At the Gregorian Institute at Benedictine College, we believe it is time for Catholics to imaginatively and vigorously promote confession.
But don’t take our word for it.
“The renewal of the Church in America depends on the renewal of the practice of penance,” Pope Benedict told us at Nationals Stadium in Washington.
Pope John Paul II spent his last years on earth pleading with Catholics to return to confession, including in an urgent motu proprio document about confession and in his encyclical on the Eucharist.
He called the crisis in the Church the crisis of confession and wrote to priests:
Why all of this angst over confession? Because when we skip confession, we lose the sense of sin. The loss of the sense of sin is at the root of so many evils in our time, from child abuse to financial dishonesty, from abortion to atheism.
So, how to promote confession? Here are some talking points. Seven reasons to return to confession, both natural and supernatural.
1. Sin aggravates you.
A therapist tells the story about a patient who had been in a terrible cycle of depression and self-disgust ever since high school. Nothing seemed to help. One day, the therapist met the patient in front of a Catholic church. They ducked inside when it began raining, and witnessed people going to confession.
“Should I go too?” asked the patient, who had received the sacrament as a child. “No!” said the counselor. The patient went anyway, and emerged from the confessional with her first smile in years, and kept improving in the weeks to come. The therapist studied more about confession, eventually became Catholic and now counsels regular confession for all her Catholic patients.
Sin leads to depression because it isn’t just an arbitrary violation of rules: It’s a violation of the purpose built into our being by God. Confession lifts the guilt and anxiety caused by sin and heals you.
2. Sin makes you aggravating.
In the movie 3:10 to Yuma, the villain Ben Wade says, “I don’t mess around with doing anything good, Dan. Do one good deed for somebody—I imagine it’s habit forming.” He is right. As Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” As the Catechism puts it: “Sin creates a proclivity to sin.” People don’t just lie; they become liars. We don’t just steal; we become thieves. Making a clean break from sin redefines you, allows you to start new habits of virtue.
“God is determined to deliver his children from slavery to lead them to freedom,” said Pope Benedict XVI. “And the worst and most profound slavery is that of sin.”
3. We need to say it.
If you break a favorite item belonging to a friend, you would never be satisfied just feeling regret. You would feel compelled to explain what you did, express your sorrow, and do whatever is necessary set things right.
It is the same when we break something in our relationship with God. We need to say we’re sorry, and try to fix it.
Pope Benedict XVI points out that we should feel the need to confess even if we aren’t guilty of serious sin.
4. Confessing helps you know yourself.
We get ourselves all wrong. Our self-opinion is like a series of funhouse mirrors. Sometimes we see a strong and wonderful awe-inspiring version of ourselves. Sometimes we see a grotesque and twisted hateful version of ourselves.
Confession forces us to look at our lives objectively, separate the real sins from the bad feelings and see ourselves as we really are.
As Pope Benedict XVI put it: “Confession helps us to make our consciences more alert, more open and hence, it also helps us to mature spiritually and as human persons.”
5. Confession helps children.
Children need to go to confession, too. Some writers have stressed the negative aspects of childhood confession—being lined up in their Catholic schools and “forced to think of things to feel guilty about.”
It needn’t be like that.
Catholic Digest editor Danielle Bean once explained about how her brothers and sisters would tear up their confession lists after confession and drop them down the gutter by the church. “What a liberation!” she wrote “Returning my sins to the dark underworld from whence they had come felt wholly appropriate. ‘Hit my sister six times’ and ‘talked back to my mother four times’ were no longer my burden to bear.”
Confession can give children a place to unburden themselves without fear, and a place to get kindly adult advice when they are worried about speaking to their parents. A good examination of conscience (like this one) can guide children toward appropriate things to confess. Many families make confession an outing, followed up with ice cream.
6. Confessing mortal sin is required.
As the Catechism puts it, mortal sin, unconfessed “causes exclusion from Christ’s Kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices forever, with no turning back.”
Over and over again in the 21st century, the Church has reminded us that Catholics guilty of committing a mortal sin can’t go to communion without confession.
“One commits a mortal sin when there are simultaneously present: grave matter, full knowledge and deliberate consent,” says the Catechism.
The U.S. bishops reminded Catholics about common sins that constitute grave matter in the 2006 document “Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper.” Those sins include: missing Mass on a Sunday or holy day of obligation, abortion and euthanasia, any extramarital sexual activity, theft, pornography, slander, hatred and envy.
7. Confession is a personal encounter with Christ.
In confession, it’s Christ who heals and forgives us, through the ministry of the priest. We have a personal encounter with Christ in the confessional. Just like the shepherds and Magi at the crèche, we find awe and humility. And just like the saints at the crucifixion, we find gratitude, repentance and peace.
There is no greater accomplishment in life than helping another person return to confession.
We should be willing to talk about confession like we talk about every other significant event in our lives. The offhand comment, “I won’t be able to make it until later, because I need to get to confession,” can be more convicting than a theological discourse. And since confession is a significant event in our lives, it’s an appropriate answer to the question “What are you doing this weekend?” Many of us also have funny or interesting confession stories—tell them.
Help make confession normal again. Let as many people as possible discover the beauty of this freeing sacrament.
Tom Hoopesis Vice President of College Relations and writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. His writing has appeared in First Things’ First Thoughts, National Review Online, Crisis, Our Sunday Visitor, Inside Catholic and Columbia. Before joining Benedictine College, he was Executive Editor of the National Catholic Register. He has served as press secretary for the Chairman of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee. He and his wife, April, were editorial co-directors of Faith & Family magazine for 5 years. They have nine children. The views and opinions expressed on this blog do not necessarily reflect those of Benedictine College or the Gregorian Institute.