How to Go to Confession

08-02-2015This Week in Vidi DominumFr. Will Schmid

One of my favorite stories about the life of Pope Saint John Paul II is the story of the beggar priest. One day a priest was walking through the streets of Rome on his way to a private audience with Pope Saint John Paul II when he recognized a beggar on the street as one of his classmates from seminary who had fallen into hard times, walked away from his priesthood, and become homeless. At the papal audience, the homeless beggar was so much on his mind that he decided to share his encounter with the beggar priest with the pope. To his surprise, the pope told him to find the beggar priest and bring him to the Vatican for a private dinner that evening.

The priest then found the beggar, bought him a change of clothes, allowed him to shower at his hotel, and brought him to the Vatican for the special dinner. Toward the end of the dinner, Pope Saint John Paul II dismissed everyone from the room except for the beggar priest. When the two of them were alone together, the pope then asked the beggar priest to hear his confession.

When the beggar priest responded that he was no longer a priest and could not hear his confession, the pope responded, "Once a priest, always a priest." The beggar priest heard the pope's confession and then asked the pope to hear his confession. After their exchange of confessions, the pope restored his priestly faculties and gave him the mission of ministering to the beggars of Rome.

St. Thomas Aquinas once wrote, "In the life of the body a man is sometimes sick, and unless he takes medicine, he will die. Even so in the spiritual life a man is sick on account of sin. For that reason he needs medicine so that he may be restored to health; and this grace is bestowed in the Sacrament of Penance." All of us are beggars before God. We are all in need of His incredible mercy. There is nothing that heals the human soul like a good confession. It is an incredible grace that helps bring about conversion in our life. It is in light of the beauty and power of God's mercy that I would like to offer a few tips about how to make a good confession.

First, ask God to help you to overcome any fears or anxieties you may have concerning Confession. Remember that nothing you say will surprise the priest. He has heard it all. A priest friend of mine likes to jokingly offer his car to his penitents if they can tell him something in confession that he hasn't already heard. He has been a priest for many years and he is still driving his car! Remember, the priest is not there to judge you, but to forgive you. He is in the confessional to be a vessel of God's mercy.

Second, prepare well. A good examination of conscience will make your confession experience a lot smoother. Take some time to reflect about the sins you have committed. There are many great resources available to help you do this. In particular, take a look at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop's website for assistance: penance/examinations-of-conscience.cfm

Third, be honest about your sins. You can't fool God. God already knows our hearts before we come to Him in the Sacrament. Humbly confess the sins you have committed. Along these same lines, try not to rationalize your sins. You committed them, now own up to them. It is easy for us to try to blame someone else. Remember, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is for the confession of our sins, not the sins of others.

There are always various circumstances in every situation. Sin doesn't happen in a vacuum. However, Reconciliation is about confessing sins, not circumstances. A common mistake made in the confessional is the over-description of the situation concerning the sin, almost to the point that the confession becomes a kind of "story-time." Remember, you are confessing your sins, not telling a story. Try to provide enough detail for the priest to understand the sin you have committed, but not too much detail.

Fourth, although an element of spiritual direction is inherent within the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the confessional is not a place for free counseling. Priests are not certified counselors. There are often issues that come out in the confessional that the priest is not equipped to handle. He may or may not be able to offer quality advice about these various situations. If you are not able to receive the advice you were hoping to receive, do not despair. A successful confession is one where sins were confessed and absolution was given. The essential gift of the Sacrament is God's forgiveness. Quality advice and/or spiritual direction are merely secondary. The priest may refer you to a Christian counselor if your situation is beyond his expertise.

Fifth, go to confession regularly. Spiritual skills are much like physical skills. The more we practice, the more we learn. The more we go to confession, the more the Sacrament can transform our life. Regular confession is a great way to stay connected to God and to have His grace in our lives. Why hold on to your sins for so long? God wants them now.

An excuse I regularly hear from people concerning why they refuse to go to Confession is, "I don't want to be a hypocrite. I don't want to ask forgiveness for a sin that I am likely going to continue to struggle with." I find this to be a very interesting excuse. The word "hypocrite" comes from the Greek words, hupo and krites, which together mean, "to stand under judgment." The only way for us to avoid "standing under judgment," is to go to the place where judgment is removed: Confession. The authentic hypocrite is the one who remains in a state of division by refusing to embrace the healing love of Jesus Christ. In other words, it is the one who remains in his sin who is judged.

We all need the grace of this amazing Sacrament. May the lies of the evil one never keep us from humbly receiving God's amazing mercy, which has the tremendous power to transform our souls.