The reluctant penitent: my journey back to confession

The reluctant penitent: my journey back to confession March 16, 2011

Been to confession lately?  Lent is a good time to do that — and I talk about my own experience as a reluctant penitent in this week’s column, “All Things New”:

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”

I spoke the words clearly, firmly, just as I had been taught by Sister St. Margaret. This wasn’t my first confession, but it was close to it. And on this particular Saturday afternoon, my mother had decided to take me to confession for reasons I can’t remember; but since I was a 7-year-old with a cranky temper and a disobedient streak, I’m sure they were valid.

Now here I was alone in the dark, whispering my sins. I was kneeling on a piece of cracked vinyl padding, speaking into a frayed scrap of velvet cloth that covered a metal grate. Behind that cloth sat a stranger, a priest with his ear bent and his shadowy head nodding. I smelled mothballs and after-shave and something like cigarettes. Or was it incense?

I told him my sins, and he gave me my penance. And in just a few moments, it was over. I prayed the act of contrition—”O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee . . .”—then crossed myself, pulled aside the heavy curtain, and went to the altar rail, knelt and prayed. I had done it. The secrets in my heart had been shared with another and God, in his mercy, had forgiven me. I was a new man! (Okay, a new 7-year-old.) The slate was clean. I could begin again.

After finishing the prayers I had been given, I returned to my mother’s pew and we went out into the parking lot. As she started the station wagon and backed out of her space, she had a word of advice. “Gregory,” she said, “you’ve got to learn to keep your voice down. I could hear you all over the church.”

My ears turned crimson. And early on, before I had barely gotten my feet wet in the sacrament of confession, I wanted to shake them dry and have nothing to do with it again. Ever.

My early experience with confession may be one reason why for many years I avoided it, as a man with a cavity avoids the dentist. I was afraid it would hurt. Even when “confession” underwent a makeover and became “reconciliation,” and the small dark boxes were replaced with wide-open rooms, I was reluctant. I would go once or twice a year—a perfunctory, had-to-do-it practice. My heart wasn’t in it. My head, certainly, was elsewhere.

In the interim, when I did go, there may have been flashes of forgiveness, moments of grace. If so, they were accidental. I didn’t do much to help matters. Neither, for that matter, did some priests.

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3 responses to “The reluctant penitent: my journey back to confession”

  1. Deacon Greg,

    Thanks for sharing this.

    I didn’t have have a childhood experience with reconciliation to turn me away from it. I grew up in an anti-Catholic household.

    After my first reconciliation as an adult, I didn’t go for another again. Eventually, I could not longer carry the weight of sin and guilt I had been carrying. Through a retreat, The Lord gave me a moment of peace; and for moment all of my pain, anger, and sadness was gone. In that blessed moment of clarity and knew I could release those burdens through reconciliation. I now regularly seek the sacrament.

    Praise the Lord, He works in mysterious ways.


  2. Thanks Greg for sharing your experience. I think many have had simular experiences in the confessional at sometime in their life. Your sharing might help those to reconsider this beautiful sacrament.
    I am helping a person with an annulment and the desire to come back to the church. I would like to use your experience to help this person with the fear of reconciliation.
    Thanks again.

  3. Greg:
    Your post has brought back so many memories of growing up Catholic.

    My mother prepared me for first confession the night before by telling me exactly what my sins were! (She was right!) One evening a year or so later, my father and I went to confession in a neighboring parish. The priest yelled (quite loudly) that children were not supposed to go to confession in the evening in this parish. I told my father, who had probably heard it all, and he just shook his head. I wonder how it would have affected me if he responded with a raging criticism of the priest. (My father was no shrinking violet.) I think that it probably taught me that it really wasn’t that important (even though I still remember the incident).

    A few years a go, I went to confession in a center city Franciscan parish in Chicago. I had not been to confession for quite a few years. The priest asked me why I had been away so long? (Already I was feeling guilty because I was teaching Theology in a Catholic High School and an Adult Ministry Formation Program – not Sacraments, though). After I left the confessional, I thought: “Why couldn’t he have said, “Good to have you back.’” Oh well, it really wasn’t that important.

    You brought back another memory when you spoke about St. Francis of Assisi Church on West 31st Street, New York. (Wasn’t that the parish of Mychal Judge, the Franciscan chaplain who was killed at 9/11?) I used to stop by there for a visit when I would go up to New York from Philadelphia for a weekend of carousing. (I probably should have paid another visit on my way home.)

    Pardon, my nostalgia. It’s the vigil of St. Patrick’s Day.

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