What Not To Say When Talking About Confession

By Brian Niemiec

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This week’s homily on sin brought up a host of questions during our RCIA class. Are some sins worse than others? Why do we need to confess to a priest? Why does the Pope go to confession so often? Now, truth be told, I was a little off my game that morning. It had been a late night, but my co-catechist and I were doing a fairly good job of breaking open a subject we had not prepared to talk about.

Then, however, came the question, “But are little sins every now and again really a big deal? I mean as long as you are generally a good person, aren’t a few sins here or there ok?” Well, I fell flat on my face, and found myself waste deep in relativism. Thankfully my partner saved me from committing the greatest sin of any minister: leading the faithful astray.

My big blunder in the vocal vomit of my answer was forgetting Jesus.  In my attempt to reassure this person that we are all human, and mistakes and sins are part of that humanity, I had forgotten the all-important challenge of being ever more human, that is, to be ever more like Christ.  The Pope goes to confession so often because he has grown close to Christ in his life, and encountering the person of Jesus so intimately, he more easily recognizes the imperfections that you and I tend to miss completely.

Confession then is not meant to berate you for the bad things you have done, nor is it meant to embarrass you by telling seemingly trivial things to a strange man in stranger clothes. Rather, Confession is about looking at your relationship to Christ and seeing where you were not Christ-like in your life.  After all, all sins are relational because sin never affects me individually. Sin affects those around us: our family, friends, co-workers, and God. When we ask God through the priest to forgive our sins we are asking God to begin the process of healing those strained and broken relationships in our lives.

Viewing sins as a relational reality also requires that we not stop our penitence once we leave the confessional. Being more Christ-like means working to mend those relationships we have strained by our selfish and sinful actions. We are challenged to become more selfless, more giving, and more loving as Christ was in his life, death and resurrection. Throughout life we are very much on a journey to know and encounter Jesus ever more closely, and it is in that pilgrimage that we see how we ought to live as women and men of faith.

So, to finally answer that person’s question, yes, we are human and we will make mistakes. We will constantly need to return to confession again and again often for the same little things we keep doing. We are on a journey to be more Christ-like, and that encounter challenges us to love and act as he did. The great hope in our life is that we get better at being Christians as we deepen our relationship with Christ. Confession gives us the grace to do this, and to be transformed ever more fully into who we were meant to and will become.

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6 thoughts on “What Not To Say When Talking About Confession”

  1. Thanks for raising this, Brian. I just want to share a couple things since I have the joy of being full time in a parish at which I hear a lot of confessions. I want to begin with an outlandish statement, but one that I think has weight and consequence. “There are no small sins.”

    I’m not talking about the difference between venial and mortal. I merely wish to underline that all our sins are connected in some way. Gossip, white lies, grudges, fears, sexual sins, stealing, cheating, lying, envy, and so on. And, to my mind, they all are rooted in our very precious and fragile and wounded self/soul/heart…

    These manifest as small sins because folks seem to be burdened by shame and false guilt. And that burden leads us all to minimize either our culpability or the mercy of God (!).

    Here’s one example, and I’ll end: I find that lots of folks are driven toward acts we call sinful because of fear of inadequacy, unworthiness, or loneliness. We get to be more like Christ by a) welcoming his grace into whichever very part of our lives needs healing (forgiveness) and b) living with less pretense, less fear, and more clarity about who we are. We live, then, as creatures, simply put.

    So, those are my thoughts about confession, Brian. Take ’em or leave ’em. God bless us all, sinners who dine with Christ! –roc,sj

  2. Thank you for your views. I do think that confession is a worthy topic of discourse as many of us get, mixed up and lost about it. Any recommendations for a good catholic read about confessions?

  3. Such a great post! I once learned that if we allow ourselves to commit little sins every now and then, graver sins won’t look so bad compared to all those smaller sins. We become numb to our wrongdoings. Like Catholic speaker Matthew Kelly once said, sin is like throwing garbage in the backseat of the car. Once the car becomes messy, bigger clumps of garbage don’t look so awful compare with all the little pieces of garbage. Take care!

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