Thursday, May 11, 2006

Don't sweat confession

Pontificator has a great quote by Cardinal John Henry Newman to spur a discussion on confession, which I hope you will be part of if you care to (by clicking on the headline, above).

I will say this: as in all matters, sometimes people fall into extremes.

At one extreme are those who are painfully scrupulous and all I can say is my heart goes out to them. It takes more wisdom and experience as a priest to know really how to lift the burden they carry, because sometimes, it seems nothing I as a priest say in the sacrament does any good, other than absolution. One of the basic problems I perceive with scrupulosity is an inability to trust, or perhaps to submit to, Christ.

At the other extreme are those who are awfully general. The wisdom that underlies the practice of this sacrament is that our lives are lived in the concrete: it is in concrete, specific acts and choices that we pursue holiness or damnation, as we gradually become whoever we will be for eternity. Thus, we need to examine the specific choices of our lives, in order to discover the real direction of our lives -- either Godward or selfward.

Interacting in the sacrament with folks who confess rather generally is a delicate matter, because I am not entitled to assume they haven't made a good self-examination, and asking specific questions say, about the various commandments, is extremely delicate. I really don't want "to go fishing," nor do I want to imply any sort of accusation.

A third concern, not lying at the extremes, are those of whom I wonder, are they looking at the bigger picture?

There is, in moral theology, a school of thought called "the fundamental option" which, while having a problematic aspect, nonetheless has a good insight: that we tend to have a fundamental orientation of our lives, that is shaped, statue-like, by particular choices over time. (The problematic area of "fundamental option" theory is exactly how to understand the moral significance of individual actions.)

I frequently invite a penitent to ask the question, what is the larger direction of my life? What resolution might God be calling me to?

Sometimes, my counsel to a penitent is along these lines: "It may be that the Lord has moved you toward some resolution; perhaps its half-formed in your heart right now. I don't need to know anything about that, but I would strongly encourage you to take advantage of this moment of conversion, and ask the Lord what he may have in mind" and I send them to spend some time before the Blessed Sacrament--and perhaps ask him for the courage to commit to that resolution, if they feel so inspired.

I also like to invite people to reflect on the wonderful fact that they are in confession, particularly when they seem downcast: "the very fact you are here at this moment is absolutely certain proof that God loves you; for it was he who stirred up in you any desire to come here; if 'circumstances' seem to have brought you here, know that God made that happen! And why would God bring you to this moment of grace unless he loved you?"

Many people have certain priests who they like as confessors; my own feeling is that, while I admit there are some priests who I'd rather not go to confession to--purely because of my own relationship with them--generally, any priest will do for me. If my own pride or any other reluctance is at work, I have no compunction about confessing anonymously (and neither should you, although there are times I wish I could see the person on the other side of the curtain--it would help me understand the person's situation better).

I sometimes wonder what folks think of the penances they accept from me. I try to match a penance to the situation shared; but too often, I receive no inspiration, and I resort to something rather standard. I have to remind myself: I'm a priest--Christ is present in my ministry, and I know that's true when I give absolution. That does not mean, however, that I have been given any special, supernatural gift of being a doctor of souls, as it seems some priests have been given. One point I make about the penance is that is not a "punishment" nor even a "payment," but rather more like an "offering" and even more, healing. One penance I often give--which draws a puzzled reaction--is to ask a married person, "can you do something romantic with your spouse?" I could be wrong, especially as I haven't been married, but I stand by that as a worthwhile penance: because what I'm intending is that the spouse I'm speaking to take the lead in some healing within that very important sacramental relationship of marriage.

Perhaps it seems frivolous to some, but taking your spouse out to dinner, treating him or her as king or queen for a day, bringing flowers home, sweeping your wife off her feet, or, simply, making love! are all very wholesome and, ultimately, if done with the right intention, holy acts. (I am tempted simply to say, "make love to your wife or husband," but I feel sure that would embarrass many, so I refrain, and hope my more general comment that "doing something romantic" could be anything, as long as its an act of love.)

This gives me occasion to remind you, dear reader, that when you go to confession, the priest does not, merely, assign a penance; the penitent must accept it. At least, so I was taught and so is my practice. After suggesting a penance, I ask: "can you do that?" and/or, "that's not too hard?" Sometimes, people will give a reason they can't do a penance (e.g., I might say, "can you apologize to that person?" and the penitent might reply, "I don't know that I'll see him again."), and I will change it.

