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To Err Is Human: The Truth About Reconciliation
By Christopher Heffron
It can be a difficult sacrament for many Catholics. Several of our readers, and one Confession-timid writer, share their stories.

Q U I C K S C A N

Mea Culpa
Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin
Shared Grace
True Confessions
Seven Simple Words
An Evolving Sacrament


PHOTO BY BILL WITTMAN

I have a confession to make: I haven’t been to Confession in 23 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 survey conducted in February 2008 by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), 45 percent of Catholics do not participate in Reconciliation. Thirty percent have gone less than once a year; two percent participate once a month.

Reconciliation has always been somewhat controversial: 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.

St. Anthony Messenger wanted to know how our readers felt about it. After asking the question, “How do you feel about the Sacrament of Reconciliation and why?” in our pages and on our Web site, we received a wide assortment of answers, several of which are featured here.

I volunteered to write this article during the planning stages of this special issue because I wanted to gauge the joys, fears and uncertainties that surround this sacrament. From your responses I learned quite a bit.

Mea Culpa

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, and author of Reconciliation (Orbis Books, 2007), recently spoke to St. Anthony Messenger in a phone interview on the subject. He says this to Confession-scared Catholics: “Come on in. You’ll like it!”

When discussing the weight and value of the sacrament, 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 the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

“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 this sacrament is human, he believes Reconciliation 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.”

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“Guilt and shame are parasites that eat away at our well-being,” Morneau writes in his book. 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,” a reader from Lanoka Harbor, New Jersey, writes. “I feel much closer to God’s forgiveness by talking and repenting directly to God in a one-to-one, personal Confession.”

Another reader from Williamson, Georgia, echoes that perspective. “I don’t understand why I have to go to Confession 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 Reconciliation, 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 Reconciliation offers. If we are not reconciled to 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 ruined the chocolate.

Forgiveness from God is a given if we are truly sorry. Self-forgiveness, however, is another animal. Bishop Morneau has a theory.

Vatican II calls for the actions and prayers for Penance to express more clearly this sacrament’s nature and effects (#72).

Communal penance services (common prayers, Scripture readings and a homily, followed by individual confession) begin. A Scripture reading is included at the start of individual confession. When confessionals are remodeled, penitents can confess face-to-face or behind a screen.

Mortal sins are still confessed according to number and type, but confession of venial sins begins to emphasize patterns rather than their exact number. Catholics start recognizing how we may contribute to racism and sexism. People begin to see the confessor more as an instrument of God’s mercy and less as a judge.

In 1976 the revised rite is introduced in the United States on the First Sunday of Lent.

—P.M.

“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 sacraments of the Church—Reconciliation and Eucharist—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 sacrament 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 the sacrament, sets so many people free.”

Many of our readers have experienced peace through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Several of them shared their experiences for this article. Here are their stories.

‘The Secret Treasure’

“The Sacrament of Reconciliation is so sadly misunderstood and underused in today’s world. In my life I have found solace, comfort, counsel and deep union with Christ in this treasure he left for us.

“The closer I get to God, the more I see how much I fall short in my ability to love as God does. In coming to God with this in Confession, the grace and strength I receive truly empower me on a daily basis to give without counting the cost.

“Although many times one receives great words of encouragement, it is the invisible—what cannot be sensed with the eyes or ears—that is the greatest gift of all. I call this sacrament ‘The Secret Treasure’ because most people have no real clue as to the depths and heights of its power.

“The saints who went before us knew and celebrated this sacrament often. We should imitate their example!”

West New York, New Jersey

Reclaiming the Sacred

“I was at a point in my life where I had given up on God. I decided I was going to accept my ‘halfways’ and get by without God. Many persons in my parish reached out to me and prayed in the Spirit for me, but the ‘God thing’ did not really click. I decided to leave and live without the help of a Christian community.

“I did, however, allow God to give me one last tug. I went to Confession, told the priest my plans of giving up on God and then I left.

“A couple weeks later I started to feel better about myself. Amazingly, I was no longer depressed. I made contacts with my pastor and told him I was headed back to the prayer meetings.

“The most comical thing that happened from this experience was me checking out from our public library the soundtrack for the 1953 movie St. Francis of Assisi. I played that album over and over. God’s Spirit was definitely at work here.

“Me—a lover of rock and roll—listening to sacred music!”

Allentown, Pennsylvania

Grace-filled Community

“One of my most positive experiences of Reconciliation (and there have been many) has been at St. Francis of Assisi Church on 31st Street in Manhattan. Reconciliation is one of their major ministries, and hundreds of people come every week from every borough of the city.

“In spite of their busyness, the confessors make it a point to be attentive and kind. It has been most helpful to find a regular confessor at St. Francis. I have discovered, especially in the face-to-face setting, there is a caring, concerned listener who evaluates my particular struggles to follow Christ.

“He provides insights and encouragement, gently correcting what needs to be corrected, showing great wisdom and life experience—in short, sharing the healing presence of Jesus.”

The Bronx, New York

God: The Ultimate Therapist

“Reconciliation is an essential way of expressing one’s sins. If it were used more, there would be far less need for therapists. I recommend that it should be kept and expanded.”

Scottsdale, Arizona

Feeling Free

“My feelings on the Sacrament of Reconciliation are very new. I converted to Catholicism last summer and I knew one of the first things I would have to do would be to confess my sins for the first time as a new Catholic.

“I had the option to go in person or behind the screen in the confessional and I chose to go in person. I was so nervous: I knew there was nothing I could tell the priest that would surprise him, but saying my sins out loud to another person was so emotional for me.

“It felt like a huge weight was lifted from me, and being absolved by the priest was so freeing. I feel it is necessary for each Catholic to examine their conscience before accepting the Body and Blood of Christ.”

Twin Falls, Idaho

The Right Road

“The sins kept building, the ones you don’t want to confess to anyone. A voice within me kept saying: Time is short. Now is the time.

“I made an appointment with Father Paul. We sat near the altar with me facing Christ on the cross. We talked for over an hour. I had written everything down. Father Paul absolved me of my sins. I gave him the paper and asked him to dispose of it. He smiled and had a better idea.

“We went outside and Father Paul got an urn and placed the paper in it. He lit it on fire and we watched the smoke drift up toward heaven. We stood watching as the sun was setting.

“A large advertisement sign was near the Interstate 95 highway near where the church was located. On it read: ‘Are You on the Right Road?—GOD.’

“I looked at Father Paul and said, ‘Yes, I finally am.’ I finally felt the true mercy and love of God.”

Stratford, Connecticut

“If we are God’s children,” a Sterling, Virginia, resident writes, “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 sacrament 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.” 

Christopher Heffron is an assistant editor of this publication.


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