March 1st: To Confession!

The Archdiocese of New York , in a move that will be replicated in many Diocese throughout the country, will be offering ’round the clock confession on March 5-6.

A well-publicized 24-hour period of confessions has proved to be an effective invitation to the sacrament, and there are always big “turn-outs,” which some might find surprising. As I am swamped today (in a good way) I wanted to direct you to Deacon Greg’s very personal, thoughtful and inspiring story of his own transformative experience of a confession, which occurred when his lukewarmness was giving away to renewed love for the sacraments and fervor for the Mercy of Christ:

…I sat down, took a deep breath and told him my troubles and why I felt I needed forgiveness. He nodded sympathetically and said he thought he might be able to help. Then he opened a desk drawer and pulled out a pamphlet, offered it to me, and smiled. It was a brochure about communication.

I wasn’t sure what to say, but thanked him. He patted my shoulder and said he would pray for me. With that, he stood up to point me back into the church. He had to begin Mass. I didn’t pray the act of contrition. I don’t think he gave me absolution. He told me to have a nice day.

I didn’t. Somehow, I left the confessional feeling worse than when I went in.

I remained skeptical of the sacrament for years after that. I drifted away from regular Mass attendance, and went for years without darkening the door of a reconciliation room or slipping behind the velvet curtain of a confessional. What was the point? In my mind, I was right with God: He knew where I was coming from (and, no doubt, where I was going) and I apologized to him, privately, when it seemed like the right thing to do. End of discussion.

But no.

Years later, the twisting road of my life led me back to the church and the sacraments, and it plunged me more deeply into my faith than I had ever imagined possible. There were many reasons for my return: the deaths of my parents, the prayers of my wife and a growing sense that there had to be more to life than just getting up and going to work and planning where to go out for dinner or when to take the next cruise. I became a daily communicant. I served in my parish as an usher and, later, as an extraordinary minister of Communion.

And as part of my journey, when the time became right and my heart became ready, I found myself on yet another Saturday in yet another church, preparing to catalogue my sins yet again.

I was going to give confession another chance.

You’ll want to read the whole thing. Giving confession “another chance” usually ends up working out very well, particularly if your last experience was as vague and unsatisfying as the one Greg describes (which probably means it was during the ’70′s or ’80′s when so many priests seemed a tad overwhelmed by the times).

Confession is a much-maligned, often misunderstood and (from time-to-time) mediocre-seeming sacrament that – in truth – miraculous, and packed with graces. It is the sacrament of lightening, both as in “lifting the heavy load” and as a reflection of (and real encounter with) the radiant love of the redeemer and savior who is always waiting for us to turn to him, and return to him.

If you’re Catholic and haven’t been to confession for a while, I hope you’ll do an internal check and let yourself partake of it. When you have a good confessor (and most of the one’s I’ve encountered have been good) it’s a few minutes that can shake up your weary or stagnant world, for the better.

In my reading today, I found this excerpt, from Msgr. Romano Guardini, taken from The Living God and printed in (where else) Magnificat Magazine. The whole excerpt is wonderful, but here is a little:

To be seen by Him does not mean to be exposed to a merciless gaze, but to be enfolded in the deepest care. Human seeing often destroys the mystery of the other. God’s seeing creates it.

We can do nothing better than press on into the sight of God. The more deeply we understand what God is, the more fervently we shall want to be seen by him. We are seen by him whether we want to be or not. The difference is whether we try to elude his sight or strive to enter into it, understanding the meaning of his gaze, coming to terms with it, and desiring that His will be done.

We can do nothing better than place ourselves and all that we have in God’s sight: “Behold me!” Let us put away the fear that prevents us. Let us abandon the sloth, the pretense of independence, and the pride. “Look at the good! Look at the shortcomings! The ugly, the unjust, the evil, the wicked, everything – look at it, O God!”

Sometimes it is impossible to alter something or other. But let Him see it at any rate. Sometimes one cannot honestly repent. But let him see that we cannot yet repent. None of the shortcomings and evil in our lives are fatal so long as they confront his gaze. The very act of placing ourselves in his sight is the beginning of renewal. Everything is possible so long as we begin with God. But everything is in danger once we refuse to place ourselves and our lives in his sight.

Isn’t that wonderful? And I was particularly struck by the line about not being “able” to repent but putting even that inability before Christ. It brought to mind a piece I wrote a long time ago, (and got into trouble with some Catholics for) about a young relative who could not yet repent, but still brought it before Christ.

