Real Confession

Confession is the best. I am absolutely convinced of this fact because the sacrament is one of the few Catholic Things that atheists, agnostics, and members of other religions will get – at worst – only mildly annoyed about and – at best and most usually – wishful, dreamy and sentimental about. Honestly, the number of atheists and agnostics I talk to who deny the remotest possibility of a relationship with God and then ask, in a somewhat timid, casual tone, “Can people who aren’t Catholic go to confession?” is both ridiculous and wonderful. (My answer is usually, “Yes, just become Catholic beforehand.”)

Why this need for confession? I suppose the answer, “because it forgives sins” is too simplistic for our psychology-obsessed world. But for whatever reason, the desire undoubtedly exists in the human heart, as made manifestly obvious by the various and bizarre attempts to fulfill that desire. We have for instance:

The out-pour. This is very frightening if you are the individual chosen to listen, and not entirely satisfying if you are the guilty. But I’m sure you’ve all been on one end or the other: You are sitting down, perhaps with a date, when she starts crying. You ask what’s wrong, and by God, she tells you. She was abused at a young age and now hates boys entirely; she has become purposefully manipulative. In fact, she says, she’s manipulating you right now. Or perhaps it is the boy who pours and the girl listens; he’s addicted to pornography. Her turn: She used to cut herself. He used to take painkillers. She hates her mom. He hates his dad. Perhaps the girl confides in her best friend, the boy in his roommate. Whatever it is, we’ve all been there; the desire to tell our sins is strikingly apparent. And yes, there is obvious value in this telling. But what after?

The problem is that we human beings don’t just want to tell our sins; we want to be rid of them if they haunt us, free if we are addicted to them! But what can the listener do? He could say that it’s OK, that he doesn’t blame us, which is all well and fine for him, but we’re not OK, and we certainly blame ourselves. He could commiserate, which is nice, but leaves us in the same position as before. While an out-pour can be comforting – you stand up from it having been accountable to another human being – it can also be depressing: “Great! Now some one else knows. And I still did/do it.” It is good, but it fails to satisfy.

Then of course, there’s the recent phenomenon of the online confession. This is always interesting. It might manifest itself on the small scale, perhaps as a Facebook status – “It’s time for me to get over all the crap in my life” – or on the large scale, perhaps as a blog. Confessions of a _____  is a pretty popular title for blogs, and I have seen words filling that blank ranging from the mildly sinful – “Shopaholic” and “Mean Mommy” – to the scary – “Abortion Addict”, “Welfare Queen”, and “Sexaholic”. People want to confess.

Again, the problem is that the desire for confession is not satisfied by mere response. A man puts up the status “Drugs have ruined my life, I’m quitting,” on Facebook, and he gets 32 likes, three comments that say “Good for you!”, “lol, why?”, “wait, is this a joke?”, respectively, and a final one that says “good job!” The problem is that our sins are not forgiven by a mass of people agreeing with them or disagreeing with them. We’ll feel relieved, for the weight of a secret is off our heads, but it fails to satisfy. When we log off the internet, we are still alone with ourselves, and we still screwed up. It’s just that now people know.

Then there’s the psychiatrist’s office. Don’t get me wrong, these men do great work. But there comes a point when our modern take on psychology – which all too often denies the reality of sin – is simply an attempt to fix spiritual problems with physical methods; prescribed pills and the like. The problem with this method is that it’s evasion. “I feel incredibly guilty because I’ve performed sexual acts with my members of my own sex,” says the patient. “Let’s talk about that guilt,” says the psychiatrist. And despite thousands of dollars and years of therapy spent attempting to get rid of the guilt, it often remains.  Why? Because guilt is not The Thing; guilt is the symptom. In this manner, psychiatry is inherently limited to treating symptoms, never the underlying disease, because – though it shouldn’t be this way – so many in the profession deny the existence of the disease; by denying the existence of sin.

The Roman Catholic priest operates in a much less subtle way. He heavy-handedly, with absolute disregard for your feelings, hears your sins as sins. You approach him, he smiles, you say, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned.” You tell him how long it’s been since you last confessed. You tell him your sins.
And there’s no bullshit, no pride, no “these are the things that the actions of my parents have conditioned me to do”, no hoping the priest will say “Oh those? Those aren’t sins! Everybody does that!” No, you confess your sins, you admit to them. He – in a thick Irish accent if you’re lucky – gives you some advice on how to stop sinning.

And then he performs the single act that every other form of ‘confessing’ strives for but cannot attain. Every trip to the psychiatrist, every blog post, every emotional out-pour seeks after this, consciously or not; the forgiveness of your sins. It’s why Catholics go to Confession. The accountability is wonderful, yes, the getting-something-off-your-chest feeling is fantastic, yes, simply sharing your guilt with some one is a beautiful thing, again, yes. But you want more. You want to undo the wrong, to heal the wound. You want to be a child again, to be made innocent, pure as snow. And through the amazing sacrament of Reconciliation, you are. You are free. You are clean. You are reconciled to God and to your brother man. Your sins are not avoided, brushed over, transformed into not-sins, shared to everyone, or commiserated over. They are eradicated, forgotten by God. And the Catholic, in a very real way, is aware of it.

I do not aim to convince anyone of the reality of this event, nor list its biblical foundations, though if any one would like to share their own experiences or knowledge below, feel free. I simply hold that all ‘confession’ is mere imitation of Confession, weak and trembling fingers that point to The Real Thing. And The Real Thing is a sacrament that truly allows us to say, “It is a good, true and beautiful thing, being Catholic.”

