My sophomore year of college, a fraternity buddy invited me to a retreat, and I begrudgingly said “yes.” I am really glad I went, because I went to confession for the first time in a long time. After confessing all my sins and by the grace of God holding nothing back, I remember a brief silence. Was the priest mad? Was he going to tell me I should leave the retreat? I still remember looking up and him smiling, then he said, “Burden lifted” and offered me penance and absolution. That encounter with God’s mercy changed the whole direction of my life. I wanted to get to know Jesus after that, and I wanted others to know him and His mercy.
Here are a few things I think we all need to be reminded of from time to time about going to confession:
- Be direct and totally honest: You will not scandalize or startle a priest, no matter what you bring to the confessional. My favorite description of a priest is “God’s garbage man.” Name your sins specifically and tell the priest how many times they happened. You are good and created in God’s image, let the garbage man take care of the sins.
- The priest will never reveal your sins. Ever. Every Catholic priest is bound by what is called the seal of confession. He would go to jail or even give his life before he revealed anything said in confession. Under no circumstances is the seal permitted to be broken.
- Think of confession like a car wash. If you ever take your car through the mud, you get it to the wash right away. Or, if it has just been a while, it is still good to take it to the wash. If you believe yourself to be in a state of serious sin, be brave and go to confession right away. Or if it has been several months (or years!), it is still good to go and totally appropriate to bring smaller things as well, what are called venial sins. Just be sure to confess anything you know to be seriously sinful.
God wants to offer us His mercy, He literally died to do so. Go to confession, do not worry about doing it perfectly. I try to go every couple weeks, and honestly, I still get nervous most the time, so I just take a deep breath and remember Father saying, “Burden lifted.”
Father Rob Johnson is pastor at Perpetual Help in Maryville, chaplain at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, and associate director for the Office for Vocations for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois.