Much has been written about the neglect of the Sacrament of Reconciliation among Catholics. Despite our best efforts to teach people about the beauty of this sacrament of mercy, the number of those who go to confession regularly, if at all, is extremely low — even among practicing Catholics. In Lent especially, the Church and the Word of God call us to repentance. Priests faithfully proclaim this call to conversion and encourage people to receive the sacrament of reconciliation. There is nothing lacking in the official teaching of the Church on this sacrament. However, I would like to suggest that we might use a slightly different approach. This can apply either to priests in our preaching or lay people who may feel inspired to invite a non-practicing Catholic friend to consider going to confession.
We cannot limit ourselves to explaining Church teaching on the requirements and benefits of the sacrament of reconciliation, a sort of intellectual “top-down” approach. We need to understand the thinking of those numerous Catholics who avoid this sacrament. Let us try to meet them at the place of their doubts and fears, to appreciate and clarify their unconscious and misguided theology that keeps them from confession and a deeper experience of God’s mercy.
For the purposes of a short article, I can only appeal to those Catholics who have some sort of faith, however vague, that Christ works through the priest. Without this belief, there would be little point in going to confession. Just talk to a friend instead or confess your sins directly to God. Yet for those with some measure of faith, we can address a few of their mistaken assumptions about sin, God and confession.
I think that many Catholics who never go to confession tend to assume that confession means that they must admit that they are very bad people who have done all these bad things—end of story. Some Catholics also think that regular confession means we must constantly focus on our sins and continually remind ourselves of the ways in which we have failed and fallen short. Finally, many people loathe the idea of baring their souls in confession, afraid that they might open themselves up to the possibility of being judged or punished in some way.
For those who fear that confession requires them to judge themselves as very bad people, we need to clarify the complex nature of human beings and how the Father sees us. The Father loves us as His children because we are essentially good. Jesus Himself reminds us of our value as children of God. “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” Jesus is confirming that we have inherent worth in the eyes of God. In addition to our worth, we also possess a fundamental goodness as part of our nature, by the mere fact that we are created in the image and likeness of God. At the same time, we are also sinners. As a result of original sin, our nature has been wounded, and we are inclined toward evil and sin.
As mentioned, some Catholics also think that regular confession suggests we must be constantly pre-occupied with our sins. Obviously, this is not the case. It would amount to a scrupulous self-obsession, and we would be discouraged all the time. We are meant to confess our sins and give them to Jesus, then focus on His love, mercy and forgiveness. Perhaps for this reason the Church “re-named” confession the sacrament of “reconciliation,” to emphasize this very point: our focus is not on our sins but on being reconciled to God and receiving His mercy.
There are also Catholics who have a false image of God, and they misinterpret how God views sin. One definition of sin is an offense against God. This is serious and true, but we must understand it correctly. It is not as if God jealously guards His status and privilege, and He is offended that His lowly creatures would dare to insult His majesty by disobeying His commands and sinning against Him. This is a distorted image of God. At the deepest level, our sins grieve the Heart of God because our sins hurt us and other people.
What of those Catholics who are simply afraid to bare their souls in confession, out of fear of some judgement or punishment? Let us remind them once again that God loves us because we are essentially good. But there is a deeper truth: God also loves us as sinners, as weak people who make mistakes and fail, who hurt themselves and others. It is difficult for most people to admit their vulnerability, weaknesses and sins. We can tend to be like Adam, hiding from God because we feel naked and afraid. But it is precisely in our vulnerability, weaknesses and sins that we can fully experience how greatly we are loved, and the depth of God’s tender mercy. Let us take the analogy of marriage. When people first fall in love, they may feel they are loved for all their good qualities: their beauty, intelligence, sense of humor, and so on. But the relationship needs to go deeper. What kind of intimacy could develop if spouses could never admit mistakes or allow themselves to be transparent and vulnerable with the other person?
Deep down, we all have a need to know that we are also loved when we are “bad,” when we are at our worst. This is precisely the kind of love that Christ offers us. “Here I am Jesus. I am so ashamed. These are my darkest secrets. These are my hidden sins. These are all my weaknesses and failings as a human being. How could you possibly love this part of me? I don’t know if anyone else would love me if they knew all these things about me. But you do?”
“Yes, my son. Yes, my daughter. I love you at your worst. I came not to condemn the world, but to save it. Remember, during my time on earth, I ate and drank with sinners. Mine is a merciful love drawn to those who are in most need. You have confessed, and I forgive you. Go in peace.”
I cite these words simply to suggest that this is the kind of experience Christ would like us to have in confession. To be vulnerable, open and honest. To be welcomed as we are, to receive mercy, to be forgiven, to be at peace.
Perhaps if we can more directly address the doubts and fears of lapsed Catholics or those who never go to confession, this will help clear away some of their reservations. Grace can open the door to their hearts, and their mustard seed of faith, along with a little courage, can open the door to the confessional. There they will meet Jesus, the merciful high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, heal our hearts of the wounds of our sins, and reconcile us to ourselves, one another and to the Father.