As a confessor, I try to remind myself how delicate, how privileged, this moment is. I recall something a priest I know says often at penance services for high school children: pray for us priests that we won't get in the way of Jesus. There are times I wonder if I should say anything at all, and there are times I merely suggest a penance and give absolution.

Finally, I know some folks wonder what the priest will think of them, and this holds them back. In addition to reminding such folks that, first, they can approach any priest, and second, they can confess anonymously, I would say this: all the parishioners I deal with, outside the confessional give me more than enough opportunities to "think about them" (i.e., think about their foibles or sins) if that's what I want to do--which I don't! When I get a quiet moment, the very last thing I want to do is think, "My goodness, I can't believe Joe does such-and-such!"

As C.S. Lewis pointed out in his brilliant Screwtape Letters, sin is boring.


Fred said...

he wisdom that underlies the practice of this sacrament is that our lives are lived in the concrete: it is in concrete, specific acts and choices that we pursue holiness or damnation
beautifully put! My pastor usually recommends that I pray my penace as a request for a specific virtue that will work against sin in my life. For example, he may assign the penance of praying an Our Father and a Hail Mary for patience. These penances give me an immediate opportunity in a concrete act to seek holiness.

Here's my favorite talk on Confession. It describes the sacraments as concrete gestures that God provides so we can find Him. This is a great line: "Only the power of God can recreate you, but He needs a point, just one point of truth in you. God cannot build on a lie, and this infinitesimal point of truth in you lies in the sincerity of your entreaty, and that’s all."

Anonymous said...

Thank you for an excellent insight into confession. It is not an easy thing for me to do as I had several awful experiences as a child and have not gone in years. I know I should go, but those childhood experiences have set up a block to going. I pray every day for the strength to go, but as yet, I have not been moved.

Darwin said...

Your advice makes me realize, again, that I'm not very good at confession...

I remember, as a kid, keeping exact mental tally: I fought with my brother 12 times, I disobeyed my parents 3 times, I broke the rules at school 56 times, etc.
I'd keep tally and even (I must admit) think "If I talk in class, will that get my school rule breaking tally too high or can I afford it?" All leading up to knowing exactly where I was for the family trip to confession every two to three weeks.

One time when I was nine or ten the priest kind of sighed at me and said: "You know, the important thing is not know exactly how many times you've done these things, but trying to ammend your life and not do them so much."

Anyway, I was mortified and switched over to the "I hit my brother a few times, disobeyed my parents a couple times and broke school rules a lot" approach which I've kept to ever since. (Except somewhere before finishing with school I decided that school rules were not morally binding in and of themselves...)

These days, I mostly feel that I'm a boring and frustrating penitant -- for the simple reason most of my bad habbits seem unlikely to go away. I suppose the sacramental graces make me less likely to lose my temper and shout at the monkeys when they're being wild -- but it's hard to feel the difference.

Mari said...

Excellent post. I also liked your pov revealed in the 2nd to last paragraph.

Deacon David Oatney said...

I always think my penances are too lightwight. last time I went to confession, Father Brent said (after I confessed to some stuff I thought was not good at all) "for your panance, say one Our Father."

I thought "geez-that's all!"

Flambeaux said...

Regarding scrupulosity, may I recommend the work of Conrad Baars and his daughter Suzanne Baars?

As Catholics and therapists they've specialized in this area which I, an untutored layman who has merely suffered from scrupulosity off and on for some years, understand to be the confluence of a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder and religious sentiment. There are also elements of pride, which is why the old manuals recommend that the only cure for scrupulosity is for the penitent to entrust himself entirely to the judgement and guidance of the competent priest as both Confessor and Spiritual Director.

Apropos of the post in general, thank you for your insight. The reminder that the penance is neither "payment" nor "punishment" was greatly appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Great post. My problem is I can't think of any sins. I know I have them. I just have no idea what they are. It's been a real long time since I've been(31 yrs) and I want to go however I don't know what to say. It seems that the priests around here don't want to be bothered( and that can truly be my interpertation) and that they are so busy with other things. well hopefully some day i'll get up the nerve to go but everytime i think about it i get so nervous.

Ap said...

This gives me occasion to remind you, dear reader, that when you go to confession, the priest does not, merely, assign a penance; the penitent must accept it.

