One for the Catholics: Talk To Me About Confession

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Passiontide - Penance

Passiontide – Penance (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

I have a question for you today, my Catholic readers. What is your experience of the sacrament of Reconciliation?

See, I have this vision of the sacrament, in which it can be so much more than it generally turns out to be. In my vision, it’s a back and forth, a conversation that takes the confessor’s training and wisdom and meshes with my questions and insights (such as they are) in order to guide my journey forward with a penance that helps to direct that journey.

In reality, Confession is usually awkward and perfunctory. I rattle off a list and am given a penance that involves a couple of Hail Mary’s or a prayer that requires basically no sacrifice at all, and thus seems inadequate for helping me overcome the habitual sins I keep bringing to the confessional.

As I write, I realize how much what I’m actually looking for is spiritual direction and not the sacrament of Reconciliation at all. I also know the grace of the sacrament is not dependent upon the level of my emotional fulfillment.

Still, I’m curious: am I the only one who wants more out of Reconciliation than I ever feel like I get? Is my problem with Reconciliation my own fault? Is it perfunctory because something about my approach makes it that way? Is there another way to present your sins than rattling off a list? Those of you who have a regular confessor, how did you begin and develop that relationship, and how does it work?

The floor’s open.

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21 thoughts on “One for the Catholics: Talk To Me About Confession

  1. Kelley

    Well here’s my take:
    1. Grace to not commit the sin again is the most important part. This is made available through the sacrament no matter how you feel (as you mentioned above).
    2. Maybe you need to take action to find a different confessor. We talked about how you go to the same priest nearly every time. So if you are not satisfied with this, then maybe you need to try confessions around town, with different priests. Or even in neighboring towns. I know that seems like a lot of work, but I bet that if you took the time to do that you would find someone whose style is more of what you are looking for. If you’re feeling like it’s bothering you, then take it as a whisper from the Holy Spirit and go looking for something that will meet your needs.

  2. I find that the quality of the confession depends on the priest you encounter on the other side of the confessional. I jokingly refer to one of our confessionals as the “fast track” confessional. If I’m in a hurry, I use that one, because the priest doesn’t discuss anything. He just issues the penance and you’re on your way. Other priests want to discuss things in much more detail, and I sometimes need this. I usually know I’ve screwed up and how, so I don’t always use these priests, although they are a great resource when I feel I need to talk things through. However, I agree with you that I feel a great yearning for a spiritual director, and I haven’t a real clue as to how to get one.

    • Colleen

      I am a spiritual director. People often find me through my directees or my pastor. Ask around to find out who has a spiritual director and do they feel the director has helped them and how do they do direction, etc. Then make an appt and try it. If you dont think that is the person for you, keep trying and praying! The Holy Spirit will lead you to who you need, in His own time of course!

  3. Penance, like Baptism, is a beginning. Just as some parents are better at parenting than others, some confessors are better at spiritual direction than others. God bless!

  4. Carrie

    That is something that I have struggled with as well. Growing up half Protestant, I never really understood why people went to Reconciliation (especially after their parents stopped making them go). My Grandmother who is Protestant once told me that she kind of wished her church had something like that because being told face to face that you’re forgiven is very powerful.

  5. lamehousewife

    From what I can tell, you are hoping to advance in the spiritual life. That is awesome!

    I would lead you to a couple of books since not very many priests have the gift of counsel even though all of them have the power of absolution because of the power of Jesus Christ. I say this after having been to a few very bad confessions where the priests gave me counsel that was not Catholic and actually harmful to the spiritual life.

    From St. Teresa of Avila, I learned that every confession is valid if done honestly by you, but she also struggled with worldly priests, so she counseled her sisters to confess quickly, be absolved, but listen little to the worldly priests. She herself was in her 40’s or 50’s before she found a spiritual guide who could actually help her with her particular troubles, and that after several years of having the Sacrament.

    As for counsel to grow in the spiritual life with many ideas on how to improve, I would say that St. Francis de Sales in An Introduction to the Devout Life is the most impressive and helpful spiritual guide I have found. He wrote this book in particular for lay persons, so many of his essays tackle lay issues.

    I would also suggest, of course, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Joseph Paul Koziowski’s Spiritual Direction and Spiritual Directors. Joseph just takes quotes directly from Saints’ writing on specific topics, so the advice is very helpful.

