Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Confession: Power to Forgive & Grace to Change

Hello, Coffee Talkers!

Tonight, a question!

Dear Leslie,

Do you go to confession? This is something that I am struggling with. I've never actually gone and I have been a Catholic officially for 5 years and been going to the Catholic church my whole life. As Easter quickly approaches it is heavy on my mind. I want to improve my relationship right now and I am feeling very blocked right now. Advise please.

Seeking God

Dear Seeking,

Yes, I go to confession. For many years, I did not go very frequently, but I had an experience in college that allowed me to experience an aspect of the sacrament that I had never understood prior to that time. There was a particular professor who I'd been having a very difficult time with, or should I say that the professor had been having a very difficult time with me? In either case, it was a problem that was ongoing, since we had to see one another very frequently at the time and I knew something had to be done to change the situation. At first, I tended to blame the professor for being the cause of most of our difficulties (since it is generally easier to examine someone else's conscience than my own!), but after some more serious reflection and introspection I realized that  I also had a part in the problem and had done some things wrong. I knew that I could not talk to the professor about my realizations, and that even an apology probably would have ended in yet another misunderstanding or disagreement. But I also knew there was one place that I could always go to confess my wrongdoing, be completely forgiven, and get a fresh start. As it was a Saturday, I walked to the local Cathedral and got in line for confession.

I went behind the screen so I didn't have to think about who the priest was, and I confessed all of what I'd done wrong. I made my act of contrition, went into the church to pray and make my penance, and walked back to campus. I felt more peaceful about the situation, but although a burden had been lifted for me personally, I still had no idea what effect this could possibly have in my daily life.

A few weeks later, that same professor pulled me aside one day and said, "Leslie, I don't know what's going on in your life, but I can see that something has changed. And it's something good. I have found you much easier to work with recently, and just wanted to let you know."

Two points to be made here: 1.) this professor was certainly not one to be lavish in praise, to say the least, so this conversation was nothing short of a minor miracle, and 2.) while I had always understood that sacramental confession had the power to forgive our sins, I had never before understood that the sacrament also gives us the grace to change. And suddenly that reality, through my own experience, was huge, personal, and powerful. Trust me, I had tried and tried on my own to make things better in my relationship with this professor, and with no success. The only thing different that time was I gave the problem to Someone else who actually had the power to change the situation through the grace to change me!

After that experience, I started to go to confession more frequently. At one point in my life, I was blessed to have a priest to whom I regularly went for confession and spiritual direction. It bore great fruit in my spiritual life to have a priest with whom I could share my particular struggles and who could give me guidance in ways to grow in faith and virtue. While I don't have a regular confessor now, I still try to get to the sacrament once or twice a month. Even beyond confessing serious sins (when confession is necessary), I find it helpful to regularly examine my conscience even for venial (or less serious) sins and to ask God where I can grow.

I'll be honest -- I hate going to confession. There are few things more distasteful on a natural level than confessing all of the things I've done wrong, than bringing my thoughts and deeds of darkness into light. But while I hate going to confession, I love leaving confession! I love the mercy of God, the forgiveness of sins, and most of all the grace to change those things about myself that I absolutely cannot change on my own. In short, I love becoming more the person God made me to be, and I see that happen when I frequent the sacraments, especially confession.

I think it's wonderful that you want to become closer to God, and I think that confession will get you there. It is customary for Catholics to make a confession during Lent in preparation for receiving communion at Easter time, and so many churches have reconciliation services where all the priests of an area come together and offer the sacrament to the faithful gathered there.

Remember, all priests are bound to the seal of the confessional, so anything that you tell them in the context of confession (whether face-to-face or behind the screen) will never be told to anyone else. Never. Priests have given their lives rather than break this seal. And if you tell them that it is your first confession, they will help you. Here is a Guide to the Sacrament of Confession that you might find helpful in preparing for the sacrament; it includes an examination of conscience based on the Ten Commandments. Also, the Bishop of the Diocese of Wichita, Kansas made a good video on examining your conscience and frequency of confession:

One practical challenge that you might face right now is that we are about to begin the Triduum -- Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday -- and so the Lenten penance services are all done now. Also, no confessions are heard in parishes on Holy Saturday. So the next time your local parish would likely be offering confessions would be the Saturday following Easter.

Still, most priests will hear confessions by appointment, especially if you explain to them that it would be your first confession and you feel compelled to confess before Easter. Be warned -- Holy Week and the Triduum in particular are among the busiest times of year for priests, so if at first you don't succeed in making a confession appointment, try, try again! Call another priest. Or better yet, go into the local parish offices tomorrow. Most parish offices will be closed on Good Friday through Easter Monday, so go tomorrow!

Thanks so much for writing! I hope this has been helpful. Be assured of my prayers!

Peace and all good,

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