Thursday, September 13, 2007

Practical benefits of confession

Last Thursday and today, the other two priests and I heard confessions for the schoolchildren; we do it every other month. It's not easy fitting into the schedule: it takes the three of us about six hours, over two weeks, to do it; longer if we arrange for a short penance service beforehand, which is helpful as a way to help the children learn to see this as (1) a communal experience as well as personal, (2) to situate this in the context of prayer, (3) to have an opportunity to give a homily with instruction on the sacrament and (4) to go through an examination of conscience.

Maybe someday we can do it every month, but as I say, it's not easy.

This is a pause in the day, after that, before a staff meeting in a few minutes.

Some thoughts on the sacrament of confession:

* It really matters that you specify your sins...aloud. Sometimes this feels awkward, and believe me, as a priest, I don't want to go digging. Many people are awfully general.

Here's the thing: every sacrament has "matter" and "form." The "matter" of the sacrament is an essential part of what is used, what is transformed, so that you receive God's grace. In baptism, water is the matter; in the Eucharist, bread and wine. See a pattern?

Now, do you realize what the "matter" of this sacrament is? It is the sins you confess!

God's purpose, it seems to me, is to take what is worthless to us, and even harmful, and transform it into something awesome. This is part of what's amazing about this sacrament. Every other sacrament, we bring something wholesome and good to be made better. But here, we bring something truly awful and ugly--and yet he is eager to take it all the same.

Also, our specificity is how we "connect" with God in allowing specific healing. We can either say, "I need healing (generally)" -- okay, and maybe you'll get it...generally. But how much more we need specific healing--and this is how we unlock the door for that. The act of specifying our sins is also an act of acknowledgment and consent regarding these specific areas.

The analogy I often use is with a doctor: you may be embarrassed to mention a specific ailment, but if so, you can hardly expect the doctor to do much with, "I don't feel good." When you uncover and say, "this is my wound," that opens new opportunities.

A final thought on this. Someone else made the point that frequent confession means there is never anything in our lives, that is sinful and dark, that we haven't confronted and dealt with--no rocks we haven't turned over; no dark recesses we are afraid to face. Sometimes someone will come to confession, and remember something from the past, and it will be a real burden. When we frankly confess, and do it frequently, there's nothing lurking to bother us, down the road.

* It's hard to improve on the "short and sweet" approach. A lot of folks dwell on their feelings in confession, or they talk about the context: "I did ___ because..." Now, to some extent, of course, circumstances change the nature of the sin. "I missed Sunday Mass because I had no way to get there."

But I'm talking about the tendency to move, rather quickly, from confessing ones own sins, to confessing the sins of others. "It was because of how rotten she was to me."

There is a real temptation to lapse into self-justification: "I wasn't that bad," or "I better than usual." Again, to some degree, it is good to arrive at a point where you can see yourself with some clarity, both for good and bad. God wants us to acknowledge our sins, but he also wants to know when things are getting better, too. But there is a fine line somewhere here, where we cross over into a place where we're looking at our merits, rather than giving thanks for what God has done for us.

My point is, one can avoid all this by keeping to a concrete, straightforward agenda. This is the wisdom of the "old fashioned" way of doing this:

"Bless me + Father for I have sinned. It has been ___ (how long?) since my last confession. These are my sins..." Then confess your sins specifically, by kind and number, with only enough detail to clarify what the sin is. End with, "for these all my sins, including all those I cannot now remember, I am truly sorry." Answer any questions simply, hear whatever counsel may be provided, accept your penance (This means you have a choice; if you can't do that penance, if it's something you can't easily do, simply say so. The priest should know to offer something else. If not, you can have another priest "commute" your penance to something else.), offer your act of contrition, then listen and receive the absolution the priest gives in the person of Christ, through the prayer of absolution.

It's not that you aren't welcome to be friendly and exchange pleasantries with the priest. That's fine, and since it often helps deal with tension or fear, that's good. This need not be grim or frightening. But at the same time, if too much is "added into" the celebration of the sacrament, the structure and meaning of the sacrament can be obscured. We can derail ourselves from our central purpose--which, if you realize it later, may be unsettling.

Finally, knowing the basic form of the sacrament, and being thoroughly familiar with it, gets rid of one of the reasons people avoid the sacrament: "I don't know how to do it." Going to confession can be a tense experience, and not knowing what to do doesn't make it any better. So often, it's how we start something that is stressful; once we're underway, it's easier. At the pool--how do I get in? Behind the wheel, learning to drive; a new priest, how do I start Mass?

This is the genius of Catholic spirituality, with our oft-criticized "rote prayers." Lots of times in life, we lack the energy or wherewithal to summon up prayers "off the cuff." In times of crisis, that's the last thing we may want to do. That's when the prayers and rituals we repeated so often come into play, and we know how to pray. The prayers, in a sense, "pray for us," and we are carried along. Let me tell you, when people are lying in a hospital bed, barely able to move, these prayers are a great comfort. And they help us know what to do, when otherwise we would be lost at sea.


Anonymous said...

I've never seen clearer or better statements made about confession than these, Father.

Your writing is wonderful because of your gift of practical analogy.

Refreshingly, there is no clutter of excess verbage in your statements.

