Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Why confess?

I'll confess that I'm having trouble with confession. Not the sacrament, but writing about it.

I'm working on a 3-part series for Lent for the Standard and Times. Right now I'm grappling with articulating why I go, in the face of statistics which say that most people don't (depending on how you cut CARA's data, only about 1 in 4 Catholics in the US seek the Sacrament of Reconciliation go at least once a year).

When I was working on my master's I wrote a paper for a course on Reconciliation where I tried to tease out the reasons for the Church's epidemic of absentee penitents that might be inherent in the way we celebrate the rite. (As opposed to bemoaning the cultural shifts that might predispose people in this time and place to see no benefits in such a sacramental celebration of forgiveness.)

My sense then was that the formal satisfaction (the penance) asked of a penitent were too often out of step with what was confessed. My kids joke that when you see the school nurse she prescribes Tums no matter what the ailment: "You've cut your finger off? Have a Tums!" Penances that consisted purely of this many Hail Marys and that many Our Fathers can feel like Tums for the soul. Similarly, penances along the lines of "just be nicer to your family today" are like saying, drink your regular cup of coffee this morning to help your cold.

It's not that there is anything wrong per se with either of these penances, but when the penitent lacks a frame in which to place them, they can feel pale. One sentence of explanation by the confessor can shift a penance of 10 Hail Marys from feeling like dropping coins in the pay laundry — "ka-ching," one load of wash done — to something that heals and strengthens.

If you go, whatever your tradition, why? If you don't, why? or are you like me, and can't quite say why either way?

Photo is off confessional at Mission San Miguel.


  1. Episcopalian here, but formerly faithful RC.

    I was raised in a church that offered the sacrament of penance, but I never really understood what to do with it. We were taken monthly when I was back in parochial school, and I generally made up a list of likely sins--disobeyed my parents 9 times, stole once, swore 3 times, etc.

    I took a sabbatical from church as a young adult, and by the time I came back the sacrament had become reconciliation and I never really knew what to do with that, either. When I did my best to name my true deficiencies, I got the same response from confessors as I had when I made it up: three Our Father and three Hail Marys, or whatever. It seemed just as rote and meaningless to them as it did to me. I stopped going, even before I left the Roman Catholic Church.

    We do have reconciliation in the Episcopal church, although my impression is that people generally avoid it. (Including me.) So, as a seminarian preparing for ordination in this church, I suppose some day I may be on the other side of this question. I only hope someone will give me some good instruction about that between now and then, but it hasn't happened yet.

  2. I am a convert to Catholicism. This Sacrament wasn't explained well to me before I was received into the Church but I can say that it has been pivotal in my ongoing conversion.

    I was in the midst of serious addiction when I came into the Church. This Sacrament has been the means for me to grasp (in moments, who can grasp it fully?) how great the Grace of God is and how deeply God loves me.

    One time my priest said to me,before I confessed, that he wanted me to know that I was loved as I was in that moment before I opened my mouth and confessed and that Grace was pouring down over me in the Sacrament. And somehow through the Sacrament I grasped (dared to believe) that it was true.

    Another time, before I confessed, the priest asked me how deeply was I mired in shame. I felt buried in it because I was so mired in addiction.

    The short story is that eventually I got the courage to go get help for my addictions. This Sacrament will always have special meaning to me because it's been through it that I have found the courage to face the shadow side of me and not condemn myself for having one.

    That might sound odd to some people, like I am making light of sin. I'm not. I don't really know how to put into words how confessing my darkest deeds and attitudes has shown me how deeply God loves me and how that has changed me.

  3. Cathy, I think the sacrament is a wonderful gift, but like that strange mug someone gives you for your birthday, it's hard to appreciate. I'm off to try say just why it might be worth giving it another whirl in adulthood - no matter what our earlier experiences were. I'll be curious to know what you think of what I've got to say...

  4. Hope,

    Thank you for commenting! I don't think you are making light of sin, but saying that the deeper the sense of darkness, the more welcome the light....

  5. RC here ... and I go to Reconciliation more regularly now than ever before in my life.

    Like Hope wrote about, my life too has been moved by addiction and alcoholism -- in others. I work a 12 step program (Al-Anon) and have for 27 years. Over and over and over we return to the 5th step which is "Admitted to God, to ourselves and to one other human being the exact nature of our wrongs."

    This practice has enabled me to return to the Church after a long absence. It also gave me the tools, the courage and the strength to reexamine Confession.

    Yes, I know that the Priest is in persona Christi but I also know that he is "one other human being" and having heard other peoples' 5th steps I know the amazing amount of compassion that can be stirred in the human heart at the sight of another person's soul suffering.

    What has happened to me the last few years is something that I'm witnessing in many areas of my life - that the expectations, "rules" and obligations (particularly the Sacraments) of the Church are much less of a burden, and so much more of a gift, an opportunity, a joy.

    When at the Monastery I always go to confession -- there is nothing quite like the Sacrament with an ancient monk!! Honestly!

    And, oddly enough, I prefer to go on a regular basis to my very own pastor. The whole concept of not wanting my pastor to hear my confession seems strange to me now. I think it is because this whole faith and love of God that I have is finally sinking all the way into my bones and marrow.

    The 12 steps taught me that I can live my life open, free and in the light. The Church has shown me just where that Light is.

    Together these practices have given me a life that is true and good. Reconciliation is a part of that.

    And, FWIW, I think the problem with Confession is the timing and the way it is scheduled. It is at a "throwaway" time usually - an hour before the vigil Mass. What if Reconciliation was heard between the Masses on Sunday? Or if Wednesday nights in the Catholic Church were Reconciliation Nights with Confession followed by supper? :)

  6. I am a convert to RC. Once I was a Methodist and they didn't do confession. The whole concept took a while for me to appreciate ... and fortunately I had a three year period of instruction!

    I don't always relish the Sacrament but I have learned that when I am avoiding it then I most need to go.

    Like you I can't quite say why it is so powerful and so healing and a deep, not easily appreciated gift. When I first came to the Catholic Church I did so because I had fallen in love with the Liturgy, and I saw the Liturgy as a precious gift. And it still is, but I have come gradually to value the power of the different sacraments in my life. It has been a gradual, gentle awakening.

    I suspect I am far from fully awake even yet.