Monday, December 20, 2010

RCIA Wednesday - A question about Confession

[Sorry folks, getting a little behind on publishing, this article was intended for December 15th] 

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.  
Incidentally, I myself seek out the Sacrament quite frequently, and at times I am tempted to employ one of the above, but if we get right down to it, all of these devices are aspects of one reality, pride.  Pride is the Original Sin, and it continues to be the biggest stumbling block in the spiritual lives of most people.  Pride seeks to build up the self, to the point where we don't think we need God any more, and isn't that what we are saying in all of the above instances, I don't really need the Sacrament, and thus I don't really need God's forgiveness, because I don't really think I've done anything wrong.  God doesn't really ask for much from us, at least in comparison to all he is willing to do for us, but he does ask for real sincereity and humility, particularly in acknowledging our sinfulness, and our need for his forgiveness and grace.  Next time you step into the confessional just be honest and open, and you may find God's grace is much more powerful and effective in your life.

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).


  1. Thanks for this practical advice.
    I would like to offer some comments on your second point: I have read in some confession manuals that some detail as to the circumstances affecting the sinner, including those that may mitigate guilt, can be helpful to the priest, both in understanding where the sinner is coming from spiritually and in assessing the severity of the sin for the sake of assigning appropriate penance. In fact there have been occasions where the confessor has himself asked me for details to discern culpability.
    Also I think there are occasions when there is sincere doubt as to the severity of the sin on behalf of the sinner, owing to the circumstances of the sin (such as ingrained habit or lack of complete knowledge or consent) and yet he is unsure and seeks some guidance on this matter from his confessor, just in case - it doesn't hurt after all, to confess venial sins, even if it's not required.

    I see your point however, that such 'mitigation' can also have more sinister roots, in pride.

    As an additional point, for the consideration of the other penitents and I think the priest as well, I would suggest that confession is not a therapy session. List your sins quickly and succinctly as possible, having thought about how to do this before hand. It can be rather frustrating to have to sit there waiting on a lovely Saturday morning while someone else is doing a half hour marathon confession.

  2. However, if that other person has returned to Confession after x years away...

  3. Some good observations. I don't wish to suggest that a penitent cannot ask questions of the confessor, for help, guidance, or clarification. If a penitent is unsure of the seriousness of a sin, then by all means, ask for clarification, but I think the distinction to be made is between asking and telling. To ask for clarification due to uncertainty is one thing, to tell the confessor why something is not a sin (in general or in particular) is something else. As well, to ask for help or clarification is one thing, and to ask the confessor to explain why 'x' is a sin in the first place is another. In any case, whenever someone asks me for clarification due to mitigating circumstances my usual response is to say "confess it anyway, and seek the sacramental graces for healing and strength to avoid future sins", especially if it is the result of an ingrained habit.

    As to those with long confessions, I think some undertanding is needed all the way around. Particularly around Christmas and Easter those who may have been away from the sacrament for some time do return, and may have a great deal that they need to unburden. They might also be at a turning point and seeking advice on how to make improvements in their spiritual life. Those waiting in line need to be understanding that some may need a little extra time, but those who need extra time should also consider the long line of those waiting outside as well (particularly if there is only one confessor available).

  4. Of course, understanding is needed, I have been down that road myself, and confession is not an assembly line.
    I see how what I said could be taken harshly, but I didn't mean it that way. It's just something for people to keep in mind.