    Spiritual guides are hard to find these days, so I hope the best for you in your endeavor to find a good one. Many so called guides have fallen into error and mislead people, resulting either in indifference or hatred of the Church or the Saints or people (the ones in error usually charge a fee–a red flag), but rest assured, the Saints have eternally useful advice that will lead you closer to Jesus, which is what I feel you desire.

    God bless…

  6. Terri

    I find that, rather than coming up with a list of sins, it’s better if I talk about my own characteristics that lead me to sin. e.g. “I tend to be self-centered, especially when I feel pressure to complete something. So last week, that led me to . I’m working on trying to balance my schedule of what I think needs to be done with looking out for others.” That at least opens up the conversation to habits and traits instead of just a list of shortcomings.

    On the whole, though, what I think you’re looking for is spiritual direction, and I think it’s a mistake to expect spiritual direction when you haven’t arranged ahead of time for both of you to make time and be prepared for it. It’s really not fair to surprise the priest with different expectations than what he’s there for.

    And although some people prefer confession withing spiritual direction, that does eliminate a whole lot of people who might be great for your direction, but are not priests.

  7. I’m one who doesn’t go as often as she should for a lot of reasons, most of which are just excuses and I know it. However, one is that I rarely feel I “get” anything for the effort. I wrote about it here: http://rannthisthat.blogspot.com/2009/02/bless-me-father-for-i-have-sinned.html

    If I’ve done something that horrifies me when I think about it, then I’m off to confession; otherwise, not so much so. Repeating the same garbage time and again gets old and can seem so pointless. The last time I went to confession to my pastor he gave no counsel at all, just absolved me and gave me a couple of prayers to say–not an exercise I’m eager to repeat unless I “have” to.

  8. About 4 years ago, I was where you are now. I would go to regular, once a month confession with a good priest who was (is) easy to talk to, but something was missing. I felt I needed more spiritual direction than this good priest could give me. I started praying for a spiritual director and for my spiritual director (even though I didn’t know who he was). With regular prayer, a certain name kept coming into my head but this priest was hard to track down. Eventually, and after persevering prayer, I finally contacted him. He has been my spiritual director and regular confessor for 3 and a half years and has really helped in my spiritual growth and deeper confession. Perhaps you need to pray for a regular confessor/spiritual director too.

  9. Terrie

    Kate, you can make an appointment with a priest for the sacrament instead of just going during open confession time. This allows for more time for what you want. You can also negotiate your penance. If a priest gives you something that you don’t feel is enough, tell him that. He will give you something different. Lately, I’ve noticed that they ask if what they suggest is something that I could do.
    Spiritual direction is also fantastic. Sr. Karen at Newman is great.
    The idea above about getting to the reason behind why you do a sin is what I find most helpful. God will take and multiply your efforts!

  10. After reading these comments, I realize just how lucky I am.

    I first found my confessor because he was the only priest in the area to have Saturday morning confessions, which were far more convenient than the “before the vigil mass” times.

    This priest is one of those who DOES have the gift of counsel. He is good at getting to the root of what is causing me to sin. Sometimes he brushes away sins that I think are a big deal and focuses on issues that I don’t think much of at first, but are the signs of serious spiritual problems. Confession usually involves a significant conversation. Sometimes I feel bad about tying up the line, but I get so much out of it.

    I am never disheartened by his suggestions, but always challenged. His approach is to lead me to discover Church teaching for myself more than to just give me a set of rules.

    Shortly after I found him, I moved away to a different state. Four months later, he was reassigned to my new parish!

  11. I had an awesome spiritual director. I went to him for confession, too, but not at the same time. He preferred to do it at a separate time and was gifted at both.
    It is great going to reconciliation with someone who knows you and you don’t have to explain yourself!
    Terrie had a great suggestion – making an appointment with a priest for confession. You will have more time and not feel rushed.

    • I’ve thought about that. More often I just catch them as they’re going by, which, of course, is not likely to be conducive to an in-depth encounter, either! I have always hesitated at the idea of scheduling because, having worked in the parish office, I know how busy they already are, and I hate to get in the way for my very non-mortal sins. šŸ™‚ I need to get over that.

  12. Tamara

    Nope, you’re not wrong. Perfunctory, Painful, Paltry. One of the several reasons I turned my back on it and in doing so, discovered there are other spiritual paths too that lead to the top of the mountain. I feel more at peace now with the new path I chose.

  13. Moonshadow

    The priest totally sets the tone or air of this private sacrament. So ask him why it can’t be a less rote experience. (I need to follow my own advice!)

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