On the Feast of St. John Vianney, reknowned Confessor, here is a story on my experience with the great Sacrament of Confession
St. John Vianney
People tell me all the time, “Why do I have to go to Confession to a Priest!” 98% of the time it’s not actually a question. It’s a statement of intention on their part — they’re just not going to Confession.
Years ago, mired in the abyss of New Age sophistry, I used to feel exactly the same way. But not anymore. The Lord freed me from my ignorance and now I sing His praises and extoll the virtues of regular sacramental Confession from the hilltops, the rooftops and the Ambo. We don’t have hilltops in New Orleans, but I don’t let that get me down… I tell anyone and everyone who will listen.
Here’s what happened.
As a naive fun loving teen-ager I was more often than not to be found in my room reading, or watching old movies on TV – PBS was the movie channel of choices in the 70′s, with their late at night 10:00pm movie before signing off the air while playing the Star Spangled Banner.
Armed with free time over the summers, and plenty of it, I spent hours reading the Old Testament. I just loved it. I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink, and honestly one of the last things on my mind at the time was the thought of actually engaging in the realm of activities that lead so often to early pregnancies, loss of virtue, etc. I was a good kid; kind of strange, but well behaved and good intentioned.
So when Confession time rolled around in High School — and I can barely even remember going in High School, if we ever went at all though I’m assuming we did — I lined up and went with everyone else with my mental list of things I had done wrong, which no doubt was a slightly extended list of my Grammar School transgressions: disobeying my parents, not doing my homework, hitting my brother in some way shape or form, etc., etc., etc.
But by then everything had changed. This was the new post-Vatican II Church and everything that was old was not new, fresh and exciting. Who needed any of that! Who needed Confession! Who needed a Catechism!
We really did not learn anything in regard to the Faith, though some teachers did try, and were great teachers. We did learn a lot of situational morality. Question: “If you’re friends are smoking and drinking and engaging in pre-marital sex, what are you going to do?” Answer: “None of that!” Grade – “A+“. Boring.
In college, word was going around that Confession had changed. We were now going face to face, and I was filled with dread. Who on earth wanted to do that? No one in their right mind, that’s who. Why would anyone want to go into a little room and talk with someone face to face and tell them things you were supposed to be telling to God, if to anyone at all. And, the Act of Contrition had changed.
I was very confused with the whole mess. The end result was that I avoided Confession, mainly because I felt ignorant about it and out of the loop. No one knew what to do with it.
In retrospect, why didn’t I know any of these new things? It’s entirely true that no one in our Catholic Schools taught us. But I’m sure it was because they had no clue either, as every day we heard of another Priest or Sister who had left the Church, or watched as beautiful vestments were torn and used as banners, and as statues were hauled off as guitars and drums were wheeled in.
But I’m digressing from my story, and making this much longer than it needs to be for you, dear reader, to get the point here. And that point is only that, from sometime in High School until the time I was in my mid thirties, some twenty years later, I had not graced the threshold of any confessional or group penance service unless I was hired as the organist. In which case the music was unbelievably beautiful, but the state of my soul languished as I fell further into disbelief and looked to New Age gurus for enlightenment and truth.
Eventually I was hired as a full-time musician in a Parish, a move which appeared sensible at the time. Let me tell you, that was a story. It may be a story for a different time, but it’s a story I tell you! I still have nightmares. Well not really, but I do find it difficult to walk into that Church.
But God, in His infinite wisdom, uses all things for His greater glory and that work led to a profound transformation in my life.
See, in order to do the work well as a music director in a Catholic Church, I started looking into available literature and professional associations. I read all of the Liturgy Documents which had been published and became a liturgi-zealot in the process. Then, to my utter delight, the Catechism was published in 1992.
I was so excited when the Catechism came out because, for the first time since childhood, here was an available resource in which I could look up the tenets of the Faith. I read all about the Eucharist, and realized that I could believe in the real presence. I read all about the Trinity, the Church, prayer, and what struck me most of all, at that time, was the four states of life. And I made a conscious decision to live in the single state, trying to live in holiness according to the teachings of the Church.
Trsut me, I had tried almost everything else spiritually. It was nothing new for me to try on spiritual principles as if they were a new jacket, the latest style, or something which I could use to ostensibly better my life for a year or two. I felt different about this.
Life went on, and I grew in my understanding of the Faith for several years before I finally realized I could not avoid Confession. I was hardly a true disciple at this point, I actually held on to New Age beliefs for a time even in seminary before I was finally and gratefully fully freed from those errors. But I was working with a Priest who was very easy conversationally, and I asked him about it, and he encouraged me to go.
So I went to Confession, my first in twenty years, sitting in his office feeling like an idiot, spilling out all the numerous horrifying and scandalizing sins of my young adulthood in about three minutes. I thought he would go pale and faint, or that I would feel remarkably foolish. But no, I felt fine, and it was a very good experience.
Flush with self confidence now that I knew about Confession, and could handle the new rite (which had changed again since my teens,) I proceeded to go to Confession at least once a year, as the Catechism teaches. I was doing my part, I was living the Faith! I was on top of the world and pondering the question of entering the Seminary!
Jumping ahead two years, I was in my first year of seminary and on our annual retreat. We were having confessions, and I felt like I didn’t really need to go because I had just gone before Christmas. Our retreat was right after New Year, and I’m basically a good person, what sins could I have committed since then?
So I mentioned this to one of my friends, who said “Oh, come with me to Fr. Billy. No one’s in his line and I hear he’s pretty good.”