I think even in our sinfulness, or our reluctance, or our laziness, or our conceit that we don’t “need” to confess because we’re so smart, the instinct to still put the conscience before Christ -no matter what state it is in- can only be a positive instinct that will -in God’s time- work to our spiritual betterment.

My own personal “transformative” confession

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Manny L.

    What a wonderful blog, Anchoress, one of your best since I’ve been reading. And your 2006 Confession blog was just as wonderful. I have a hard time with confession. There is no way i can claim that this is anywhere near my favorite sacrement. The round the clock confession was mentioned in church at the homily this past Sunday. I may just do it this weekend. I’ll have to pray I get the strength.

    [What do the angels always say? They say "do not be afraid." Ask your Guardian Angel to help you with it. Also, remember this :-) -admin]

  • B. Durbin

    My mother recently went on a retreat that had a large group confession that DIDN’T feel, to her, like a cop-out. Part of it was that the priest had, beforehand, asked them to think about what they felt needed reconciliation and to write down one word that represented that. So they weren’t getting absolution for a general “bad” but something specific that they were prayed over for individually.

    Of course, I wasn’t there, so I can’t describe more than that from the secondhand perspective. But I think that element of the specific really helps, and self-examination is a must.

  • Bender

    So they weren’t getting absolution for a general “bad” but something specific that they were prayed over for individually.

    Sorry, but it sounds like they didn’t get absolution at all — they got feel-good group therapy or something. To get absolution, one needs to make a good confession, i.e. a full and complete confession, and it needs to be actually confessed to a priest, not merely one word written on a piece of paper.

    Maybe it helped everyone, in a therapeutic and “pastoral” way (I’ve never felt comfortable with that word), but it doesn’t sound sacramental.

  • Jeanette

    As you know, I am not a Catholic but a Baptist.

    I was reading the comments on your 2006 post and feel there is a misunderstanding of how we confess our sins. If we are truly devout and do confess our sins to Jesus we list each sin and ask forgiveness.

    Many times I have just sat and kept quiet after confessing a sin and have thought about it and why it was a sin.

    I couldn’t hold all of this for a week or for the next day even. I have to confess it as I do it.

    Last week I received a phone call from a rude person and answered that person in a very rude and un-Christian way. I immediately realized what I had done and prayed for forgiveness and the strength to never do that again.

    Prayer is such a big part of my life that I find myself praying most of the time when I am alone and quiet. I know my sins are forgiven and I do not feel a need to tell another human unless I want to do so. The Holy Spirit does a good job of letting me know when I’ve sinned.

    Sometimes, often in fact, I just pray and marvel at what God has done for us. I marvel that Jesus left the Glory of Heaven to live as a simple man who had no possessions. What a loving God we have to humble Himself like that when He owns everything we see and we don’t see.

    For us to be like Him, He had to be like us. What a loving and marvelous thing that is! The bible says there is one mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus.

    I guess that’s why we don’t confess to a priest and go directly to Jesus.

    One day, soon I hope, we will be in His presence and denominations or religions will not matter. There is only one true belief. The problem is man has made so many interpretations that we all worship in different ways. God is not Baptist, Catholic or any other Christian faith, but I know He’s Christian. I also know He loves Israel and her people.

    I just want to get through life and on to my eternal destiny with Him. This world is just a pit-stop to eternity.

    If going through the sacraments is what it takes for people to feel the forgiveness of God then do it and if others feel we do not need it please allow us our beliefs without criticism. I’m not saying anyone has criticized anyone else, but just stating my opinion in general.

    God bless you for being a true believer. In the end that’s what matters.

