Wednesday, 12 April 2017

What Not To Say in Confession: An Open Letter to Priests

Dear Father,

Thank you! Thank you for saying yes to Jesus, and to His call. We live in a world hungry for grace, and we receive that in the sacraments, that YOU give us.

We know that there are many Catholics who don't make it to Confession very often. Confession is one of those things that people either think is super cool, or super weird. For many of us, we understand that Jesus is giving us the great gift of speaking our sins out loud, physically and spiritually dumping them into His hands, and then receiving the free gift of forgiveness- through YOU. How cool is it that as you say the words "I absolve you of your sins...", it is really Jesus speaking through you.

I have been blessed by the grace of Confession many, many times in my life. I have often been in a pit, feeling low, lost, negative and dispirited, but after going to Confession... SOMETHING changes. There is a lightness, a new hope. Grace touches my soul. And I begin again.

However, as someone who has been to many, many Confessions over the 31 years of my existence, I've noticed some trends that I thought I would point out. I've heard the Church call for dialogue, and priests and bishops who want to hear back from the laity. So this is me responding.

So, Father, can I ask you, please, not to say or do these things?

1. "Don't be so hard on yourself." Actually I'm not being hard on myself, I just have a pretty good awareness of how I'm messing up. I'm honest. Don't mistake that for scrupulosity. Or even humility. Believe me when I say I've sinned. That's why I'm at Confession. I actually said that to a priest once. "No Father I'm not being too hard on myself. I don't even try very hard to do things differently." "Oh," he said and thought for a moment. "Well then, try harder." "Thank you!" I said, relieved. Thank you for believing me, and saying what I needed to hear.

2. "That's not really a sin." Well, the Church says it is. Or if God has asked me to do something, and I've refused him (whether it's praying for an hour every day or going for daily Mass), then that's a sin. Don't minimize or dismiss my sins because they are not the same as other people's sins. I've started preparing a little speech about why my sins are really sins because this happens so often. "Yes I knew what God was asking of me, and I chose to do something else. I had an option, it was not impossible, but I ignored the grace that Jesus offered."

3. "If you really loved Jesus, you wouldn't sin." Well, Father, I guess I don't love Jesus enough, but I'm trying. And I want to. Please don't make me feel bad about the fact that my love is imperfect and weak. Or that my sin means I don't have a relationship with Jesus, or have never had a real encounter with Him. I once quoted Saint Paul to a priest who said this- "For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing." (Romans 7: 18-19)

4. "Don't focus on your sins. Focus on God's love." The REASON I'm at Confession right now is BECAUSE of my sins. Yes, it is unhealthy to be constantly focussing on my own sins. However, I NEED to acknowledge the weight and ugliness of my sins in order to fully receive the mercy of God. And Confession is exactly the place to do it. I need to say them out loud, and I need to say how many times. It is so much easier just to gloss over them, or be vague about them, or rush through them. But that may not be what I need. If I don't accept how bad the bad news is, I'll never believe how good the good news is.

5. "Didn't you come for Confession just two days ago?" Yes, Father, and I messed up after that, which is why I'm back here. Similarly, "You take us priests for granted by coming so often for Confession." Jesus said seventy times seven, so I'm taking Him at His word. You get to be Jesus. That's what "in persona Christi" means. Pope Francis said "God never tires of forgiving us, it is we who get tired of asking for forgiveness." Father, we need to know that it's okay for us to come back EVERY time we fall. If we were not trying to change, we wouldn't be coming back to Confession.

6. "You're coming to Confession after 30 years?? How dare you?" Father, the correct response when someone comes back to Confession after years of being away is "Praise God!" If the angels are rejoicing in heaven, perhaps we humans can allow ourselves to as well. Pope Francis said, "I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy which spurs us on to do our best."

7. "We don't hear Confessions at this time/place." You are holding in your priestly hands a valuable treasure- the gift of forgiveness, mercy, and reconciliation. How can you refuse to give that to those who need it? Of course, there are some times when it's just not possible. But if it IS, thank God, and make yourself available. I once made my Confession in a car at an airport parking area just before an international flight. A friend in the States who was about to get on a flight, realized she needed to go to Confession, and just happened to see a priest at a pharmacy. She approached him, and he agreed to hear her Confession. Who knows what courage it took the penitent to finally approach you? How could you risk turning this soul away from God? There is NOTHING more important, except perhaps Mass. No administration work, meeting, or meal can be more important. (IMHO :-D)

Instead, could you do/say these things?

1. Welcome the penitent with eye contact and a smile. Sinners are returning to God! Rejoice! Make them feel welcome, and at home with you. How would Jesus receive a penitent sinner? Perhaps not impersonally or in a clinical manner.

2. Tell them "Thank you for that beautiful confession." Let them truly feel like they encountered mercy.

3. Tell your parishioners "I'm available whenever you need me for Confession. Just text or call me, and we can set it up." What a beautiful gift! I know priests who do that. What a gift and witness they are!

4. Have a regular weekly time when Confession is available at the parish, and make announcements again and again so people know. Come early to daily Mass, and tell parishioners you are available for Confession. Make it easily accessible.

4. Don't rush them. Let them say everything they need to say. Ask "Anything else?" and wait. One of my friends experienced a profound conversion because a priest asked her, "Is there ANYTHING else you need to confess or talk about?" and she shared a heavy load with him... which she would never have done if he hadn't asked.

5. Um, and also allow them to say the Act of Contrition aloud. Most priests I know don't, and I'm pretty sure we're supposed to.

Also, did I say thank you? Many, many souls have experienced their deepest moments of grace and conversion in this beautiful sacrament. "With great power comes great responsibility."

I'm praying for you!


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