I see you writing a series of booklets published by, say, St. Anthony Messenger Press, and purchased by parishes throughout the country for RCIA, Lenten, Advent, sacramental prep, pre-Cana, etc.

In a way that few Catholic writers seem capable of today, you get right to the point without alot of pontificating and redundancy, using rhetoric that readers identify with instantly.


Kasia said...

I wish you'd posted this about six months ago, Father. It would've made my first confession a LOT easier. But - better late than never! ;-)

Anonymous said...

Father, I assume that this is format/wording that you taught the young people to use for confession -- aka reconciliation? Did you have anonymous or face-to-face confession -- or both? I sometimes think that the face-to-face format leads to some of the problems that you mention in your post.

Anyway, I definitely agree with the first two comments. This is really helpful. Thank you.

Father Martin Fox said...


Yes, the formula I presented is what we teach all the children, which I try to reinforce as I can.

We always provide the option of anonymous and face-to-face, both in the confessionals, as well as when we set up chairs. It's really simple: turn the priest to face away from the people, and put a chair behind him (as well as in front of him).

Thom said...

This has to be the best explanation and talk about Confession that I have ever heard. I'm printing it.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

This is great Father! A couple of questions...

I was taught that for venial sins, the number was not necessary; that terms like occasionally or frequently were all right. Is this the case?

Is it necessary to try to remember and confess ALL venial sins, or should one concentrate on those that seem to be the most troubling or frequent?

Too general vs. too specific--this always throws me. Is "lost my temper" too general; is "threw the remote at my wife" too specific?

If a priest hears confession in street clothes, without a stole, does this in any way invalidate the sacrament? This happens frequently, and I find myself uncomfortable because of the informality.

Thanks for your most informative blog!

Anonymous said...

My son [then 18] went to confession and told only venial sins. The priest told him that it wasn't necessary for him to go to confession. My son told that priest that he wished to make a devotional confession and receive an increase of grace. The priest didn't seem to know what my son was talking about!

Father Martin Fox said...


It is very good to confess venial sins, but since it is in no way "necessary," then no obligations attach to it. Meaning, you don't have to worry about number, nor if you forget.

Venial sins are absolved in many ways, particularly with a good communion; the reason to confess them is not out of "necessity," but to open one more door of cooperation in our lives with the action of God's grace.

The specificity needed is such that it makes clear the nature of the sin. I would say that specifying words or actions, and whether or how they involve someone else, is the best I can offer about "I lost my temper."

My point was aimed at those who tell stories.

The attire of a priest is immaterial to the validity of all sacraments he may administer. In the case of penance, the circumstances would dictate whether the priest was dressed inappropriately--i.e., I don't always have a stole when I hear confessions, if someone catches me out and about.

meinsouth said...

That sounds great Fr. We will pass it on to our kids (we THINK they already do this) But what do you do when the priest asks questions like "why did you hit your mother" and you answer and they want to have a "conversation" with you? Or they go on and say something like.."Oh yes I know so and so and that person is a real bear....."?
Because I have had SOME that want to have a conversation with me, and I didn't come for that. What should we say during those times?

Anonymous said...

I never knew that the matter of the sacrament of confession is the sins you confess; that's food for thought...

You're right that not knowing how is a big barrier to going to confession. I was really stymied about my first confession because we didn't have any kind of rehearsal. It's not that I didn't have many little booklets and web pages explaining confession, but if the priest had brought us into an actual confessional and said, "Okay, here's where you kneel, or you can sit here, and this is what I'll say..." that would've been more helpful than any other kind of instruction. I learned it all eventually, though. :)

Father said...

Fr. Fox,

Regarding regular confession for schoolchildren, would you consider the following suggestion?

The practice (which I happily inherited) at my parish is that on Friday morning, after the school Mass, the class which was responsible for that Mass (Servers, Readers, petittions, etc.) goes to confession. As it happens, our students get into the habit of regular confession because they are given the opportunity every 5-6 weeks. Granted, our school is small (160 in K-8), and it usually requires 1-1.5 hours to hear the Friday morning confessions, but it is well worth it from the standpoint of communicating the benefits/ necessity of regular confession!

Ben D. said...

The book "Pardon and Peace" by Fr. Alfred Wilson, originally published by Doubleday Image and recently reprinted by Roman Catholic Books, is an excellent practical treatise on Confession.

Father Fox's post reminded me of the book, which I discovered fairly recently; I was shocked to discover how ignorant I was of the practical basics of the sacrament. I would guess that quite a lot of unnecessary anxiety about confession stems from simple ignorance, and I can't recommend the book enough.

Please, Father, preach on confession in the same way that you posted here -- so many of us know so little about it and are consequently missing out on much of what we stand to gain from using the sacrament properly.

Mary V. Ward, Ph.D. said...

I do not have a web page.

But I am curious?

Why do you teach the children an old form that has been updated in the Revised Rite for Individual Penance put out from Rome after Vatican II. ICEL and USCCB have copyrights on it. The text can be found in a book called The Rites, published by Pueblo. No doubt the text can be found elsewhere. The Revised Rite suggests acts of contrition in modern simple language as well as acts taken from the psalms.

When I asked a question about 30 days ago on EWTN Q&A to Dr. Geraghty (whose mail box happened to be open), one of the subsequent readers cited your blog.


Anonymous said...