An Attempt to Explain Christianity to Atheists In a Manner That Might Not Freak Them Out
Fury and Catholicity
The BadCatholic Drinking Game
The Blessings of Secularism
  • Anonymous

    My first confession at the university campus Mass, where a big crowd is about 30 people:

    Me: Can I come to confession?
    +: Okay. (Leads me approximately ten feet away to a corner)
    Me: Oh, right now?
    +: Sure.
    Me: Um. Well then. (I blab some sins, nervous as all-get-out)
    +: And your Act of Contrition?
    Me: (blanking) Uh…uh…I’m sorry!
    +: Fair enough.

    Good times :)

  • Yukon

    I love that picture of the soldier priest with his helmet at his feet. Good article!

  • russ rentler, md

    the sacrament of confession can be truly life changing. It has helped me become free of sins I struggled with for most of my life until my reversion tho the faith 7 years ago. But like all the sacraments, we are changed only as much as we are open to His grace. A truly contrite heart , God will always hear and answer .
    I am thankful for confession. When Chesterton was asked why he became Catholic, he answered as only GK could “To have my sins forgiven.”

  • Father Denis Lemieux

    Darn – russ rentler beat me to it with the GKC quote… now I’ll have to go confess being resentful…
    Since childhood confession has been my absolute favorite part of being a Catholic – and it’s just about my favorite part about being a priest (OK, it’s in a dead heat with saying Mass). No Irish accent, though, so I guess I’m just OK at it… (joke).

  • Laura

    I love this post! Yes, confession is awesome and I too see the world looking for the real thing without knowing it

  • Katherine

    Confession is one of those things that as a non-Catholic and Catechumen I was fascinated by and, despite having read lots about, didn’t truly understand or appreciate until after I was received into the Church. The sheer power and love of God that we experience in this sacrament blows me away every time I kneel in the confessional. It is one of the few places where I am completely and utterly open, honest, laid bare…where I am quietest (even though I’m doing most of the talking) and God is loudest. I love it!!

  • Manny

    I’ve always hated confession. I feel so vulnerable in that confession booth. If a priest ever got angry with any of my sins, I think I would just crumble like a brittle cookie. Luckily I have always had understanding and compassionate priests. But I have to say it feels so good after it’s over. It is a wonderful experience. So now I try to go every few months, and I’ve found my sins have been less. It works.

  • Anita

    //(My answer is usually, “Yes, just become Catholic beforehand.”)//

    Which I find so sad. I can see the person turning away, that it is held within a select membership group, with rules hard to understand…

    I heard a priest say it once during a Eucharistic Convention. Someone asked him during dinner if he could hear their confession, and he admitted he couldn’t, as the person wasn’t Catholic. I have a friend who is aching for forgiveness…

    What is the reasoning behind the order of the Sacraments – Baptism, then Reconciliation…. I am a convert of a few years now, and questions still arise…

    • Heather F

      Baptism forgives all your sins, but it’s a once in a lifetime deal. That’s why confession is in place — specifically for sins that were committed after baptism. It’s a way to bring people who are already part of the church back to spiritual health. So a non-baptized person can’t go to confession.

      I was baptized into a mainline Protestant denomination as an infant, so when I came into full communion with the Catholic Church nine years ago, I had my first confession shortly before I made my profession of faith and first Eucharist. In other words, when it was well established that I was committed to becoming Catholic.

      By going to a Catholic priest for absolution, someone is tacitly saying that they believe what the Catholic Church teaches about sin and forgiveness, that they accept what the Catholic Church teaches regarding what is sinful, and that they want to be brought back into a right relationship with the Catholic Church. If you’re not actually (or imminently about to become) Catholic, you can’t do that. Or if you can, then you’re basically saying you want to be Catholic.

      A priest might agree to talk with a non-Catholic about their sins and give spiritual advice, but they couldn’t give absolution and they wouldn’t be covered by the Seal.

  • Anonymous

    After having been away from confession for YEARS (post Vatican II know-it-all that I was), I finally followed the prompting of my conscience and went. Best thing I ever did! It was as if a weigh just rolled off my shoulders.

  • Erudite Celt

    It’s a hard thing ” I would imagine ” for a Catholic to confess their sins to another human. But as a Protestant it’s an even harder thing to carry them in a huge well of festering guilt. I also have a notion that if one had the gift of confession and the duty to confess your sins,that one may in fact commit less of them. Am I being naive or is this in fact the case ?

    • Rosemary M

      I would say yes and no. On the one hand, I find myself confessing the same sins rather often–for example, impatience towards people. Those little sins that lodge in your habits and are incredibly difficult to shake.

      But on the other hand, I am very *aware* of my sins and the areas of my life I need to improve. This means I am taking those areas to prayer more often. Also, because of that awareness, I am more likely to catch myself “in the act,” so to speak, and either sidestep temptation, or stop mid-sin, and if necessary apologize to whomever I have hurt.

      And I also grow in humility. Because when you confess the same sin several times in a row, it makes you realize how dang hard holiness is, and how dependent you are on God’s grace! 2 Cor 12:9: “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” :)

    • Rosemary M

      (I hope that sort of makes sense in answer to your question!)

  • Erudite Celt

    I’v just had one of my probably silly ” make up your religion as you go along ” protestant ideas! Holding on to one’s sins is like a living purgatory on earth ! The soul taking it’s punishment in silence. It’s just one of those nights remembering things you would rather forget.

  • Amanda825

    Confession is the best thing about being Catholic. When I converted it was one of the things I most looked forward to, and was also completely terrifying. The feeling of leaving the confessional after making a good confession is hard to put to words. It’s liberating, peaceful, humbling…I could go on and on. Pretty powerful.