Friday, March 01, 2019 - Updated: 12:43 pm
Saying, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” brings almost as much anxiety to people as being pulled over for speeding and hearing the officer say, “Let me see your driver’s license and owner’s card.” But it doesn’t have to be. Since lots of folks will go to confession during the season of Lent, let me offer some thoughts to lower your fears and increase grace.
Before you go to confession, consider who you are talking to. Yes, you will be talking to a priest, but more importantly you are talking with God, who created you, knows you and loves you unconditionally. There is nothing you can say that God does not already know about you (and which the priest hasn’t already heard). God is not some mean Ebenezer Scrooge who is keeping track of your faults and sins. God is the father of the prodigal son and blockheaded older son, who loves both beyond their imagining (Luke 15:11-32). Nothing you can say or think can detract from God loving you.
Prepare for confession with an examination of conscience for 21st-century adults. Many were taught to use the Ten Commandments for preparing to go to confession. There are other biblical passages that can be more fruitful to help you prepare. Consider spending 30 minutes reflecting on the eight beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12); or the three theological virtues (faith, hope and love — 1 Corinthians 13:4-13); or the three great commandments of Jesus (love God; love neighbor; love self — Mark 12:28-34) or the seven deadly sins and their contrasting virtues (pride/humility; greed/generosity; envy/gratitude; anger/compassion; lust/purity; gluttony/moderation; sloth/diligence). The best adult examination of conscience I have found is in the 1972 “Rite of Penance” ritual from the Vatican.
Throw away your laundry list and tell stories. Most Catholics who go to confession have the same “laundry list” of sins they established when they were in the sixth grade. These include forgetting my morning prayers, talking back to my mother, saying bad words, gossiping and touching myself impurely. These may have been the sins of a sixth-grader, but you are now in your 40s or 50s or 60s! A better way to speak about your sins is to tell a few stories about how you harmed others or sinned. Some sins can’t be summed up in a sentence, but rather in a complex situation. Tell that to the priest with your sorrow.
Consider going “face to face.” No penitent can be forced to go to confession face to face with a priest. All our confessionals and reconciliation rooms are built to provide anonymity. I respect whatever decision folks make. But if you have never gone to confession face to face, consider trying it. I have found that it allows a penitent to be more open about his/her faults, to speak conversationally and to reflect more deeply about what is going on in their spiritual life.
Ask a question. Most confessions consist of the penitent telling her/his sins, and the priest giving absolution, saying the same routine words. But confession is also a good time to ask a priest a question about ethics, morality or a difficult situation in one’s life. I like to think about confession as a “holy conversation,” a time of spiritual direction. A back-and-forth dialogue can bring consolation or enlightenment to a problem you’ve been thinking about, but don’t know what to do with. Remember, a priest will probably not be able to solve your problem, but he might give you insight to help you face a troublesome situation.
Think of a penance that will benefit you. Most priests will give you a penance of a few prayers. We’re not very original with suggesting penances. But you might think of a penance that positively addresses one of your sins or sinful tendencies, which you could suggest to the priest.
If you are jealous, consider writing down the names of 10 people for whom you are grateful in your life and praying for them. If you missed Sunday Mass a couple of times, consider spending 15 minutes in church the following week reading the Scriptures of the upcoming Mass ahead of time, and thinking about possible sermon topics. If you viewed pornography, consider using time better by volunteering at a local food pantry or visiting elderly relatives in a nursing home as a penance. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you be creative in doing your penance.
After your confession, be grateful for God’s mercy. The sacrament of reconciliation is a moment of grace for you to receive God’s forgiveness. Be grateful for this gift that you can never repay. Tell God how thankful you are. Then practice this mercy and express forgiveness to those you meet in the coming days.
Father Almade is administrator of the parish grouping that includes St. Colman in Turtle Creek, St. John Fisher in Churchill and St. Jude in Wilmerding.