I went with him and we waited in line. My friend took awhile in confession, and I was thinking he must have done something truly horrible to be in there so long. But I had some spiritual reading and was fine waiting. He came out, then I went in — and was in there for 45 minutes.
Fr. Billy started off the Confessions, and then we more or less just had a conversation in the spiritual realm. I mentioned that I had just gone last month and didn’t need to go again, but since we were on retreat felt it would be a good thing to do. He chuckled knowingly.
During our conversation, I ended up mentioned a few things that might be sins if one really stretched things (so I thought,) and he assured me that yes, that should be brought to confession. And yes, that should be brought to confession also. Always with a sly “Ahhh!” As if to say, “You see little one, you’re in sin and can’t even see God’s remarkable mercy and grace for the planks in your eye.” I started to have the vaguest inkling then that Confession is a good place for one to dump out the garbage of the soul.
Fast forwarding several weeks, I had asked Fr. Billy to be my spiritual director.
He accepted and in counseling he suggested I try going to Confession weekly. (Note: I fully realize that going to Confession weekly is neither possible nor practical for the majority of Catholics. In fact, for some overly scrupulous persons, it could be a sign of an unhealthy spirituality. For me, at that time, it was perfect.)
I laughed and said I simply just didn’t sin that much. I also still questioned why someone needed to go to Confession so often; I was just barely into my acceptance of it in the first place. He chuckled again, in that kind of wise knowing way that let on that he knew something I didn’t. He had hooked me in, and he sold me when he said, “You should try it, if for no other reason than that, should you be ordained, you will have people coming to you weekly for Confession, and you should know what that’s like.” I was sold.
How could I argue with that? With a fair amount of resignation, I started in on my weekly Confessional assignment.
Here’s what happened:
Over the course of several months I discovered more and more things which I never realized should be brought to Confession, mostly because I had never remotely thought of some actions as being inherently sinful.
I realized that sin is not necessarily a bad word, or one which calls for fear or indignation. It’s a condition that we live in. And when we strive to grow in virtue, sin is both the condition and the actions which bring us to a screeching halt, a plummeting decline in grace, a dismal morass of self pity, etc.
But I got over being offended by the notion of sin, and I got over feeling that I was somehow diminished by admitting my sins. Not that I was proud of them of course.
I’m not perfect even though I’m created in the image and likeness of God; I’m not perfect because sin is in the world. And so I commit sins, either through my own choice or through ignorance. But it’s good to learn about them and to confess them, and so examine my life more closely so that I may see where God is trying to build me up, where satan is trying to tear me down, and where my strengths are and where I am truly weak. Amongst other things… many, many other things that I learned about in that time.
As time went on, I found I was confessing the same sins over and over. Every now and again a new one crept in, but for the most part I was a broken record.
I grew very embarassed. I felt like I was not trying, and like I was not trusting in God’s help.
So. I resolved to consciously try to better myself in all the areas in which I was proving to be habitually weak. I made daily attempts in my thoughts, words and deeds; and brought everything to prayer while pondering upon such Scriptures as Romans 6 and 7, or the lives of the Saints.
Things got better!
I realized that not only was I trying to be better and to live and grow in virtue, but that God was helping me. I grew in intimate consciousness of God’s grace in my life, and in the grace which resulted from the sacramental encounter in Confession.
Because I was growing in virtue, understanding and wisdom to some degree, I was able to reflect on my past actions in life more clearly. I saw past areas of activity which now mortified me, and I was able to understand my brokeness and confusion for what it was and as nothing more.
I saw past areas of my life where I had trusted others and had been betrayed very clearly in trust, and which caused me to act out in ways which shaped my life far more than I had ever realized. Things I had never told anyone in my life came out of me, passed through my lips into God’s ears, and left my soul and my life free of the painful scabs on my spirit which had haunted me for years.
The experience was not always filled with peace and light. As I grew into all of this, painful memories would surface, or I would wrestle with actions I had undertaken, I would question my understanding of everything.
Ultimately, it was one of the best two and a half years of my life. I grew into what I experienced as true freedom and joy.
I back slid constantly, but never as far back as I had been, and relatively mildly I pray.
One day I saw a note on the bulletin board that my spiritual director was leaving.
And, since I had not heard from him and had no clue, I withdrew into all the old feelings of betrayal and distrust. And I grew in self pity anew.
I didn’t go to Confession again for several months, and had a hard time trusting Confessor’s for a time after that.
I realized I was being ridiculous, and got over it.
I found another Confessor. (God worked in that situation very profoundly.)
I no longer went weekly, but we had very good spiritual conversations and it continued on with my spiritual healing. I truly grew even closer to Jesus Christ in a personal way, and was able to ultimately reject every heresy I had ever believed and espoused. And I did so firmly and properly.
God uses the Sacrament of Confession for true healing. As much as I learned, as I experienced, as I tried and as I did, it was ultimately all about God.
God has saved me and helped me profoundly through this Sacrament.
So that’s my experience with Confession, as the Confessee. I usually tell it once a year or so during Lent, when Confessions are being promoted. (Though I tell an abridged version, which I am certain that anyone reading this probably wishes I would write about also.)
If you’re questioning why you should go to Confession to a Priest, ask yourself if that’s really a question or not. And learn why the Church teaches what it does if it bothers you.
If you haven’t been in years, or just don’t know how to go to Confession, just find a Priest and tell him that. If you don’t feel comfortable with a certain Priest, find someone you feel OK with if it’s possible. If you forget the prayers, ask the Priest to walk you through.
It’s easy as could be, and will ultimately change your life.
I know. I went through it all and lived to tell the tale.