stumbling my way back to the Church and confession has remained the last (biggest, most gigantic, humongous) barrier. Shame, pride, fear, and a livid anger had wrapped its black tendrils so, so deep into my heart and refused to let go- it has taken months of prayer and reading to get my feet (and life) back onto anything that sort of resembles the right path.
I’ve put off confession over and over again. To confess, to admit my anger and my pride and my mountains of sins, to ask for forgiveness while I refuse adamantly to forgive others for similar things, the dissonance has remained too much for a very long time. Like a temper tantruming toddler, it takes less internal work to remain in the corner wailing my head off with hot angry tears on my cheeks. It takes humility and a soft heart to have the courage to adult in a way that our culture does not encourage in order to forgive others and be forgiven in turn by God.
I think you’re on to something, with the thought that holiness leads to a hunger for this sacrament.
Perhaps this is intuitive to others, but if I may extend that thought further, in perhaps a different direction: that the desire for this sacrament, or even the wish to have the desire, marks you as rejecting (to some extent) contemporary pleasure-seeking culture. All the you-deserve-it’s and you’re-justified’s and don’t-put-up-with-that’s bombard us nonstop from everything from advertising to the news to coffee shops with the have-it-your-way options.
To step aside from all of that and reflect, with humility, on the things you don’t deserve and are not justified in and maybe you should put up with it because it’ll help you grow and things are not ever going to go the exact way you want? That takes a real grace and a real courage because nothing outside of religion is going to encourage you on that path.
The Holy Spirit is whacking me pretty hard today with your post.
Thank you for your insightful and inspired writing, as always.
I love this. I’ve had “go to confession” on my to-do list for way too long, and I’m taking this as a nudge to actually go soon. Thank you for writing this! God bless!
Thank you. One of these days my mental list of “why I am so glad to be Catholic” will find it’s way to paper. Reconciliation will be on the list. I love it that when I complain about the difficulty of forgiving people who have hurt me, Father asks me to pray for the people I have hurt. What? Yes sir. I find it is much easier to like and get along with people I have prayed for. Funny that. What a gift we have been given.
Also, there are times when I am tempted, and I think to myself “Is this really a sin you want to confess, one more time?”, and then I find another course of action.
Thank you for the article, Ms. Uebbing! It hits home to me in many ways and is hepful for my journey.
I hate confession. I love confession. One of those things that is so hard to do, even if you go weekly or bi-weekly, but the grace the Lord pours out in this Sacrament is amazing. The more you go, the more you are able to see your sin and then you want to go more and you change and you eliminate sins and then you see new ones. It is like peeling an onion, there is always another layer to reveal. I keep the list and I bring it with. I am blessed that pretty much every parish close to me has confession six days a week and in my parish confessions are held after daily Mass until every one has been heard. It is true, when it is offered, people come. Sad to see large churches with a half hour a week. It speaks volumes about the Pastor.
Mentally Healthier Now
Confession aggravates my tendency toward scrupulosity. The more I go, the more OCD I get, the more my anxiety increases. Once I quit going several years ago, I became much healthier mentally. I don’t know what that says, other than some of us find confession something that exacerbates existing mental conditions rather than a path that provides peace and spiritual growth. When I went regularly (and I used to go once a week or more), I was a real mental mess. Just thinking about those days nearly makes me shiver. It was horrible! What some people find a source of strength and a means of growing in holiness makes some of us feel like we are approaching a mental breakdown.
That’s tough. Definitely sounds like a struggle with scrupulosity, and I’m glad you’ve found a way to alleviate the stress. I hope you can work with a trusted pastor or spiritual director to get to the root of the issue and one day find solace in what is a profoundly healing and beautiful sacrament. It definitely isn’t the Lord who wants us to feel tormented or anxious! That’s the devil’s language, not God’s. Don’t let the enemy steal what is rightfully yours by the gift of your baptism.
I’m not a cradle Catholic, I’m a convert. And from the start of my conversion I was nervous about reconciliation. I got through it, and I knew I had not ‘done’ enough, and promised myself I would do better next time – next time hasn’t happened yet!! I can’t, I’m too scared – what if I get it all wrong – I examine my conscience and I must be a truly horrible person (or a perfectionist). I know I need to go, and since going to daily Mass more often now I have kid free mornings I WANT to go – but I can’t!!
Laughing because I just signed up for a holy hour at St. Peter’s in the Steub. Still sketchy.