The Heavy Grace of Confession

Confessional, Basilica of Santa Sabina, Rome

The confessional above is, as indicated, from Santa Sabina; for some reason, my husband–who I do believe tried to photograph every inch of Rome–did not manage to get a picture of the confessionals at St. John Lateran, the “Cathedral of Rome.”

Possibly his own sense of discretion prevented a snapshot, because while we were there the confessionals were constantly in use, just on the other side of the magnificent nave full of huge representations of the apostles:

I was one who made a point of partaking of the sacrament of confession at San Giovanni Laterano; I couldn’t help but think that confession there, in that incredibly holy and historic place, in a confessional that provided no shield (the booths are quiet open; everyone can see you confessing) would be grace-filled, and accepted as an act of complete trust in God’s protection, guidance and mercy.

And I think I may have had precisely the same sighing Irish priest that David Mills writes about so brilliantly, in this piece from Inside Catholic.

While in Rome recently, I went to confession at St. John Lateran. It’s the cathedral of Rome, and I’d heard the grace was better there. I got an old Irish priest, soft-spoken, deliberate, patient, and with a habit of sighing frequently as you spoke. [...] I soon realized that I could confess to stealing a dime or murdering an abbess, and he would have sighed in the same way. The sighing may have been a technique, but it worked on me. The absolution came more powerfully because he had sighed, and put me in my place far better than some earnest priests I’ve had, whose very earnestness made me feel important and my sins dramatic.
A friend of mine recently spoke to the theology class at an Evangelical Protestant college. Both Catholic and Protestant friends had told him that the students would grill him about theological issues, particularly justification by faith, and he spent hours preparing himself to answer their questions. They didn’t mention the subject at all: What they wanted to know about was confession, and more the practice and experience than the theology. They really wanted to know what you did and why you did it, and how it felt to tell some man what could be your deepest secrets. They approached my friend as sick people approach someone who’s been cured of the same disease by an established but still alternative and fringe treatment.

One can guess the reason. Many people who believe they can simply pray to God and be forgiven, whatever they’ve done, long for the chance to tell someone out loud, someone who will then declare God’s forgiveness and give them some penance, some way of expressing their sorrow and growing closer to God at the same time.

They want what Catholics have. In Rome, I knelt, listening to the priest sighing, in that place where prayer has been valid, with Our Lord in the Sacrament about 30 feet away, and the relics of St. Peter and St. Paul about 70 feet in the other direction. I felt the usual mixture of shame and relief and the sense — this I’ve only come to see after several years as a Catholic — that, as my Evangelical friends like to say, I’m really here to do serious business with God.

You’ll want to read the whole thing.

One of the best confessors I’ve ever had was a Chinese priest who had fought for his vocation while in China, and who had a gentle way of looking at things, born of having seen and lived through a great deal that most people never will. I confessed a sin that was weighing heavily on me–a true sin, no over-scrupulous conceit–and he sighed, just like that Irish priest; “well, that was a stupid thing to do,” he said, and it was like having someone take the burden from my shoulders.

For all of the well-meaning priests who try to gently let someone off the hook in the confessional, or who–in attempting to demonstrate the mercy of God–are perhaps too quick to say “it’s okay, you’re only human” (true as that is) I have always been so grateful for the simple acknowledgment by a simple priest that I had done something that was, yes, stupid and destructive, but that mercy was mine.

Sometimes it is not enough to hear “Jesus loves you and forgives your sins,” you need to hear, “yeah, girl, you screwed that up, pretty good,” too. If the weight and depth of the sin is never plumbed, how can the uplifting counterbalance of Grace be properly, gratefully, understood?

Writes Mills:

. . . we need to recover the use of the word “confession,” while quietly dropping “the sacrament of reconciliation.” We need to hear the blunt word, because, before everything else, we want to say, “I did this and I’m really sorry.” That’s the appeal of confession, the chance to get it all out in the open. To emphasize the result is a bit like renaming the emergency room the “healing center.” It’s true, but not as helpful or as encouraging as you’d think, particularly when you really have an emergency.

St. Bartholomew, who was skinned alive in his martyrdom. Confession is easier.

