My Five Most Common Bits of Advice in Confession

Peter Swims to Jesus on the Shore in John 21

Peter was not afraid to approach the Lord whom he had denied, leading to his tripartite reconciliation. We can encounter Jesus likewise in the Sacrament of Confession.

Of the seven sacraments, Confession is my second favorite (after the Holy Eucharist.) This holds whether I am the one absolving or the one being absolved. It feels good to have that joy of a fresh beginning, or to know that I have helped another come nearer to the Lord. Having our sins forgiven does us incredible good — exorcists say a good confession is more powerful than an exorcism — but the priest in the confessional usually also offers some advice to help us cooperate with God’s grace, sin no more, and live daily life with peace.

Priests tend to hear certain sins or fears more often than others in confession, and in response to these a priest will tend to give similar advice. At risk of making my priestly counsel stale, but in hopes of spreading these helpful lessons for the benefit of many, I have detailed below the five most frequent pieces of advice that I share in confession.

Being Tempted Is Not The Same As Sinning

No priest should say that a sin is not a sin, but priests do right to free troubled consciences from guilt about things which are not sinful. Guilt from experiencing temptation is one example. Temptation, in and of itself, is not a sin. A temptation becomes a sin when we welcome its presence and give it our “yes.”

Sometimes people confess having bad thoughts or desires. I ask them whether they welcomed or entertained these temptations or if they resisted them. This matters because thoughts, feelings, and desires will often come our way without our willing them, but it is what we choose that is important. Only when our will chooses do we act in a saintly or sinful way. For instance, choosing to resist a temptation by praying or distracting ourselves is a holy deed. A saint is not someone who never knows temptation—he or she will likely understand temptation better than most—a saint is someone who consistently chooses love and the Lord even amidst temptation.

Good & Bad Reasons For Missing Mass

Our Sunday obligation flows from the commandment to keep the Lord’s Day holy. Whenever someone confesses missing Holy Mass I ask whether it was by their own choice. (Again, what we do not choose is not our sin.) Sickness, hazardous travel conditions, or the need to care for others are all serious reasons that justly excuse us from attending Mass. However, deliberate, willful absence (such as on a family vacation) is a sin to be avoided. Using the internet and a telephone we can plan ahead to find and celebrate the Lord’s Sacrifice wherever our travels take us.

Forgiving May Not Be What You Think

Sometimes anguished persons confess that they just cannot forgive someone, even though they want to. Usually, this turmoil is due to thinking that forgiveness means something it does not. For example, without a bout of amnesia, we cannot literally “forgive and forget.” And trying to agree that past sins done to us were not actually wrong is a lie against the truth. Sometimes sins break relationships and circumstances such that things cannot go back to same way they were before. Or, perhaps we may still feel the pain inflicted—for some wounds cannot be healed merely by our willing it, but only with grace and time. However, none of these realities prevent us from forgiving. In fact, the person who desires to forgive already has everything they need to begin.

Forgiveness means loving someone despite past wrongs. Jesus calls us to love everyone, which means that we must forgive everyone. If you fear that there is someone whom you hate or whom you have not forgiven, simply pray for them. It is impossible to both will the eternal good of another (as we do in prayer) and to hate them at the same time. If you are praying for them, you are loving and forgiving them. The Holy Spirit may prompt you to take further steps in forgiveness down the road, but your prayer begins to open you both to the transforming power of God.

Training Yourself Not To Misuse Holy Names

Crude language is bad, but swearing by misusing the holy name of God or his saints is worse. Our love and respect for someone should be reflected, not negated, by our words. Whenever someone confesses the habitual sin of taking the Lord’s name in vain I suggest a new habit: The next time you misuse a holy name, as soon as you realize it, follow it with a praise (such as “I love you, Lord,” or a “Glory Be…’) This will do three things: it will help undo the wrong with a good (getting you back on the horse,) it will help drive out the bad habit with a good one, and it will present a Christian witness to anyone who may have overheard your profanity.

Apologizing To Your Children

When parents confess to yelling in (uncontrolled) anger at their kids, I ask them whether they apologized to their children. This is a good and beautiful thing for a parent to do because it models true Christian behavior for the children: “I needed to discipline you because you were doing something wrong, but I shouldn’t have yelled at you. I’m sorry.” If we want our children to repent of wrongdoings and seek forgiveness, we must walk the talk and show them how it looks. Authority is most respected when it manifests integrity.

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6 Responses to “My Five Most Common Bits of Advice in Confession”

  1. lioness Says:

    Reblogged this on http://www.lionessblog.com.

  2. Laura R. Says:

    Thank you Father, this is extremely helpful to those of us trying to understand Confession and how to grow spiritually by availing ourselves of it.

  3. T Cross Says:

    Parenting can be tricky and there is a just anger that is not sinful and does not require an apology, nor should an apology follow. Parents must show consistent love and sacrifice for their children. For any stable parent, correct discipline will stem from daily prayer as a child of God and obedience to Christ’s Church. In so doing the parent’s child will understand “just anger”

    • Fr. Victor Feltes Says:

      Good points. A firm correction with a louder voice might be just what a child needs and I think loving parents can sense this. However, when parents confess yelling at their children they do so because they feel they lost their patience and self-control, breaking a camel’s back over a tiny straw of bad behavior. I’ll tweak the final paragraph to draw out this important distinction.

  4. Cathy L. Says:

    Thank you Father. I for one struggle with confession. I worry about what I am saying is correct. Always trying to make sure that I am doing it as I learned as a child. It makes me nervous. Cathy L

    • Fr. Victor Feltes Says:

      Don’t sweat it. All you really need to do for confession is to tell your sins and be contrite. A good priest will patiently walk you through the rest.

      Confession Tip: If you like, you can bring notes along into the confessional to use as a reminder (for the traditional lines, your sins, and the Act of Contrition prayer.) That may help take the pressure off.

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