    [Jeanette, I can't speak for all Catholics but I think most of them are like you (and like me, too.) We know when we sin, we talk to God about this immediately and ask forgiveness, but (as Bender explained very well) confession has the sacramental element of being that a visible outward sign of an invisible reality, namely, the conveyance of grace. The 7 sacraments are not man-made ideas but vehicles of grace instituted by Christ, himself. In baptism we have the outward manifestation of the interior "cleansing" wrought by the naming of the Triune God and the claim for Christ. In Confirmation, the "outward manifestation" of the interior event of being sealed with the Holy Spirit is signaled by the anointing with oil. The Holy Eucharist -well that mystical union, I could write about forever- but Christ laid it out for us in John 6, and at the Last Supper. Confession is the outward, "physical" manifestation of the interior event of forgiveness, and it was instituted with Christ saying to Peter and the apostles, "whose sins you loose are loosed in heaven...etc." We know, of course, that forgiveness is not the "exclusive" province of the confessional -being faulty, sinful creatures, we'd never be able to step out of the box, were that so- but the outward manifestation is both the physical/mental/spiritual (rather wholistic) of our spiritual healing; it is also an outward witness to others of the infinite mercy of Christ. Extreme Unction (now "the anointing of the sick") and Holy Orders both reflect Gospel moments (Mary's anointing of Christ before his passion: Christ sending his apostles out to the world) and Matrimony is, like Communion, a sacrament that gives us a physical glimpse of the covenant between God and humanity - just a glimpse, because like Communion that mystery is so deep, we will never fully understand it until we are with our Creator. I don't think anyone here would denigrate your understanding and practice of confession. Our understanding is simply of a different, I suspect fuller and perhaps more "complete" nature. That, of course, is the long argument between Christian churches, right? It will continue, I guess! :-) But in heaven, we'll all be at peace about it, so that will be good! -admin]

  • Peggy Bowes

    Don’t forget to take the kids with you! My children have been going to Confession since they were babies on my lap. I try to take them every month (after their first Confession). I hope and pray they will make this important sacrament a lifelong habit.

    Since we travel frequently and visit many different churches, they are not the least bit of afraid of any type of confessional (even the semi-scary “black box” type!). My daughter recently left the church with a skip in her step, commenting, “It’s good to have a clean soul.”

  • Jeanne

    I had to read that story about the person going to confession and getting a pamphlet and making sure it wasn’t MY story. I tried to go to confession at a church near my old office. It was a very old church from the late 1800′s. I stepped into what I thought was a traditional confessional, only to find it was furnished like an office! I felt like I was in the middle of a bad psychotherapy session. The priest bounced forward and announced “Call me Chuck” and I almost passed out from shock. It was downhill from there. He invited me to SIT and “chat”. As you can imagine, it went downhill from there. I left really upset and frankly angry. Was this what confession had turned into? I hadn’t been in 10 years – was it like this now?

    A few years later, I decided to try again, this time at a wonderful Franciscan church near Penn Station. Not only do they offer the sacrament almost all day, it was a wonderful, spiritual experience. Traditional but thoughtful. I left really understanding the meaning of the sacrament.

    Don’t give up if you find yourself in a weird situation. Keep looking. You can experience this wonderful sacrament.

    [It's funny, how the church got into the mindset that "everyone hates confession, so let's turn it into a cross between a talk show and a game show" -why didn't they assume the opposite? It's just like when people discuss vocations, with wringing hands, instead of with joy. I don't get it -admin]

  • DaveW

    Our confessional is one of those offices. It isn’t a big deal to me but I don’t really like it. There’s a rickety table with a little screen in the middle of the room and a couch on the right wall. Most folks just sit on the couch. There is no kneeler.

    It isn’t my business how others approach the Sacrament but I personally find it helpful to take a more penitent approach. I always kneel before the priest, on the floor when I go here at our parish. At first Father would tell me I could sit if I wanted but I told him I felt I needed to kneel and he stopped offering.

    I went to confession at a different church this past weekend, a more conservative type with a traditional confessional. Even so I left not feeling very good about myself. I’m not sure why but I am sure it is about me and not the Sacrament. Confronting my sinful nature can be a bummer.

    I’d had a rough week, one of our dogs died. Since I had heart surgery last summer I’ve been haunted by thoughts of mortality and having her die, handling her body and all, really shook me up.

    Anyway, I’m glad I went and feel better about it now than I did Saturday. I think I just needed to process the week a bit. Today, off to Mass with a clean conscience (well, as clean as mine gets anyway).

  • PackerBronco

    If you want to determine the state of a parish, look at how it treats the sacrament of confession. I’ve been in parishes where the sacrament is difficult to find (stuck in from 4:00 to 4:15 on Saturdays and “by appointment”) and without exception I found those parishes to be composed of parishoners very focused on themselves and the ways of the world.

    On the other hand, I had the beautiful experience of attending my college-aged sons’ church for Ash Wednesday. The two priests had confessions going all day starting at 9am and going to … well … they were still hearing confessions at 11pm. Long lines all day long. I was incredibly impressed by the kids and the reverance they showed during mass and all of that day.