Kathryn Jean Lopez on grace, forgiveness and the film, “Get Low”

On Confession
On Confession, Part II
A Confession Primer
The Sins and the Fathers
“I was in the dungeon”
I am a Sinful Woman
The Value of a Good Mea Culpa
Does Forgiveness Help to Keep Us Going?
Resentment, Poison and Prayer
Strange Medicine, and the Gaze that Saves

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Victor

    I agree confession is great but after I was given such light sentences for my wrong doings I thought that I would dramatize “IT” a little.

    For example I believe that God is such a Great Man that He could take but one of our cells and put the universe in “IT” if He so desired to do that so I squeeled to God through a priest about some of my cells.

    Call me crazy if “IT” makes you feel better but I stuck out my hands out and in so many words said to that priest, who will remain nameless, these cells of mine have been bad, they all teamed UP from various parts of my body to bait the master and they won’t admit to “IT” and this flesh was too weak to resist so I had to let them have their way with peter.

    To make a long story short, this good priest thought that I was pulling his chain and said, You mean that you “Masterbaited” and again after I finished he still gave me a light sentence.

    I was always told while growing UP that God sees everything but back then like an Atheist, I thought that “IT” was just a lot of buffalo chips but now that I know that “IT” is true and to make a long story short, I must have corrupted this priest because he later got charged for sexual abuse.

    What I’m trying to say is that the priest hood is not an easy profession and I would advice any priest who is not worthy, to get out while the going is good if you know what I mean.

    I now have found another priest with a little sense of humor and his benediction is for real and believe “IT” or not God tells me that about 5% of my cells are doing pretty good and I only have about 95% and then I get to experience “The Ressurection of The Body” as we Catholic call “IT”.

    I’m writing this so you can tell Joe Carter to forget about that mortal sin I told him about cause God has already forgiven me. Go Figure!

    I hear ya! You don’t really think that I’m going to allow this comment, do you Victor?

    God ONLY knows for sure. :)


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  • Sandra

    Can a non-catholic go to confession and receive absolution?

  • Kristen

    I do so love being a Catholic. I am an Easter 2010 convert and as each day goes by I find more and more reasons that this was the best decision of my life. In my parish, confession takes place in the cry room, the times are limited and inconvenient, and the priest is rather unsatisfying to confess to (he sits in absolute silence while you list your sins), but I am still very thankful for the sacrament.

    I would urge any non-Catholic who craves the absolution of confession to enroll in RCIA — in most parishes it just started a week or two ago and it is not too late.

    [you are not bound to go to confession with your parish priest, you know...scout around for a good confessor. I am vey lucky I my parish, they're all pretty good and we were allowed to keep our confessionals in the Great Big Purge of Catholic stuff of the 1970's-admin]

  • oldbat

    Sometimes the simplest is the best.I was trying to justify an outburst and what I felt was an unjust response.”Well if you speak to people like that why are you surprised at their response.” Gulp!

  • David Mills


    Thank your for posting the link and the kind words. I think confession is really cool, though I’ve also found that it’s one of those blessing that cost a lot up front and therefore discourage the run of all us mediocre Catholics from taking it up.

    One of the commenters on Inside Catholic offered an analogy which I pass along because readers may find it helpful (though it’s probably old hat to almost everyone here):

    I once heard an analogy by Bishop Sheen whereby he said that when you sin, it is like putting a nail in the cross. When you go to confession it is like taking a nail out of the cross. But what are you left with when the nail is removed and your sin is absolved?

    A hole.

    A hole tha can only be filled by making reparation for your sin. You may have been forgiven, but your soul is still suffering from a disfiguration from every sin you commit. This is exactly why it takes works and reparations to perfect faith.

  • bridgit

    I’ve never heard that particular explication of Bishop Sheen’s~I love it, thanks for posting it.


  • Pen&Paper

    Thank You, Lord, for confession. Best penance I received was from a great priest whose mother had worked herself to death by age 52: I was a single mom and his penance was for me to take good care of myself. Another in very similar situation to mine did not and won’t live to see hers out of college – she could not even take one morning to get to the dr with early symptoms. I’d be in the same situation if I hadn’t listened. Wise priest. That penance also made me work to be a better person. He saved my life in so many ways.

