Like many Catholics, I have my share of doubts and disagreements regarding some aspects of Church teaching. I include on my list of unorthodox uncertainties my skepticism about the necessity of Confession. To put it simply, I believe that God loves us deeply, desires to be in right relationship with us, hears every word that we utter, and is quick to forgive us when we confess our sins, through a priest or not.
And yet, I go to Confession.
I don’t go all the time, but I try to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation during Lent. Here’s why:
Confession forces me to take a good, hard look at myself.
Our tradition recommends that we prepare ourselves for the Sacrament by performing an examination of conscience in the moments leading up to Confession. This practice is an invaluable tool for reflecting prayerfully on my thoughts, words, and deeds in order to identify what’s working well in my life and where I’m falling short. It’s sort of like a work performance self-review, where the job I’m evaluating myself on is my primary role as human being. Having a specific, designated time to examine how my life is measuring up against the instructions for fullness of life laid out in Scripture (say, the Ten Commandments or the Beatitudes) helps me stay honest with myself, keeps me humble and sheds light on the areas of my relationships, morals and habits that could use some work.
Confession leads to new perspectives and insights.
I believe that pastoral conversations within the confessional have the power to elucidate, transform and inspire. One time, a priest told me that I was being too hard on myself; another time, he suggested a new way of looking at a commandment that I was struggling to uphold. Both of these insights — and many others — have helped me deepen my relationship with God and feel more equipped to live in a life of everyday holiness. I, personally, especially appreciate having access to a listening ear and wisdom from someone whom I don’t know (I typically go to confession away from my home parish). The anonymity makes me feel comfortable sharing without reservation, and the fresh perspective from someone outside my usual circle-of-wisdom is always welcomed.
There is power in speaking words of repentance and in hearing words of forgiveness.
Many of us have memories of apologizing for childhood misbehavior and then being admonished by a parent or teacher to “say it like you mean it.” For an apology to feel real, it needs to be expressed with sincerity and meaning. It also has to actually be spoken. Aloud. Feeling sorry isn’t enough. Confession gives us the opportunity to say we’re sorry, and while we can certainly apologize to God directly in private prayer, I’ve found that having an audience — the priest — makes the apology feel more real to me. Likewise, hearing words of mercy spoken aloud touches me, even though I know that God’s forgiveness occurs regardless of what the priest says.
Confession inspires me to be the person God created me to be.
Time and again, I most consistently use my electric toothbrush, wear my retainer and floss in the month or two after visiting the dentist. You’d think that I’d practice these habits to prepare for my dental exam, but instead, I find myself inspired to keep my teeth in their new, polished state after the hygienist’s deep clean and the doctor’s positive assessment. I have a similar experience post-Confession. With a fresh sense of God’s love and the reminder that, with the Holy Spirit’s help, I have the power to be faithful, loving, honest and just, I leave the confessional excited to put new insights into action, one small step at a time. In other words, Confession encourages me to be a better person.
As St. Augustine once explained, a Sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. I may not think that Confession is a necessary prerequisite to receiving God’s forgiveness, but I do experience God’s grace through the Sacrament, in each of the ways I just described. That’s why I’ll be seeking out a confessional this Lent.