I have a confession to make: I haven’t been to Confession in 30 years. And it isn’t from a lack of respect for the sacrament. It isn’t out of pride. I’m just chicken. My last foray into Reconciliation is still etched in my mind: Standing outside the confessional, I was a panicked 11-year-old—hands sweating, head spinning, legs shaking in my gray corduroys. The priest grew irritated quickly. Little wonder: I could barely spit out a sentence. The act of pleading guilty to my crimes was just too awkward, too daunting. So I never went back.
I’m not alone: According to a recent survey conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), 45 percent of Catholics do not participate in this sacrament. Thirty percent have gone less than once a year; two percent participate once a month.
This has always been a somewhat controversial practice: It is a blessing for many yet a burden for others. While some Catholics have found comfort—and relief—from the absolution of their sins, others feel content in confessing directly to God.
When I was in the first grade, my class held a concert for faculty, staff and parents. My instrument was the triangle. Seated directly in front of me was a good friend, Mary, who played the cymbals. After our first song ended, the teacher motioned for the class to be seated. Suddenly, I saw an opportunity.
As Mary went to sit, I pulled the chair right out from under her. And she fell—hard. The cymbals went flying.
My punishment the following Monday was, shall we say, multidimensional. First, I had to ask for Mary’s forgiveness. And though I was heartily sorry, I was even sorrier for being asked to leave myself open in such a vulnerable way. Apologizing is never easy, even when I mean it.
Perhaps the fear of confessing is what keeps many Catholics away from the confessional. Robert Morneau, auxiliary bishop and vicar general of the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, says this to scared Catholics: “Come on in. You’ll like it!”
When discussing the weight and value of this practice, Bishop Morneau uses an analogy: “When we become physically ill, we seek the assistance of a doctor. Failure to seek medical care can lead to death,” he says. “The same is true at the spiritual level. Spiritual illness needs the healing touch of Christ that comes to us through this holy practice.
“Seeing a doctor for a common cold probably isn’t essential. Seeing a doctor for a bowel obstruction is essential. The comparison could be applied to venial and mortal sins.”
Although Morneau admits that the discomfort many Catholics feel toward it is human, he believes it has less to do with personal sinfulness than with the breadth of God’s mercy.
“When the prodigal son was on his way home, one can sense that he was probably extremely anxious,” Morneau says. “How would his father react toward the son for taking off and wasting his inheritance and living an immoral life? Jesus told the story so that we might be aware of how God reacts to someone who repents and seeks forgiveness.”
“Guilt and shame are parasites that eat away at our well-being,” Morneau says. Sin feeds the parasites. Reconciliation, he believes, rids us of them.
“God loves the person. God hates the sins,” he says. “God does love us but when we sin, we have to take responsibility for them. If we don’t deal with that, we get enslaved. We need to own up to it.”
Yet many Catholics aren’t eager to admit their wrongdoings in such an intimate setting. Some feel that confessing their sins directly to God—in the privacy and comfort of their own homes—more than suffices.
“I don’t feel comfortable with confessing to a priest,” one person posted to our website from Lanoka Harbor, New Jersey, writes. “I feel much closer to God’s forgiveness by talking and repenting directly to God one-to-one.”
Another reader from Williamson, Georgia, echoes that perspective. “I don’t understand why I have to go when God already knows my sins and my heart. Telling a priest about the sins I committed would not have changed a thing.”
But Morneau feels that skipping “the middle man,” or the priest, divides us from our faith community and from the grace we seek. “We are a sacramental people. ‘The middle man’ standing ‘between’ God and the individual is a powerful reminder that we are not autonomous individuals,” he says. “We are social beings, part of a divine society, the Body of Christ. Sin injures, not only God and another individual, but the entire body, the entire community. ‘The middle man’ represents that community and assures the individual of God’s mercy and forgiveness.”
The purpose of it all, Morneau asserts, is to reclaim what is lost: peace and joy. Those blessed intangibles are hard to come by when Catholics decide to go it alone.
“What was broken is once again made whole. And where there is oneness, the consequence is peace and joy. These are the by-products of the oneness that it offers. If we are not right with God, others or ourselves, peace and joy are impossible.”
I have another confession: I shoplifted a big piece of candy when I was seven. The moment I got home, I ran to my bedroom, shut the door and shoved the candy in my mouth. Seconds later I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror: The chocolate was smeared completely across my face. In that instant, I felt awful. Guilt killed the chocolate.
Forgiveness from God is a given if we are truly sorry. Self-forgiveness, however, is another animal. Bishop Morneau has a theory.
“Psychologists speak often about low self-esteem. Self-contempt and self-disgust are illnesses that thwart the call to a full life,” he says. “Not only is God’s forgiveness important here, but also the grace to forgive ourselves.
“To come to a radical acceptance of our limitations and of our sins is a long, hard journey. But we need the help of others and the gifts of the Church to empower us to extend forgiveness to ourselves, as we extend that forgiveness to others.”
What awaits us, Morneau assures, is something remarkable.
“Sin thwarts life. Sin impairs our spiritual growth. Individuals who seek growth and fullness of life have to deal with the ‘dark side.’ The Sacrament of Reconciliation is one way.
“Millions of people who do not have access to this practice or who do not believe in it can still grow spiritually, but they will have to deal with their ‘dark side’ in some way if they want fullness of life.”
That fullness is often shared between the penitent and the priest. Morneau feels his faith has become enriched from hearing the personal stories of Catholics over the years.
“I have been hearing confessions for 42 years. My faith has been deepened as people leave the Confession, often in tears, but with tremendous joy from experiencing the liberating power of God’s mercy and love,” Morneau says.
“Through this sacrament they have received a whole new life. Wherever individuals are on the spiritual journey, all of us are attempting to have a healthy, holy relationship with our God. My faith has deepened and changed as Jesus, through this practice, sets so many people free.”
“If we are God’s children,” a Sterling, Virginia, resident writes to Franciscan Media, “perhaps the key word is ‘growing’ [as in growing in a spiritual sense]. If most of you are like me, it takes getting your nerve up to tell a priest your sins. Sometimes I get so stuck in the ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ mentality that pride makes it hard to see my actions for what they are.”
In God’s parental eyes, we are all children: prone to misbehavior and pride. And, like any good parent, God forgives—even the wildly imperfect Catholics like me who are reluctant to confess but who know that returning to this gift from God is essential.
Those seven words—so difficult to say but so cathartic when said—are the keys to true freedom: “Bless me, father, for I have sinned.”