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  • Kristen

    “[you are not bound to go to confession with your parish priest, you know...scout around for a good confessor. I am vey lucky I my parish, they're all pretty good and we were allowed to keep our confessionals in the Great Big Purge of Catholic stuff of the 1970's-admin]”

    Yes, I am aware that I am not bound to confess to my parish priest. My husband and I have made a point to put down roots at our local parish (which fortunately is orthodox) and not “shop around” to find the best homilies, best music, best confessor, etc. Fr. Longenecker had a blog series on this topic last week that reinforced for us that this is the right decision for our family. After years as a Protestant when “worship” was all about me and how it made me feel, I am now resting comfortably in the understanding that the Mass (as long as it is celebrated with reverence and care) and confession are about what Christ is doing and not about my experience. I certainly take special pleasure in attending Mass at beautiful cathedrals when we travel (and look forward to the experience of confessing to a gifted confessor in an actual confessional), but at this time my day to day life as a Catholic will revolve around my local parish.

    On another topic, I just have to say that I am bursting with pride for our Papa this week. He has navigated the tricky task of his visit to Great Britain beautifully. As Damian Thompson put it, “he shows the utmost courtesy but never, ever attempts to obscure reality with platitudes.” I am praying that this weekend will mark a turning point in the priest sex abuse scandal.

  • Hantchu

    An interesting perspective on the Catholic view, especially for this Jew after Yom Kippur Five soul-rending recitiations of the “vidui” gemeral confession, each followed by communal recetation thereof. And allhowe manuals translating and expalining how it’s likely that you yourself erred, concurred woth, or encouraged others to err on those same things.

    By the end of Neilah, the concluding prayer, I tend to feel like a matza run through the piercing machine. And yet, the end is optimistic. Yom Kippur does NOT atone for sins between man and his fellow man, even though fasting , even if you do nothing else, has an effect on one’s relationship with the Creator. Scary stuff.

    I agree; better not to make the holes in the first place. The sages say repentance, tat is, returning to G-d, precedes even the creation of the universe. So there’s really no good excuse…

  • Dave

    I’m another new Catholic with an appreciation both for the confessional and the fact that I attend a parish (near where I live) whose priests emphasize going monthly–in fact it just got mentioned in this morning’s homily.
    It is interesting, and perhaps not unusual–there is a slight feeling of dread and duty for me before going, and then relief when done. When I go, the long line on Saturdays (sometimes as many as 10-12 people ahead of me) reminds me of a doctor’s office, with its silence, dread, anticipation perhaps, but everyone with a sure sense that they need to be there.

  • Jeff

    I will merely repeat my please to bishops in America to institute and/or widen the availability of confession before and during mass. This will have a dramatic effect of increasing confessions and penance. To have it from “3:15 to 3:45″ on a Saturday is absurd. I went once in that situation on a summer Saturday and no one was there. The priest was reading the paper and sounded annoyed that someone had actually shown up. This is a major problem in the United States.

  • Jeff

    “plea” that is…

  • Parthenon

    I’ve never heard that particular explication of Bishop Sheen’s~I love it.

    Thanks for sharing post.

  • Gary Keith Chesterton

    Whoa! Where is that statue of Saint Bartholomew? I have a devotion to him.

    [At St. John Lateran (San Giovanni Laterano), in the nave, along with the rest of the apostles! -admin]

  • Stephen J.

    The confession vs. reconciliation note reminds me of an issue my very smart and eloquent wife often ran into with her students, back when she was a teacher: she would use a word they didn’t know, and when they asked what it meant and she used a much more colloquial term to define it (like “half-assed” to explain “cursory”), the students would blankly ask her, “Well, why didn’t you just say ‘half-assed’ [or whatever] in the first place?”

    Which drove her crazy, but it continues to fascinate me, this gap between using the technically, objectively *correct* word and using the word that is most *effective* in conveying information to your audience in a way they’ll understand and appreciate. Both “confession” and “reconciliation” are accurate descriptions of the process. But which part do you want to emphasize?

  • archangel

    A late note to this… My wife and sat up one night and watched some movies that were on Encore. One movie was “Flatliners” from 1990. Obviously chalk full of f-bombs and the normal tension a suspense movie has, it struck me that without even realizing it, Hollywood created a movie that explains the “why” for confession.

    With that in mind, I recommend a re-viewing. Not suited for young audiences, obviously, but given the age group here (for the most part) its worth it. IMO.

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