Finding Christ in the Confessional
We’ve all done things that have hurt others or made us regretful. Fortunately, the Church offers the healing benefits of sacramental confession, which can bring great peace and blessings.
Confession is a powerful and necessary sacrament for us as we walk together toward holiness.
The burden of sin
When our consciences convict us of sin, we can be met with a nagging listlessness. Something in our heart or spirit clues us into the fact that something isn’t quite right. Even when we haven’t done something reaching the level of mortal sin, we know we should be doing better.
Then we have a choice: We can either continue to sin, ignoring our consciences, or we can work to live holier lives.
For some, this stirring of the soul is a call to action, and they feel encouraged to make amends with God. But for many of us, this conviction is tiring, stressful, or guilt-inducing, and overwhelming. When we identify with our shame rather than our status as a child of God, it is easy to resign ourselves to our past failures, and this can create a cycle of repetitive sin.
This repetition can be extremely discouraging. We don’t want to confess the same thing every week for fear of appearing weak or irresolute. And, if we are in a state of mortal sin, we might start to think, “Well, I can’t receive Communion at Mass because of my sins, so why bother going to Mass at all?”
The graces of Confession
Rather than getting stuck in what seems like an unbreakable cycle of sin, allow the sacrament of Penance to liberate you, and don’t be afraid to receive the sacrament often. As the Church teaches, each sacrament conveys an “invisible reality” — God’s graces which give us the strength to imitate Christ in our daily lives.
Confession helps us to truly live as children of God by guiding us to remember Who it is we really want to pursue. It reorients us to the Greatest Commandment by helping us to understand our own sinful inclinations and desires so that we may choose Him instead.
“We’re always inclined towards sin, and we need something to help us get out of that state of falling from grace,” said Jason Whitehead, director of Evangelization and Catechesis for the Diocese of Fort Worth.
Having a contrite heart
Understanding our sins should lead to a more contrite, or repentant, heart. The Church teaches we should be remorseful for our sins and attempt to remedy the wrongs we committed while resolving to avoid future sins. This “contrite heart” is necessary for a true confession.
According to Whitehead, true contrition is “repentance with a firm purpose of amendment; you must have at least the intention of resolving that problem. That of course doesn’t mean it won’t happen again, but there must be the firm resolve to actually change your ways.”
Confession and contrition go hand in hand. Contrition can help us go to confession, and confession can help us to reach contrition, Whitehead explained.
“The sacrament is there for the purpose of changing our lives... making us live more supernatural lives, and not an empty ritual to make us feel better about ourselves. It’s actually a means of grace which makes us better,” Whitehead said.
Father Jim Gigliotti, TOR, of St. Andrew Parish in Fort Worth suggests going online or picking up a book with an examination of conscience or the Ten Commandments, so that we can be aware of and name our mistakes.
“Through such an admission, man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them, and thereby opens himself again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a new future possible,” the Catechism states (CCC 1455).
Confession can heal our relationships with God and the Church.
The Catechism states that “sin is before all else an offense against God, a rupture of communion with Him. At the same time, it damages communion with the Church. For this reason, conversion entails both God’s forgiveness and reconciliation with the Church, which are expressed and accomplished liturgically by the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation” (CCC 1440).
The priest is meant to help us with this — connecting us with both God and humanity.
“The priest represents both humanity that was sinned against, and humanity that we’re asking forgiveness for. He also represents the divine mercy of Jesus Christ in dispensing absolution,” Fr. Gigliotti said.
To do penance
Confession doesn’t only get us back to a state of grace, it helps us reorder ourselves to love God first and to love others before ourselves, said Father Linh Nguyen, parochial vicar of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Keller.
“When we go to Confession, we’re cleansing our sins, asking the Lord for His grace and help to do better next time, and from there, to mend the relationship that has been broken between us and God, and between us and the community,” Fr. Nguyen explained. “[We ask God] to help us strengthen that broken part of our relationship so that we can continue to do better the next time and so we can love those around us that much more.”
Part of contrition involves fixing the wrong and making amends. While absolution takes away our sins, it “does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us (CCC 1459). That’s where penance or “making satisfaction for” plays a role. In the confessional, after we tell the priest our shortcomings, we are given a penance to complete for us to make amends for our sins.
