My first (true) confession

Confession by peter.charbonnier [Flickr]

When I was a kid, I went to confession once a week. It’s not that I was a huge sinner. I went to a Catholic grade school, and all the kids had to go once a week—whether we had any sins to confess or not. A friend of mine recently sent me an article in which he wrote that he’d make up sins so he’d appear more “normal.” I did that too!

That was back in the 1960s. Since then, the church has done a lot of thinking and reforming of the way we celebrate reconciliation. If you didn’t grow up Catholic, your impression of confession probably comes from television and movies. These depictions, even if set in current time, always reflect the 1960s version of confession. I think every screenwriter in Hollywood must be an ex-Catholic who dropped out the church in 1969.

Old-school confession

So, way back in the age of the dinosaurs, we were taught it was important to go to confession simply to get the grace of the sacrament. Even if we had no sins—which our teachers thought was completely impossible—we were supposed to still “confess,” because it would be good for us. What you see on TV was pretty much how it happened. I’d go into a little room the size of a broom closet. I’d kneel facing a panel in the wall, which was covered by a screen. The priest would be sitting on the other side of the wall in his own broom closet. He’d open the panel, and he would ask me how long it had been since my last confession. Then I would confess that I had fought with my brothers three times and disobeyed my mother once. Or some version of that.

I’m sure the priest got very bored with all this. How long can you listen to a classroom full of eight-year-olds list off the minor infractions that are typical of every child in the world? It’s not as though he was engaged in a cosmic struggle with the mystery of evil every time he absolved us for saying a curse word or forgetting to do our chores.

Marked by sin

But one time, I really did sin. My mother had taken in a boarder, and I was snooping through the boarder’s purse one day. That was bad enough. But there was a roll of quarters in the purse. I’d never seen a whole role of quarters before, and I took it. I don’t know why I took it. I didn’t spend it. I just liked the feel and the weight of it. But I did know it was money, and I did know I was stealing money. Soon I felt so guilty I went to put the quarters back. But the purse was gone! Finally, I told my mom what I did and turned over the loot. To this day, I can still see and feel the look of disappointment on my mother’s face. After lecturing me about the evils of stealing and the harm I had caused, she told me I had to apologize to the boarder. And then she said, “You also have to confess this.”

God is merciful
God who is infinitely merciful pardons all who are repentant and takes away their guilt. Confident in his goodness, let us ask him to forgive all our sins as we confess them with sincerity of heart.
Rite of Penance, 202.

During the next weekly confession, I was standing in line, waiting my turn to go into the broom closet. We were supposed to be praying during this time, reflecting on our sinful past and resolving to do better in the future. Usually, though, we were passing notes or whispering about playground plans. On this day, however, I was praying like crazy and shaking with fear. I had never confessed a serious sin before. I didn’t know how the priest would react. Technically, confession back then was anonymous, but I didn’t know if the priest could recognize my voice or not.

When it was my turn, I started as usual. I tried hard to think of every minor slip I’d made for the last month. I laid them all out, and threw in a few extras just in case. I offered my list slowly, trying to delay the inevitable confession of the one sin that would consign me to the fires of hell and perhaps incur the priest’s righteous wrath.

True freedom from sin

And when I finally confessed the stealing, the priest recognized it for what it was—something beyond the ordinary. Something that was truly wrong. Then, for the first time that I could remember, he really talked to me. His tone was gentle and reassuring. He told me I was a good boy and this wasn’t something good boys did, was it? He chatted with me a little more, offering me fatherly guidance, and then he absolved me. And on that day, for the first time, I knew what it was like to be truly absolved. To be forgiven. To be set free.

Today, children are introduced to the sacrament of reconciliation in a light-filled room in which the child and the priest are seated, facing each other. The ritual begins with prayer and usually includes a reading from Scripture. The experience feels more like a spiritual conversation instead of a rote listing of real or imagined transgressions. Children (and adults) are still encouraged to go to confession regularly as a way of strengthening their prayer lives. But in practice, most people—children and adults—really only go to confession if they have something serious they need to resolve.

The frequency and the way that we go to confession has changed a lot since I was a child. What remains the same is the huge and amazing promise that we can always be forgiven. God forgives us endlessly and constantly. This is a promise that Jesus made to us and that the church safeguards for us. There is no sin too great for God to forgive.

What’s on your heart?

  • Do you have an experience of being forgiven that you can share with us? If so, please add it into the comments box.
  • Are you burdened with something for which you need forgiveness? You can pray the Our Father, which is a prayer for forgiveness. If you’d like to talk with a priest about what’s on your heart—even if you aren’t Catholic—just Google “Catholic Church” and your zip or postal code. Any priest would be happy to talk with you.
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