Beautiful insight. As a person who is scrupulous (much less than I used to be), this is very good. Sometimes a scrupulous person thinks that he is not contrite enough. To accept the penance means to accept it even if we think it is not "hard" enough. If we are given a penance which consists only of praying one Our Father, then we should embrace it. "The Devil does not fear austerity but holy obedience," says St. Francis de Sales. That includes obeying what the priests tell you; if he tells you it's not a sin, then it's not a sin, etc.

Thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

Good post.

Thank you.

I should mention my usual issue with confession.

I confess, then turn around and do it again, and again…. ad naseum.

Course, I probably need a bit more ego busting!

DP said...

The best advice I've heard a priest give on going to confession is this:

"Be bold. Be specific. Be gone."

Be bold enough to say it as it is, don't try and make up stories to explain the situation because that usually ends up in you trying to lessen the blame on yourself or pass the blame to someone else. Don't make excuses. Just boldly say it as it is.

Remember to be specific enough. Kind and number.

Be gone. Trust in the mercy of God. Go in peace and know that you are forgiven.

Fr Martin Fox said...

anonymous 1 said:

"I pray every day for the strength to go, but as yet, I have not been moved."

Well, I don't want to make light of your situation, particularly as I don't know you at all, but:

Sometimes you just need to kick yourself in the rear-end, if you get my meaning. I.e., just go!

Or, if you like, just commit to going to church during confession time...then, go stand in line (you can always look at your watch, pretend you forgot something, and you have to leave reluctantly...).

My point being, maybe you don't want to wait for God to make you go, or send you a gold-plated invitation.


I don't think you meant this, or took me this way, but lest there be any unintended confusion...

When I said sin is boring, I in no way want to suggest I find penitents boring.

Yes, occasionally someone needs a little help summing up; but generally, I am in awe of the event to which I am privy...

Dave: there are times I give someone an intentionally light penance, for various reasons.

Anonymous 2:

I would suggest you ask for an appointment with a priest, for the purpose of hearing your confession, and when making the appointment, explain to him you need help doing an examination of conscience; he may either suggest or provide something in advance. Or, he may say--as I sometimes do--"don't worry, I can walk you through it."

See, I would not presume to lead a penitent sin-by-sin, because I think that would be rather unpleasant, and perhaps seem accusatory. However, if someone asks, that changes everything.

You know, if you go to Dappled Things (see the link on my main page), somewhere there Father Jim Tucker has prepared a very good and concise examination of conscience. If I find it, and can get to it, I'll post it on my page, but that may be a day or two!

Anonymous said...

Fr Benedict Groschel said, in a Catholic Answers programme a few years ago, that scruplosity was a form of obsessive compulsive disorder and that there is medication which can help. He recommended going to a practising Catholic psychiatrist.

Anonymous said...

When I first became a Catholic, I found the light penances I kept getting something of a burden. I so wanted to climb a great, slippery cliff with all my armor tied on my back or something.

I've since realized that my sins aren't all that great, and acquiring the humility to accept an easy penance did me loads more good than a hair shirt.

DP said...

The thing is, if we get into the mindset of wanting our penance to be the atonement for our sins then we've missed the whole point of confession.

I'm speaking to myself just as much as anyone else since like many people I can leave the sacrament thinking to myself "What?! An Our Father and Hail Mary?! Did Father not hear what I said?!"

While we're on the topic of penance, I've also had some more creative penances before, such as been given a particular passage of Scripture to read and reflect upon which related to what I was struggling with or where I was at in my spiritual life. Of course, there's also the praying for those you've offended. During Lent once I was given "prayer, fasting, and almsgiving" (well, a little more specific, but falling into each of those categories). I thought that was appropriate.

Personally, I always appreciate a penance that relates more specifically to my particular weaknesses or struggles, even if it's as simple as "pray x Hail Mary's (or Our Fathers) for help with [fill in the blank]."

Gregaria said...

Very nice to hear the priest's point of view! Thank you!

Darwin said...

I get so used to "Say three Our Fathers" kind of penances that when once recently I went to a priest who turned out to really only speak Spanish and he assigned "Ten Our Fathers and Ten Hail Marys" I found myself wondering, "Wow. What exactly did he think I said I did?" :-)

Fr. Fox,

No, I didn't take you to think that sinners were boring. Though now I think about it, I think perhaps one of my problems is that I often go to confession thinking my own sins are boring -- as in thinking "Oh man, got to go confess these again" rather than seeing my sins as thorns pressing into Christ's head. I suppose after starting out on the scrupulous side (and, indeed, serious OCD runs in my family, though I am lucky enough not to be subject to it) to being too casual. I'll have to remember that.