“If we understand sin as the wounding of the relationship between us and God and us and those around us, then we need to have penances in which we help them to rebuild that relationship,” Fr. Nguyen continued.
Confession can help us reorient
One of the great benefits of confession is that it makes it easier to see Christ in the people around you. By receiving His abounding mercy, we learn to look with mercy at our fellow human beings; we are challenged to respond with forgiveness and compassion in all our daily interactions.
Through the power of absolution, we are brought out of a sort of superficial waywardness to see the most important things in life, like being awakened from slumber. We learn to look with wonder — rather than jealousy — at the light of holy spiritual guides (saints both living and dead) and allow Christ to inspire us towards Him through them. Confession also helps unite us by allowing us to see that the journey to holiness is not ours alone to traverse, but one we make as a community.
On overcoming shame
One of the most difficult parts of this journey from sin to Christ after we leave the confessional is learning to accept the forgiveness God so readily bestows on us. When your sins are forgiven (absolved), it is hard to reconcile that clean spiritual state with a self-imposed identity of “sinner.”
As we work to be merciful to ourselves, we must examine the intentions behind our sins. It’s important to remember that the sinner does not sin for the sake of the sin itself, but rather because they are pursuing some other misguided good due to our fallen natures. The sinner’s disordered loves lead him or her to sin. For example, a child lying about a bad grade does not lie for the sake of lying, but for his own safety or comfort, attempting to avoid his parents’ anger and disappointment.
God is the highest good, but we pursue lower goods. This isn’t bad, per se, because these can be goods that direct us to Him. For example, He has created safety, beauty, goodness, happiness, and other goods through His goodness. But when we pursue these instead of Him, or we pursue these goods in inappropriate or disordered ways, we become misguided and commit sin.
Feeling truly contrite can, unfortunately, lead to embarrassment and shame, but this is not what God has intended for us.
Many faithful experience a reluctance to confess sins with a priest, especially one they know. According to Whitehead, RCIA candidates are most often afraid of judgment from their priest when they attend their first confession.
They worry that the priest will know who they are, remember their sins, and “never look at [them] the same way again,” Whitehead said.
Fr. Nguyen, when asked what he’s thinking about while hearing confessions, said that he’s not judging, just listening: “First and foremost, I’m actively listening to their confession because they deserve and want someone to hear out their struggles.”
Although our priests aren’t judging us for what we confess, we still may struggle with reluctance and shame. When we think about how perfect God is and then look at how imperfect we are, the gravity of our sins can make it seem impossible for any sort of restitution to take place.
But the faith in Christ developed through the trust in His unconditional acceptance and love is radical. We can rely on a God who loves us. We will likely sin again, be it in small or large matters. But, if we are repentant, we will be forgiven. We do not have to resign ourselves to our sins.
It takes courage to confess our sins to a priest, Fr. Gigliotti said. “It’s a moment of blatant honesty.” One must “look at it as a moment of sincere honesty and humility.”
Fr. Nguyen addressed another common fear: will the priest tell other people about my sins?
“What you confess in the confessional will not be revealed to anyone, even if that means me going to jail,” Fr. Nguyen said.
“So have that confidence in coming in to share your utmost struggles, your utmost challenges, and know that when you leave, you’re receiving the grace needed to help you in that journey, and there’s nothing that will hinder you from that love and that mercy,” Fr. Nguyen continued.
How often should we attend Confession?
Technically, the Church requires that we attend Confession once a year, but this is a bare minimum.
“As we inevitably fall into sin after our Baptism, we need a means of supernatural grace to make us right with the Lord again,” Whitehead said.
We sin much more frequently than once a year; therefore, the Church encourages us to go to Confession as often as we need to apologize to God for our transgressions.
According to the Catechism, “without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church. Indeed, the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ, and progress in the life of the Holy Spirit” (CCC 1458).
“People are always seeking mercy and forgiveness, but they don’t often enough go to the means of mercy and forgiveness that Christ has given them,” Whitehead explained. “If people want mercy and forgiveness, it’s not far away. It’s at every parish, every week.”
He continued, “For you to completely bare your soul, reveal all the skeletons in your closet, all your deepest, darkest secrets, and for another man to look at you and without judgment, without condemnation, to declare you free from sin, to declare you forgiven, to be that voice of Christ’s love and mercy in your life. There’s not a better feeling in the world.”