Recently, Sr Teresa Aletheia asked for a quote for me on the topic of Confession. I had returned from World Youth Day, and was a month behind preparing for the new school year, I could only come up with a sentence.
It is important to bear these things in mind:
- The Sacrament of Penance may be therapeutic, but it is not a counseling session.
Although I am open to give practical advice, or helpful perspective, I believe the grace of God that they receive in that Sacrament is more important than anything that I can say. I also believe that people would be happy for there to be advice or perspective that is not merely practical, but explicitly spiritual. Finally, bearing in mind, that many people don’t want or need any advice whatsoever (often this is how I feel going to the Sacrament), I merely need the grace that the Sacrament offers.
- People may need moral clarity, but it is not primarily a catechetical session.
I have had a difficult time with older priests assuming that I am paralyzed with guilt over sins. Catholic guilt is not something I suffer from. In fact, I wish my contrition was deeper and more heartfelt. I don’t think a person needs to be explained that they did not in fact sin according to the theological moral criterion and definition of sin. The peace that forgiveness grant’s is more important. That doesn’t mean that the questions of a penitent ought to be disregarded.
- People are not forced into the Confessional these days.
Involved Catholics gripe that there is not enough talk of sin in the pulpit. I am sure there are some who would want to know that I am scolding & castigating every last sinner who comes in. The fact is, nowadays, there are no social pressures to go to Confession. Whether or not there should be is another question. What that means, is that whoever shows up, has done so freely, set aside time from their busy life, because they know what they did is wrong, and they know that they need the help of God and the Church. They don’t need moral lessons, they need God’s grace.
- Catholics are not encouraged to grow spiritually
I find that most of their regular sins are their own personal spiritual plateau. Faith Formation ends at 14 for most Catholics. Catholics have mistaken holy darkness for atheism or agnosticism. Sometimes a one-on-one session with a Priest is an opportunity to teach them that God’s plan for them is satisfying beyond their wildest dreams.
Now when they show up, I keep these things in mind, and it informs the advice that I give them. As I have advised often, I find that there are a things that I turn to often. People think that they are so alone and unique in their sins and struggles.
- The Sacrament of Reconciliation is an Encounter with Christ and his mercy.
I know I can get legal minded, and I do encounter this with others as well. This is how relationships are made whole, by communication, by apologizing, by receiving forgiveness. It is personal, not just legal. Sometimes the remorse of the sin, or the preoccupation with the ritual can make people forget that Christ stands at the center of this.
- Strategies are not as effective as God’s grace.
I get a Confession of a sin, followed by a lengthy explanation of what they are doing to work on that sin. Maybe they are used to priests scolding them, or challenging them to think about ways to overcome that. Any strategy we make to overcome sin is entirely ineffective if we are not praying, not going to confession, not receiving the sacraments. I often find that the practical advice is inadequate. The most that I often do is ask them to find a mentor or few friends who can help with advice and accountability.
- Read the Scriptures
I know Catholics suck at reading or studying the Scriptures. I am not comfortable giving this out as a penance to many people, because many people look at the bible like operating a complicated and elite piece of machinery. I remind them that the Psalms are a good source of prayer, and the Gospels are how we can know about Jesus. This is also very dangerous. It can provoke them to love God and others more.
- The Holy Spirit seems to be working in their life
I can’t count how many times, someone enters Confession, after having to traverse many internal challenges. I really admire so many people boldly crying out to Christ in their brokenness. I am moved. As they are their wallowing, imagining that God wants to lunge and hurl condemnations, that the opposite is very true. The courage that to show up is probably an indication of the Spirit’s guidance in their life.
When Penance time comes around I usually assign a few non-traditional penances
- Read the Sunday Bible Readings
Every once and a while, I find that someone wants more. They have no legitimate mentors in their life to steer them in the direction of mature faith. One simple thing anyone can do is spend some time in prayer with the Readings for Mass. I started doing this my Senior Year of High School, now it’s my job to do it.
- Gratitude List
If someone doubts, they need to see evidence of God’s loving activity in their life. If someone sins, they need to see evidence that God will care for their needs. A gratitude list is a practical way for anyone to look with their eyes, and read aloud, the good things God does for them. Then they can thank them in a Litany. I tell them, as a penance, that they are required to do this once within 3 days, and that I encourage them to do it regularly 1-2x/week. This is very much rooted in Augustine’s Confessions: Writing down exactly how God has been good and generous in your life.
- Jesus Prayer
This is one of the ancient practices of our faith. Catholics are trained to see encountering God as a tedious, and often emotionally exhausting exercise, instead of seeing Christ as the source of all our new life. I find, over and over, Catholics are astounded that we have had this simple quiet meditation prayer for centuries, and that they are only hearing about it now.
- Offer a Mass Intention / Offer a Holy Hour
I save this one for Catholics that I have indication to believe that they are involved in their faith. I charge them to offer a Mass intention or a Holy Hour (it depends on the circumstances), in reparation for their sins, and in reparation for others who have struggled with the same sin. Sometimes I hear confessions before Mass, or during a Holy Hour. I also trust that they might be happy to bring their bibles, rosaries, and prayer books to adoration, and be set.