There are at least two kinds of penitents: one who goes in and wants a lengthy conversation with the priest about their sinfulness and how to change and another who just wants to get in, list their sins, get absolution, get out and get it over with. Both styles are legit and priests seem to be sensitive and respectful of both.
As for me, I usually want to be like penitent #1 but get mistaken for #2 every time.
I am horrible at confession. I really am. Though my confessions are valid — I’m contrite, truly want to avoid sinning in the future, etc. — I am never satisfied with my confessing style. When I go to confession I want it to be like spiritual direction with absolution at the end. I want to have a dialogue with the priest about what I am doing wrong, why I am doing it, and how I can change it. I want to truly hash out my sinfulness.
But in reality, I don’t really know how to start that conversation. I’m so anxious walking into the confessional that, once seated, I nervously stammer out a vague list of sins, the priest offers equally vague advice, absolves me and I’m out the door. Even when I have a ton of sins to confess, I’m out of that confessional in three minutes, tops.
I don’t blame the priests; I know this is on me. The priests can’t help but offer vague advice when I give them vague sins. Am I supposed to be specific? I usually list ambiguous things like being uncharitable, neglecting my spiritual life, or sinning by omission. The biggest problem is this makes it seem like the sins are not so bad. I mean all sin is bad, and an offense against God and the rest of the world no matter how small, but I think not being precise about one’s own sinfulness might mislead the priest who is trying to think of what kind of advice and what kind of penance to give. For instance, when I say I have been uncharitable, does that mean I shouted an expletive at Christina Aguilera for not picking a deserving singer on The Voice, or does it mean that I regularly kick puppies and cut people off on the highway? When I say that I am neglecting my spiritual life, does that mean that I didn’t say my usual rosary while washing dishes or does it mean that I missed the hour of Adoration I signed up for because I decided to have drinks with friends? While the priests don’t need a play by play of every single time I have committed every single sin, don’t they need a little more then what I’ve been giving them?
Additionally, timing and venue make a big difference. Typically, when I go to confession there is always a pretty long line with only an hour to go before the priest has to begin Mass. I can’t in good conscience strike up a conversation with a priest when I know he has ten minutes left and there are ten others in line behind me. I don’t think I should take up a lot of the priest’s time when I know it means that other people behind me won’t get in.
Despite all of my failings when it comes to confession, I must admit that the priests I’ve gone to have always given me what I needed every time — more than just absolution and penance. I’ve had the soft-spoken and gentle priest that told me not to beat myself up too much. I’ve had the tough love priest who basically told me to shape up or ship out. I’ve even had the hard-of-hearing priest who made me repeat my sins over and over, louder and louder, which in and of itself taught me much more humility than any words he might have said. All these priests told or taught me exactly what I needed to learn at those particular moments.
While I say I am “bad” at confession, God always gives these priests the grace to speak to my heart in those moments and grace me with absolution. Even in my imperfection about confessing my imperfections, God forgives me and I am made clean.
For a while now, I’ve been trying to figure out how to make confession more like what I want. Instead of jumping around the city and going to different priests, I could choose one confessor, one priest who I have a relationship with who knows me and knows my struggles. This way he knows that if I confess to lying, then that really isn’t something we have to discuss at length because I really strive to not lie. But if I confess being uncharitable, he knows that I get frustrated easily and have a temper that I often take out on my poor husband, so he would counsel me more on the latter rather than the former. Or if I feel rushed when I’m in a line of people waiting for confession, I could set up an appointment with my confessor and block out a whole hour — really get in there and have an in-depth spiritual conversation. This way I won’t feel pressured to hurry up or feel guilty for taking up too much of the priest’s time. And by setting up confession like this, I could finally answer the question about how specific to be about my sins because I would have the time to ask.
Even if I continue to go to confession the way I have been, it would still be a beautiful and powerful Sacrament and I would receive the undeserved gift of absolution and forgiveness. Perhaps there isn’t really a huge difference between a “good” confession and a “bad” confession. I’ll continue to mess up and sin and need the Sacrament, and God will always holds up God’s end of the deal and forgive me, but maybe if I tried out these ideas it could help direct me to becoming a more faithful person, and make confession a richer spiritual experience for me.