The horrors of the confessional are legendary, according to the testimony of movies, books, and personal anecdotes. While I don’t doubt the veracity of my friends who had unpleasant experiences, I do wonder if the sacrament’s infamous reputation has more in common with a legend than notoriety. That is, I suspect that, like a legend, it has more to do with times past than with our own time, and also like a legend, there’s some fiction or exaggeration involved.
We’re all familiar with the image of a pendulum swinging from one side to the other, illustrating the human and societal tendency to pass from one extreme to its opposite. This is certainly true in the spiritual life. It’s so easy to stray from the straight and narrow, and then often we overcorrect and end up going right off the path again, this time on the opposite side.
In times past, even the recent past, there has sometimes been an overemphasis on the fear of God and a focus on sinfulness that led to anxiety, rigidity, scrupulosity, and judgmentalness.
In our day, our culture has swung way over to the other side on this one. We now have an overemphasis on how much God loves us. Don’t get me wrong—His merciful love is a very important message! But it’s coupled with a crippled sense of sin. The common conception of God is akin to an almighty Santa Claus, who never gives coal to anyone (except perhaps murderers who don’t repent and to bigots). While he wants everyone to be nice, he turns a blind eye to those being naughty—or rather has re-defined naughtiness to mean only downright nastiness.
While we hear a great deal about how guilt-ridden folks were a few generations ago, we are hard-pressed to feel any sense of guilt today. Our idea of sin is so slim and we see God as so nonchalant, it’s no wonder hardly anyone bothers to go to confession anymore.
When did guilt become such a bogey anyway? No one enjoys guilt anymore than they do pain, but that doesn't mean that either is useless. Pain alerts us that something is amiss in our bodies; guilt does the same with our souls. It's as dangerous to ignore or deny or deaden the sense of guilt as it would be to do deaden, deny, and ignore the pain of heart disease.
It may very well be that, years ago, once in a while a priest would upbraid a penitent in the confessional. This may have been because he held Jansenist views, but maybe it was because he perceived a lack of true contrition or understanding in the penitent, or he had rheumatism, or was just having a bad day.
At any rate, it’s very rare today. Only once did a priest scold me—but that was twenty-five years ago, and he was old and crotchety, and I deserved it. (Sometimes we do.) And I go to confession fairly often—at least once or twice a month for the past 15 years—and have gone to a wide array of priests: dozens of parish and diocesan priests in various cities and states, as well as retreat masters and those specially trained in counseling or spiritual direction. None of them has ever yelled at me or told me what a miserable sinner I am.
Much more often, at the parish level, I’m the one trying to convince the priest that I actually sinned than the other way around. Okay, maybe it’s due to “human nature,” maybe it’s very common, maybe I was in a bad mood…but I still shouldn’t have done it. Sometimes it wasn’t a sin; the act was unintentional—I forgot to do something, for instance. But I’m still sorry, and want to apologize to the Lord. If I accidentally break something belonging to my husband or forget to do something he asked me to do, I don’t say to him, “Well, I didn’t do it on purpose, so get over it.” I’m still sorry, and I still apologize.
But why can’t we just tell God we’re sorry on our own? This is the other major reason the lines for confession are so short: people think, “I don’t need a priest; I can just go to God myself.”
Well, you definitely can, and should, tell God you’re sorry for your sins.
Confession offers a more thorough cleansing and healing means, however. If you’re out in the woods and your hands get dirty—yes, use the hand sanitizer. But don’t disparage or neglect good old-fashioned soap and water when they’re available. The reasons that confession are preferable may be as little known as the superiority of soap and hot water over hand-sanitizer, but maybe we need to trust the experts on both.
The sacrament of confession is a tremendous gift and offers wonderful benefits. It would be too lengthy in fact to describe them now; that will have to wait ’til next week.