K said...

Father, Thank you so much for your post. It gives much to see things from your perspective.

I do have a question for you, if you don't mind answering it here. I am currently reading "Introduction to the Devout Life" by St. Francis DeSales. He recommends that one does a General Confession. I do attend confession fairly regularly but still feel I should comply with his direction in this instance. Do you recommend this and if so, could you explain how one would do so? ie do I write down everything I can remember? do I make an "appointment" to do this? do I confess sins that I have already confessed or is that a sin? Thank you for any help you can offer.

Anonymous said...

When I was in HS I had a priest break the seal of confession.

It was bad. Very, very bad.

The worst part of it all was that he had misunderstood what I was talking about and totally jumped to the wrong conclusion. His actions pretty much destroyed my trust in priests and my relationship with my parents. Like I said, very bad.

So... after that experience I have a terribly hard time with confession.

It takes a great deal of effort for me to build up the courage to attempt to make a good confession... and then I usually fail.

I get a great deal out of the process of examination of conscience and I can actually go to church and even go into the confessional... but then I freeze - and I go for the overly general version of confession.

If a priest questions me at all I freak. I have actually bolted from the confessional (I am fairly certain he thought I was crazy)

I kind of wish I could find a priest to tell the story to and say.. 'ok, so I really don't trust you - but I really want to so here goes' and then give one solid detailed confession.

But then I figure that would be unfair to the priest to have to deal with the repurcusions of the actions of a different priest.

I know my sins are boring and I know that now there is no reason that a priest would tell anyone... but still, I have that distrust.

I figure that between my through personal examination of conscience and the awfully general confession... I should be covered. But I do really wish I could make a good confession.

Not that you care - but I just wanted to put out there that there might be very good reasons for people going the overly general route.

Fr Martin Fox said...


I didn't read all of St. Francis' book, so I guess the general confession part was in what I didn't read.

Far be it for me to disagree with a saint! But I'd be curious why he recommended it: did he recommend it for everyone? For particular circumstances?

The idea of the general confession has been that one does it at major points in ones life; I want to say I made one before my ordination as a deacon, but to be honest now, I can't recall!

So I'd say it's up to you. I don't recommend anyone writing anything down; I'm not saying you aren't allowed, I just don't recommend it.

More important is to realize that in making a general confession, you are not seeking absolution again for previously confessed sins! This is very important (and why I am hesitant about this): those sins were confessed and absolved, and they are gone as far as God is concerned!

Rather, a general confession is about examining the overall direction of your life--both in acknowledging sins that persist, but also giving you the opportunity to see how God has worked in your life.

It's not something one does over and over.

Finally, in case this wasn't obvious -- this is something to discuss with a spiritual director or a priest who knows you well.

Fr Martin Fox said...


I am very sorry to hear about what happened to you.

Did you or anyone report that priest's breach of the confessional to his bishop? That is distressing beyond words.

If it is any consolation, given the circumstances you are describing, you are definitely making a "good confession."

Anonymous said...

No, I didn't report it to his superiors. He was not a diocesan priest so I would have had to go to his order (which ran my HS). As a teenager the thought of doing that was very overwhelming on top of an already disasterous situation.

After all, the last thing I wanted was *more* people inside my confession.

Once he realized what a terrible, terrible mistake he made he was suitably horrified and very apologetic. I figure he learned his lesson, and left it at that.

It's good to know that you would consider it a 'good confession'. I do think that at some point I should just get over it and be able to stop being so general in what I confess. That's one of those things I pray for...

Anonymous said...

here's the Dappled Things link:

Anonymous said...

2nd try/first one didn't include whole link

Anonymous said...

"Don't Sweat Confession"
Honestly, many if not most do exactly that. Not only do they not sweat it they just don't go. It seems as if the sacrament has been resigned to be a sacrament only for serious or mortal sin. Many feel the little moment before mass is good enough, after all why go to confession for venial sins. Seems that Americans are buying into the protestant montra that you should take you sins directly to God hence, American Catholics resign confession to only mortal sins. Saddly, when they do have mortal sin the "take your sin directly to God" looks even more promising and along with that they buy into the new life, new new life, or get a life church to avoid confession all together and eventually leave the faith.
Venial sins grease the skids of mortal sin that much is true.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Fr. I agree that hearing about what it's like from 'the other side of the screen' is a good thing for us lay people.