    I guess my point is that unless you have an awareness and a great regret over your sins, how can ever expect to go forward in your spritual life? Complacency is death to the spritual life of an individual — or a parish.

  • Trish

    Amen – A beautiful experience of the Sacrament of Reconciliation can change your life! When I moved to the northern Virginia area in 1999, I began attending the local parish. The newly appointed “Parish Administrator” (who later became pastor) made confession a frequent topic or sub-topic in his homilies. After several months he said something to the effect of the following: “We know something is important by how much time we allot to it. Right now, our parish offers the Sacrament of Reconciliation for 45 min. before the Vigil Mass on Saturdays, and for half an hour afterwards. No more. Because it IS important, we are going to prove that it is.” As of that Monday, confession was offered twice a day, morning and afternoon (or evening) every day of the week, except for Sundays. And the people came (including me). I went from receiving the Sacrament twice a year (Advent and Lent), to going every 2 months or so, to every 6 weeks, and finally I went faithfully and thankfully once a month (or more if I needed it.) My life changed in terms of how I examined my behavior, thoughts, movitivations, and actions. The sins I had always confessed, time after time, finally began to be overcome with the grace and help of this now oft-received Sacrament. Three cheers for the Sacrament of Reconciliation!

  • Jan

    Going to confession is less about “feeling” the forgiveness of God than it is about partaking of a Sacrament instituted by Christ. I don’t know any devout Catholics who don’t (usually!) instantly make an act of contrition when they knowingly commit a sin; and then, when we are able, we approach the priest who is in Persona Christi, which means ‘in the person of Christ’ and confess our sins to him (Him) and are assured of forgiveness.

    I wonder if any of us ever hurt a friend and then just offer an apology to the air and assume the friend will forgive us for whatever we’ve done? It’s one thing to regret having done something stupid or hurtful or sinful and be sorry for it; it’s another not to approach the person you’ve hurt directly and ask forgiveness.

  • Jacki

    I just read that passage from the Magnificat last night at Adoration. His gaze . . . Thanks for all of the wonderful insights you give us, Elizabeth. I look forward to reading you every day!

  • Bender

    If going through the sacraments is what it takes for people to feel the forgiveness of God then do it . . .

    As Jan says, it is not about “feeling” forgiveness. Rather, it is about the manifestation of forgiveness. A “sacrament” is a visible outward sign of an invisible reality, namely, the conveyance of grace.

    Without the visible signs of the Sacrament of Penance — (1) the penitent voicing his sins and contrition out loud to one who is physically present on behalf of Jesus Christ, and (2) the vocal provision of absolution (forgiveness) — then not only is the repentence itself often only a potential, but we cannot know for certain the invisible reality of being forgiven.

    We are bodily creatures who experience and come to know things by the senses of our bodies. We need outward tangible signs to know things.

    Consequently, to help us to know that we are, in fact, sorry for our sins, and to help us know that we have, in fact, been forgiven them, Jesus instituted this process.

  • Gerry

    Bender is making the same mistake that many “rad trads” do – assuming that some aspect of Church life has been unchanged from the beginning. The form of the sacrament in the Early Church was not like we know it today.

  • Bender

    Bender is a “rad trad”????

    That’s a first.

  • Bender’s Cheerleader

    Bender “rad trad”? Bad!

  • Sally June

    I believe in his journals written during his travels in Italy, Nathaniel Hawthorne expressed deep sympathy with and an implicit longing for the sacrament of confession. How wonderful, he wrote (I paraphrase), to be able to unburden yourself of a deep secret. Hawthorne’s stories are all about having the secret sin; he knew nothing about being able to get rid of it and move on.

    His daughter, of course, became a Catholic nun and founder of the Hawthorne sisters.

  • Bender

    I confess –

    I really don’t see anything that is either radish or tradish about my prior comments.

  • DaveW

    I don’t either Bender. I thought this was very well put:

    “We are bodily creatures who experience and come to know things by the senses of our bodies. We need outward tangible signs to know things.”

    I’m reminded of JPII’s letter on the rosary…sorry I forget the title, the one where he introduces the Luminous Mysteries. He expresses something very similar to what you just said.

    I think it is true too. Outward signs like that are important to humans. God knows that about us and he uses that to help us.

  • Bender’s Cheerleader

    -I really don’t see anything that is either radish or tradish about my prior comments.

    Me either. I was just being Dr. Seuss-ish. That’s what happens when you have little kids.

