These Are the Most Common Myths About Confession
Confession. Even the mention of this sacrament begins to make me feel nervous. I’ve been at least a hundred times in my life and yet even now I begin to get nervous as I prepare for the sacrament. But, perhaps this is good. Should we really feel comfortable with our sins? Shouldn’t we feel some kind of nerves when facing our sins in the privacy of the confessional? This sacrament is often one of the least talked about in the church, at least in regards to what actually happens in its individual practice, and this is because of the highly subjective nature of the relationship of the penitent and confessor, and the confessional seal that prevents the priest from ever saying anything that would betray what is said in the confessional.
However, I want to dispel some common misconceptions that people may have about this sacrament in order to help others, and to help remind myself, that this is not a sacrament that needs to make one feel nervous, but rather a sacrament that should be looked at as indispensable to growing in holiness.
Misconception #1: The Seal of the Confessional.
Almost everybody has heard about this but not everybody knows exactly what it entails. I remember hearing a talk once entitled “What 40 years of hearing confessions has taught me” given by an experienced priest. My first reaction was to question how he could give this talk and not break what I thought the seal was. Essentially, the seal is this- the priest cannot reveal any information that will connect a person and their sin to anybody. Not to the police, not to another priest, not to the pope. Nor can the priest even admit that a person has come to them for confession. But…the priest is not the only person bound by the seal. Have you ever been in a confessional that had thin walls and you could hear what was being said on the other side? Have you accidentally heard part of somebody else’s confession? You are bound to the seal. If a person needs a translator to go to confession, the translator is bound to the seal. To put it bluntly, the seal is important and EVERY priest I have ever met takes it very, very seriously.
Misconception #2: You Should Only Go to Confession When You Have Committed Mortal Sins.
You only are required to confess mortal sins in the confessional; but you are encouraged to confess venial sins as well, especially as it may help the priest gain a fuller picture of your life. But I always think of Saint Pope John Paul II and Saint Mother Teresa; who both went to confession on a regular basis, multiple times a month. I find it hard to believe that these two saints were committing mortal sins on such a regular basis, if at all, and thus they must be confessing their venial sins. If it’s good enough for Saints Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa, it’s good enough for me.
Misconception #3: Confession Only Removes Sin From Our Life.
The sacrament of confession does so much more than simply remove the sin from our life. It also is a means of giving us grace. And the grace that we receive is more than simply the forgiving of our sins. We are given the grace through this sacrament that will help us grow in virtue and help us to fulfill the Act of Contrition where we promise to “sin no more and avoid whatever leads us to sin”. This is only possible through grace, grace we receive through the sacraments including Confession.
Misconception #4: Penances Don’t Matter.
They do. Quite a bit. Each sacrament has a proper form and matter. For example, the Eucharist requires the proper matter in order to be a valid sacrament- wheat bread and grape wine. If a different type of bread is used or a different type of wine (or even different types of food) the Eucharist is not valid. That is, the non-wheat bread and non-grape wine does NOT become the Body and Blood of Christ. The proper matter of baptism is a living human person. That is why you cannot baptize an animal. You can do everything else; say the words, pour the water; but the animal is not baptized because the spiritual reality has not happened due to the improper matter. Likewise confession has a proper matter, and the proper matter of confession is contrition, confession, and penance. A person must have contrition for their sins, confess their sin, and then do penance for their sins for the proper matter to be present. Thus- doing your penance is important!
Misconception #5: The Priest Will Judge Me.
Speaking with many, MANY priest friends of mine this was the hardest misconception for me to get past. I mean, I judge myself; why wouldn’t the priest. But we forget the priest hears so many of these that what we say has probably been confessed to the priest before. And the priest himself is a sinner and, hopefully, goes to confession regularly himself. Rather, every priest I have spoken to, looks at the people who go to confession as living heroic lives of searching for virtue and heaven. If any judging is going on, it is the priest judging that the person is striving for heaven; which is hopefully true!
I know clearing up these misconceptions will not ease all the nerves around going to confession- but hopefully these reminders will help you as they help me get mystelf into the confessional. For it is in the confessional that we allow Jesus to begin to heal our sins and draw us ever closer to him.