While familiarity can breed contempt it can also breed a comfortableness with something - even when it may not be the 'most fun' think in the world to do. I think Confession is like this.

I think it would help us if priests preached on confession - not only as the main topic in a homily but also as an example of something a person should do or just mentioned in the homily. Having confession available more often - both days of the week, times of the day and enough time to make it a 'part of life'. My very large parish has only 30 min on Sat at 3:00. For busy families - this is a difficult time to break away and go to confession. It also gives the impression that it's not THAT important and that our Fathers don't REALLY expect it to be frequented often by a lot of people. Going every month or even every two weeks can certainly make it less stressful besides - the list is shorter! and less difficult to remember :) and you are more familiar with the rite.

Jim said...

Sometimes just when you need to find something...there it is. Thank you so much for writing this.

I went to confession for the first time in 15 years last year during Lent. I have tried hard to go more often this past year but it something I really struggle with.

I have known my parish priest since I was a boy and that makes it harder because I don't want him to think less of me. Prideful I know but that is what I struggle with.

Examination of Conscience - I hope that is the one you were looking for.

Anonymous said...

Dear Father,

Thank you for your very edifying post and for all your good work. If I may just add my to cents' worth on a couple of points:

I personally prefer penances consisting of the usual prayers, e.g., "One Our Father, one Hail Mary and one Glory be for vocations" because I know that I can correctly fulfill that kind of penance (and also without delay, by doing so in the pew just after confession). The more specific penances tend to be harder for me to do, and very often leave me with the nagging question whether I really did what I was supposed to do correctly.

For example: Confessor: "Recite Psalm 22 prayerfully". Me later at home: "Did I just recite this psalm prayerfully or only by rote; was it OK for my mind to wander during part of the recitation even though I had pretty devout feelings during other parts? and what about when I fell asleep in the middle of it, was I supposed to start over again or just resume where I left off?"

I asked one of my confessors whether this might be scrupulosity on my part, but he said no, it was just the result of being a lawyer by trade.

Another thing about prayers as penances is that I can pray them again a second time for my confessor and his intentions. On the other hand, when the penance is to do an act of kindess, for example, for some reason I never seem to get around to doing that second one for my confessor, or more precisely, when the second act of kindness occurs, I have forgotten that it was a penance and that it was to be offered for him.

Finally, I prefer to go to confessors who know me (and thus know my high pitched nasal voice), because I think that they understand my struggles better than others to whom I am more anonymous. The advice is a little more directed to my personal circumstances, I think. Not to say that they are easier on me, though.

Wishing you all the best.

Fr Martin Fox said...


Good points. When I give a penance, I try to get a sense, from the penitent, what would work; and certainly, if someone were to tell me, in the confessional, what you told me, I'd gladly change it. I have done so.

So never be shy about saying that to a priest; and in any event, should you ever feel any concern about a failure to do a penance, simply mention it the next time, and I'm sure the next confessor will ease your mind (fyi, he can substitute a penance for what the prior priest gave you, if you ask).

And, do remember, your forgiveness is not contingent on your doing the penance!

Gregaria said...

Its not? Oops! I didn't realize this. *sheepish* So, when you said, "One point I make about the penance is that is not a "punishment" nor even a "payment," but rather more like an "offering" and even more, healing," you basically meant that penance is like a gift or an opportunity to try to do better than you were doing which you are free to either accept or decline?

Anonymous said...

That's a very helpful post, Father, save that I'm not keen on your 'do something romantic with your spouse' - not because of scrupulosity as to whether I'd done it, but because it would be somehow terribly unromantic to do something romantic for a penance!

Anonymous said...

In college, I decided to go to confession after avoiding it for several years. After I confessed what I thought were the "usual" sins, the priest said I was no better than a barnyard animal and that I was on an iceberg bound for hell. I was so shocked, I actually passed out, which had never happened to me before (or since!) Needless to say, I couldn't finish the confession and stumbled out of the church devastated. I found out later that this priest said that to everyone.

I have a good laugh about it now, and so does everyone I tell. But I still get weak in the knees everytime I go to confession, that is IF I can make it into the confessional.

So, thank-you for your post. Keeping in mind your words I think will help me get over my PTCS.(Post Tramatic Confession Syndrome) :)

Anonymous said...

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