Like most Associate Pastors I am in charge of RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) here in the parish, and like many places we have our RCIA sessions on Wednesday night. It seems like very fruitful ground to offer some reflections, since RCIA is all about learning and growing in the faith. I can't hope to cover everything that we discuss in a two hour session of RCIA in this space, but I hope to be able to reflect upon at least one issue that comes up every week. We are on hiatus from RCIA until after Christmas right now, but I thought I'd start with an interesting question that we posed to me last week in RCIA, a question about Confession.
Our topic last week, just before the Christmas break was an Introduction to the Sacraments, which included just a brief overview of each of the seven Sacraments. When we got to the Sacrament of Confession, the question was posed, "Will the priest think less of you because of the sins you confess?" A fair question, especially at this time of year when so many are heading to the confessional as part of their spiritual preparation for Christmas. Now, I can't claim to speak for every priest in the world, but as for myself, and for other priests I have spoken to about the subject, an honest, sincere, thorough confession will never cause your confessor to think less of you. Most confessors simply try to forget what a penitent has told them, and with the great volume of penitents, especially at this time of year, that is fairly easy to do, but if your confessor does have a lingering opinion, it will usually be to think more highly of you, because you have come before the Lord in humility to ask for his help and forgiveness.
That being said, there are a few confessional don'ts that I'd like to offer for your consideration:
- Don't argue moral theology with your confessor. This is the penitent who comes in to confess "x, y, and z", but then says, "But I don't really think x is a sin", or some variation of that opinion. One might ask the question, "if you don't think it's a sin, then why confess it in the first place", ultimately though, we must remember that the confessional is a place for acknowledgment of sins and for God's healing power to wipe those sins away. If you sincerely have questions about the Church's teaching on a particular matter, feel free to ask your priest to see if he can clarify the issue, but the confessional might not be the best place to do it.
- Don't mitigate your sins. The Sacrament of Confession is there to remove the stain of mortal sin, venial sins don't require sacramental confession, a sincere Act of Contrition will suffice (note here I'm not speaking of devotional confession, that is a different subject altogether). Occasionally a penitent will come to confess "x", but then give a long story why it really wasn't that bad. Again, if it was not really that bad, in other words not a mortal sin, then you have no need to confess it, but if your conscience is telling you to confess it, then just be honest and straightforward, acknowledge the wrong, and listen for your confessor's advice.
- Don't tell your confessor that you're not a sinner. Again, occasionally a penitent will come, confess a couple of things, then say "I don't really have sins to confess." Certainly there may be saints in our midst, but real saints are those who are usually most keenly aware of their sinfulness. To say that "I don't remember anything else", or "I honestly can't think of anything else, but am sorry for any sins I cannot remember" is fair. Some may simply not have as intense a level of self-knowledge regarding sinfulness as others, because of where they are in their spiritual lives, but to still acknowledge that I am a sinner even though I don't recall all the specifics is probably much closer to the mark for most of us, than to say I have no sins to confess.
I realize that I have strayed somewhat from my initial consideration of what the priest might think of you, but just to conclude, a truly humble penitent, regardless of their sins, will always be a source of joy to the confessor, because true humility goes hand in hand with true holiness (perhaps a subject for a later post).