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An expert answers 6 common reasons for not going to confession

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“If I can speak to God directly, why should I tell my sins to a human man? I haven’t killed anyone; I don’t need confession. I always confess the same sins.”

A priest and canon lawyer of the Vatican recently responded to these and other questions in a speech on “(Good) Reasons for Not Going to Confession.”

Monsignor Krzysztof Nykiel is regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary, the office of the Roman Curia responsible for issues related to the sacrament known as penance, reconciliation, or confession.

He addressed 10 common objections during an Oct. 13–14 conference on “celebrating the sacrament of confession today,” organized by the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary in Rome and streamed online.

Here are six of Nykiel’s answers to common reasons people give for not going to confession:

1. I don’t go to confession because I can speak with God directly.

Prayer, or dialogue with God, is good, Nykiel said. It is good to do a frequent examination of conscience and even to ask God for forgiveness for our sins in our personal prayer.

“And certainly,” he explained, “it is not impossible to obtain pardon even just ‘speaking directly with God’ in prayer, but we cannot ever be certain of it.”

“And it is exactly in this ‘certainty’ [that] lies the fundamental difference between the requested and rightly hoped-for forgiveness in the humble prayer to God and the forgiveness obtained in the celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation,” he continued.

“The penitent who humbly confesses his sins and obtains absolution for them from the priest is morally sure, for certainty of faith, that his sins are forgiven and will not be imputed to him on the day of judgment,” he said. “The difference between a well-founded hope and a certainty, it seems to me, is worth all the effort of confession.”

2. I don’t go to confession because the priest could be a worse sinner than me.

Nykiel said it is true that priests, who are not God, nor the Immaculate Conception, could find themselves in graver sin than the penitent.

He reassured anyone concerned, however, that even though priests are sinners too, “the moral condition of the priest at the time of sacramental absolution is completely irrelevant to the validity of the absolution.”

“Giving up confession because of uncertainty about the confessor’s moral condition would be like giving up medical treatment because of uncertainty about the doctor’s health condition,” he said.

3. I don't go to confession because I always say the same things.

The priest said it is tempting to respond to this objection by joking that it is a “good thing they are always the same; it means there are no new sins!”

“But joking aside, repeated frailty in the same sins is no reason to abandon confession; in fact, it is exactly the opposite,” he urged. “Only the humble surrender of oneself to God, imploring his mercy, makes it possible to fight and win against the vices that can bind and sometimes grip our souls.”

Nykiel recalled a line he attributed to St. Augustine: “If we defeated one vice a year, we would soon be saints.”

He also said St. John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, would affirm that “‘God always forgives us, even if he knows that we will sin again.’ So ‘always committing the same sins’ is not a reason to not go to confession, but on the contrary, [it is a reason] to resort to the sacrament more frequently and faithfully.”

4. I don’t go to confession because I’m basically a good person who hasn’t stolen anything or killed anyone.

Nykiel warned people to be vigilant, because having not committed some very serious sins is a gift of grace that can risk becoming “a reason for pride in believing oneself righteous before others or, much worse, God. No one can be righteous before God.”

“The sense of one’s sin and unworthiness before God is always directly proportional to one’s proximity to him,” he explained. “The great saints have always claimed to feel like great sinners. If we do not feel like sinners, we are probably not yet saints.”

He used another analogy, comparing God to the light and heat of the sun: “The closer we get to the ‘sun of God,’ the more intensely we feel the burning fire of our sin and deeply desire to be freed from it. If we do not feel this burning desire, we are probably still far from the sun of Christ.”

The canon lawyer further noted that the Church requires Catholics to go to confession at least once per year and to receive Holy Communion at least during the Easter season. So, he pointed out, if someone has voluntarily gone longer than one year without going to confession, he or she is at fault for this reason.

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Is the excuse of not having committed certain grave sins, he added, “not an attempt at self-justification, at self-reproach that ends up dispensing with the salvation offered by Christ? Does not a fear of the reality of self hide behind those masks of respectability?”

“And finally, are we sure that the only way to ‘kill’ is to deprive [someone of] physical life? Or do we kill with words, indifference, and in so many other ways? Let us think about it!”

5. I don’t go to confession because the last time I went it didn’t go well.

The priest also addressed what to think about when a person’s most recent confession left a bad taste in their mouth — whether because the priest was not particularly attentive or available, or because he was either too tough or too lax.

“First, we should ask ourselves: what do we expect from the sacrament of reconciliation?” he said. “If our expectation is disproportionate, or misplaced, or misdirected, we risk being disappointed.”

“Confession,” he said, “does not resolve our guilt, which is psychological and natural, nor does it solve all our personal and spiritual problems. Sacramental absolution destroys the sense of sin, which is theological and supernatural.”

He recommended, when faced with an inadequate confessor, that someone go to confession with a different priest.

6. I don’t go to confession because the confessional makes me claustrophobic.

If someone has a genuine problem with claustrophobia, Nykiel said, the rule about using a confessional to preserve the anonymity of the penitent can be exempted with.

But he also warned about the tendency to make trivial excuses for avoiding confession, such as: “I don’t have time, I didn’t remember, the schedule is not convenient, etc.”

“Because the evil one tempts through trivialities,” he said, adding that the devil does not always attack from the “front,” sowing doubt in God’s mercy or the power of the sacrament, “but progressively turning away from its celebration with seemingly harmless trivialities, which, however, over time, end up undermining both the regular practice of confession and — God forbid — faith itself.”

“Divine mercy always awaits us; let us not run away from it like naughty children, devising excuses that no one would believe and, in the end, neither would we,” he urged.

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