  • Jeff

    As Fulton Sheen once said, if we don’t confess our own sins, we usually end up confession the sins (real or imagined) of others. I would add to that, or going on shows like Oprah or Jerry Springer. Confession conforms to human nature, God knew that we would need to “get things off our chests” to someone else, that is why Jesus instituted the sacrament.

    I’ve had only one bad experience in my life going to confession. Most have been fine. You just need to trust that the priest is merely the mediator; it is Jesus who is there and the humility the penitent shows just by going gives him and the angels great joy.

  • Ed Mechmann

    FWIW — There is no “Diocese of New York City”. Just ask your friend Deacon Greg — he’s part of the Diocese of Brooklyn (which includes Queens). The other three boroughs (plus seven other counties) are part of the Archdiocese of New York, which is sponsoring the Confess-a-Thon.

    [Sigh. Thank you for clarifying. Of course I do know that, but it's an important clarification, I guess -admin]

  • Bender

    The truth is that we are all St. Thomas.

    It is all well and good to piously say that you do not need to see in order to believe, but in our more humble moments, we must concede that, being bodily creatures, we do need to see or hear or touch or smell or taste in order to know for sure. And even if you are one of the saintly ones who do not need to see and touch, it still helps.

  • PackerBronco

    I have always found the argument “I confess my sins to Jesus Christ not to a priest” a very fascinating line of discussion.

    I’m reminded of an example: A young child steals a piece of candy when he’s out shopping with his Father. As they walk to the car, the Father says, “I saw you steal that piece of candy.” The child starts to cry and says, “I’ll go back right now and pay for it.” “No need, ” says the Father, “I’ve already paid for it.”

    Question: Has the child expiated his sins by merely confessing them to his Father or does he also need to make a public and visible act of atonement by going back to store and explaining his transgression to the store clerk?

    Confession can be very hard because everyone would much rather confess their sins in their heart to God rather than outloud to another person – but it is through that difficulty that we receive grace.

    [In fairness, I know plenty of non-Catholic Christians -Jeanette is one of them- who go out of their way to make public amends very quickly when conscious of sin or a failure to love (the same thing, I guess), and it is a hard penance. Even for us, going to confession -as much as it is a "witness" to Christ's mercy, often have to do more than go to confession. Look at the woman who recently confessed to filing a false rape claim; she had to go make it right, publicly proclaim her perjury and deal with jail. That is also witness. -admin]

  • Bender

    When you are in a relationship, it is all so important for you to hear the other actually say out loud, “I love you.”

    He or she might act lovingly toward us all the time, but it is right and good to hear him or her say the words.

    It is important for us to say out loud, “I love you,” and it is important for us to hear God say in return, “I love you, too.”

  • Manny L.

    Wow, great discussion here. My first thought was I didn’t realize how variable the sacrament of penance is from church to church. If i do pull my courage up and go this weekend, I hope I can remember what to do. LOL.

    I was watching an episode of the The Journey Home on the EWTN a few weeks ago and they had a former Presbyterian seminarian who had converted to Catholicism on, and he mentioned how remarkable it felt (I think he said something to the effect of how clean he now felt) after his first confession and that there wasn’t anything in the Protestant tradition to compare to it. This is no knock to you Jeanette. I totally respect your practices.

    I located the episode I was referring to. You can find it here and download it: link.

    It’s the episode with Dr. David Anders on 2/8/2010. Actually Dr. Anders gives the most wonderful explanation of why the Catholicism is the original Christianity. He was a scholar and the more research into the origins of Christianity the more convinced he became that it was the Reformation that had gone astray. He takes you through all the major issues and refutes all the Protestant claims. It was possibly the best episode of that wonderful show I’ve ever watched.

  • B. Durbin

    Bender— as I say, I wasn’t there. I do know that the priest had to beg off full, individual confessions due to an unfortunate lack of priests to hear them (they’d lost two normal attendees due to age-related reasons, and couldn’t find substitutes), so this was the best they could do. My mother’s been a bit upset over the lack of readily available confessional times at her church, the result of a resident priest with some fairly odd ideas about what is necessary for a church (you know, like not holding mass on Ash Wednesday. WHY?) That priest has recently moved on, and she’s been noting with relief the various returns to more traditional service.

  • Pingback: Sweet Confession Refreshing the Soul « The Lioness

  • Theresa

    I love confession..what I once dreaded as a post abortive woman I now run to as the font of His Mercy…

  • Pingback: The Anchoress | A First Things Blog