When I was a Catholic kid growing up, like most Catholic kids I’ve ever known, I hated going to confession. I hated the sinking feeling in my stomach as I stood in line, palms sweating and heart speeding up as each penitent in line ahead of me disappeared behind the door with the red light overhead. I hated coming up with a list of things I was ashamed of and having to whisper them aloud to another human being, and I hated most of all knowing that Fr. Bob could probably tell just by my voice exactly who I was.
In short, I had a very human (and very typical) understanding of confession. That it was a painful, inescapable, and necessary (but why?) part of being Catholic, and I just had to soldier through it.
I think a lot of people stay in that place of understanding their whole lives. I think that’s why in a recently-released CARA study, data indicated that only around 2% of actively practicing Catholics go to confession at least once a month.
(An aside: the Church only requires us by canon law to confess our grave sins at least once a year. But, like dental hygiene and aerobic exercise, this is definitely one of those “more is more” situations).
When I was a senior in college, freshly transferred to Franciscan University of Steubenville, one of the most striking realizations I had during my first few weeks on campus was how into the sacrament of reconciliation everyone was. Daily Mass was one thing, but to see lines of college students 30, 40, 50 deep, wrapping around the back of the church not only on Saturday afternoons but during every single Mass on campus, seven days a week…that was something else. What was the deal with these kids? Were they struggling that intensely with some habitual sin that merited returning over and over and over again for fresh absolution and more grace?
As it turns out, yes.
But also, no.
Yes, they were in need of more grace, of more frequent absolution, and of greater accountability from their spiritual directors and priests. But it was precisely because they were growing in holiness that the hunger – and the need – for this beautiful sacrament of healing was that much more acute.
To borrow an analogy from the sporting world, as Michael Phelps or Philip Rivers or any other pro athlete increases in ability and performance, so too does awareness of the need arise to log more hours in the pool, to spend more hours watching film.
As God increases His activity in a soul, the sensitivity level rises, so to speak. St. John Paul II made a habit of weekly confessions during his papacy. I remember reading that sometime in my twenties and being like, um, what? WHAT? What could he possibly be getting into that necessitated 4 trips a month while I was getting by with Advent and Lent?
Holiness, it turns out.
Intimacy with the Father, bred through familiarity and a desire to conform oneself more and more closely to the heart of Jesus.
As I began to study about the sacraments on an intellectual level during my classes, (thanks, Dr. Hahn) the reality of the gift I was in possession of by nature of my baptism began to unveil itself to me on a heart level. I found myself wanting to go to Mass more than only on Sundays, not because I had to, but because I felt drawn to the Eucharist by familiarizing myself more and more with Jesus’ presence there. I was attracted to late-night Holy Hours and trips to the Port, not out of guilt or shame but because I was falling in love.
And while I’m no longer in a state of life where I can keep a weekly 2 am Eucharistic rendezvous in a shady adoration chapel downtown (Holla at me St. Pete’s) I can still avail myself frequently of the powerful, healing Sacrament of Reconciliation just by hopping in line on any given Sunday at my parish. (5 priests on staff and confessions before and after every Mass, 7 days a week. I know – we’re insanely fortunate.)
I’ve come to understand that confession is actually less about what I’m doing wrong and more about what God wants to make right in my heart. That bringing my sins into the light of His mercy and refusing to hide behind my own pride – masked as shame, but pride nonetheless – is the bravest thing I can do.
And oh, yeah, while it’s not for everyone, I stopped worrying about whether Father was going to figure me out from behind the screen and started plopping down in the chair right across from him. Half the time I have a squirming baby or toddler on hand, anyway, so what’s the point of keeping up the pretense? He’s heard it all, I’ve confessed the same sins so many times as to be, frankly, bored by them myself, and it’s a good dose of humility for me, to boot. Face-to-face might not be everybody’s jam, but it’s definitely my cup of tea now.
Father isn’t there to judge my heart or my actions on a human level, anyway. In the same way his hands elevate the consecrated host during the Eucharistic prayer, becoming the hands of alter Christus “another Christ,” he embodies the priestly person of Jesus once again in the sacrament of reconciliation.
It’s not magic, but it is mystical. And it’s just another part of our faith that defies explanation. Confess your sins to a priest? How absurd.
Yep, kinda like resurrecting from the dead. A virgin birth. Tongues of fire descending from heaven. Seas parting. Dead men sitting up and hopping out of bed.
Turns out there are plenty of things to choose from if we’re going to chat aspects of Christianity that beggar belief. We moderns just have some we more readily assent to than others.
A final thought and some practical notes on confession: sometimes it doesn’t feel good. Sometimes it feels really mechanized and routine and not at all mystical or transformative. Most of the time, I’d say. It feels about like it feels to fulfill your Sunday obligation and make it through Mass with a writhing lap-octopus whining a sustained C-minor into your ear for 60 minutes straight.
And that’s okay. I’m sure Michael Phelps has plenty of bad workouts and disappointing races. They, too, are necessary components of a larger training program and necessary building blocks in the larger puzzle of his elite-level success, same as the gold medals.
We should do hard things, even if they don’t feel good. We should humble ourselves before the Lord, allowing Him to show us mercy even when we least merit it, and take the chance of being surprised by joy when we least expect it.
I find it helpful to jot down some habitual sins or present struggles in my daily planner/journal/scraps of Target receipts I find in my purse. There’s no shame in bringing a list to the grocery store or into the confessional. And if you think it feels good to cross “cleaning toilets” off your to-do list, imagine how good it feels to drill a fat, black line through “gossiped about mom” or “swore angrily 4 times at that jackrabbit who cut me off on the freeway”.
Real good, I’m telling you.
Let’s make it to confession twice before the year is out. It’s late September, but that seems a reasonable target to hit in the next 14 weeks or so.
Sometimes it’s what God wants to do for us that matters far more than what we are asking for ourselves.
St. Padre Pio, St. John Paul II, St. Faustina, St. John Vianney, and all you other saints who made frequent recourse to the great Sacrament of Healing, pray for us!
*Updated to add: Dear Fathers, pastors of souls, if you are reading this, please accept my deepest gratitude for your sacramental ministry. Thank you for bringing us Jesus. I have heard stories of many of you who sit week after week in an empty confessional on Saturday with nary a penitent in sight. I have also heard from countless parishioners the world over how logistically difficult it is to get to confession, how little they’ve heard it preached about, how inaccessible their current parish model is. Would you consider in your insanely busy, sacrificial schedules, carving out an additional hour or two a week, perhaps on a Wednesday or Thursday night, and letting your flock know the light will be on? Would you consider sloughing off some lesser but organizationally pressing need to an admin or business manager, in order to make this logistically feasible for *you*?
I know it’s a lot to ask and our priests are so busy, but we need the graces of this sacrament so desperately. And I’ve seen it happen in my own parish in real time: if you build it, they will come.
So, if I may be so bold as to implore you: pick a night, open the box, preach it on Sunday from the pulpit, and invoke St. John Vianney as your patron of this new effort towards the holiness of your parish and your parishioners.