Guidelines for Confession

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One of my favorite stories about confession comes from the life of St. Mary Margaret Alacoque. When she began receiving visions of Jesus and his Sacred Heart, she went to find a confessor. Her confessor asked her for proof of the visions, instructing the young woman to ask what the last sin he confessed was. She came back with Lord’s reply, “I have forgotten.” There is indeed a profound mercy and beauty to the holy sacrament of confession, but that beauty can become marred if we don’t treat the sacrament with the profound respect it deserves. What I would like to offer you is a few guidelines on how to make sure you receive the sacrament well.

First, please do some kind of examination of conscience. But here’s where I will be controversial — I don’t like most examinations that you can find on the internet and apps. For example, it’s not a sin to not read the bible everyday. There are many holy but illiterate people who have lived through the history of the Church. I recommend looking at the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23), and asking yourself where these fruits have been both present and absent in your life.

Second, figure out if what you’re struggling with is actually a sin. For example, emotions are not sins. “Be angry and do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26). We can act out of our emotions and sin, but the initial emotion is not sinful. Most anger is actually a perceived injustice. Ask yourself if this is a real injustice, if your response was proportionate, examine this before you come.

Third, be specific enough that I know what happened, but don’t give me every gritty detail. “Father, I stole something,” isn’t enough. Was it a car or a Capri Sun? I don’t need to know the type of car, how many seats, doors, etc. Extend the metaphor — you get it. I don’t need to know every part of the sin to absolve you.

Fourth, and last for this article — come regularly but not all the time. I’d say no more than once a week, and no less than every couple of months. If you’re coming every few days, one of three things is happening: 1) You lack the freedom to choose the good — this is exceedingly rare and should be discussed with a priest; 2) You aren’t actually working on moving away from the sin. Contrition is ‘sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed together with the resolution not to sin again.’ Are you actually trying not to sin again? If not, you’re not ready for confession; or 3) The availability of confession has become part of your cycle of sin, and you need to break out. Now, anecdotally some will argue JPII went to confession every day. If you have the weight of the world on your shoulders, you are the visible head of the Church, and you’re trying to bring down the Iron Curtain — sure, come every day. Otherwise, chill. And, if you don’t come more often than every few months you are likely to forget or minimize sins that need to be brought to confession.

Now — I love being a priest, and I love offering the sacraments. And I, as a fallen human person, can’t say that I have always offered every sacrament with the respect it deserves. With this in mind, I ask all of you to remember that your priests are human beings. Hearing confessions is a blessing, but can also be exhausting, heart-wrenching and spiritually challenging. It is part of the cross we offer to bear for the Church. Please be patient with us and pray for your priests.

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