In my life time, the Sacrament of Reconciliation has gone from one of the most frequently celebrated to one of the least. There were usually long lines every week and not before Christmas and Easter. Part of the reason for this has to do with misconceptions people have about this sacrament. Here is a by-no-means-complete list of misconceptions.
01. Most people come to the sacrament with the idea that it is God who will change rather than themselves. The idea is that God seemingly withholds forgiveness until the sinner has sought and deserved it. But the fact is that reconciliation requires no change in God, but rather a change in us: God’s healing.
02. It is commonly misunderstood that the initiative rests with the penitent, but in the gospels it is the other way around. Jesus offers forgiveness, urges it upon his hearers, and always makes the approach. In February, someone came for the first time in 60 years! The reason was God’s grace at work in the penitent’s life.
03. Third, the image many also have is that a penitent is summoned to submit himself, to humiliate himself before God and the priest. But the role of the priest is precisely not to sit in judgment, but to reach out and help the healing process. The priest is meant to be more of a spiritual physician rather than a court judge.
04. There has been in the past the generally approved custom of frequent confession. But this has encouraged a trivializing of both sin and this sacrament. What frequent confession lead to was a “grocery list” of sins. One penitent who confessed for the first time in 25+ years, provided me with “exact” numbers of how often he lied, missed church, swore, stole, etc.
05. Frequent reconciliation gives us grace to overcome temptation and sin. But that’s what the Eucharist helps us do. It is true that by taking the time to reflect on and confess one’s sins can help us be more mindful of trying not to sin. But a daily examination of conscience will do just nicely. Yes, the sacrament does grace us, but — in my OPINION — confessing too frequently has as nearly as many negative effects as positive.
06. Some people think that they have to try to name every sin they have committed. It can’t be done and it isn’t necessary. Part of the nature of sin is to hide itself from us. It is not possible to name every sin. But what is possible, what God expects, and what we can do is be sorry for every sin.
07. Some people think the priest will be shocked by their sins and hold them against them. Of all the thousands of times I have celebrated this sacrament, I was only shocked once. Besides most priests are acutely aware of their own sinfulness and wish with all their hearts that their sins were as straightforward. Furthermore, God gives us the great gift of forgetting. It is a very rare occasion that I will remember what is said to me in the sacrament. Ironically, some people are angry that I don’t remember. And, of course there is the seal of confession. What is said during the celebration of the sacrament must be held in the strictest confidence. A priest who breaks the confidentiality of the sacrament is dealt with swiftly and severely.
08. Being behind a screen brings anonymity. We whisper like we talk and if one has regular interaction with the priest, chances are he will know. Part of the role of the priest is to represent Christ (make Jesus present), this is easier to do — in my OPINION — when priest and penitent are face to face.
09. There is the misconception that all priests are good confessors. That is no more true than saying that all priests are great preachers. If you don’t feel a priest is a good confessor and helpful, then by all means find another. However, beware that just because you don’t like what a confessor says, doesn’t means that what said is not true and something we needed to hear. On the other hand, no good confessor yells at a penitent, belittles him or her, and casts him or her into the fires of hell.
10. The only place where we celebrate forgiveness is in the sacrament of penance. Actually, it is celebrated also in Baptism, Eucharist and Anointing of the Sick.
11. Second graders are old enough to understand sin. Psychologists say that this is NOT the case at all. It is no exaggeration for me to say that 99% of second graders who have confessed with me are like Jeopardy players. They put the answer in the form of a question — “I disobeyed my parents?” What Bishop Fulton J. Sheeen said of hearing the confessions of nuns is even more true when it comes to the confessions of children — it’s like being pelted with popcorn!
12. The legal system is a good metaphor: the priest is judge, jury, and executioner. Penance is punishment for penitent to pay for the price of his sin. On the contrary, a priest is meant to be a spiritual physician and a penance is like a prescription to help one get spiritually well.
13. This sacrament is a license to sin all you want. Actually more Protestants than Catholics have this idea. In either case, it is simply not true. There must be genuine sorrow and the intention to sin no more before receiving forgiveness.
14. Who needs a priest? All I need to do is to tell God “I’m sorry.” There are a variety of reasons why confession with a priest is necessary:
• We have bodies. We need to see and hear that we are forgiven.
• Our sin affects other people and coming to a priest is a reminder of how we impact the Body of Christ.
• A priest can offer suggestions and encouragement.
• There are times when we aren’t aware of what our true sin is. With-out knowing how and where we are sinning, we will continue sinning.
• We all have a need to unburden our- selves & share with another person. This is not the ONLY way we can do it, but it is a way.
• Jesus gave the Church the gift, power and responsibility to forgive sins. It is part of his plan.
A Six Minute video of how to do a daily examination of conscience: