What To Say In Confession?

No, not what should the penitent say — although a lot of people do google “how to confess masturbation.” I get it, it’s an embarrassing word. You don’t have to say it if you don’t want to. You can say “I committed an impure act, by myself” and the priest will totally know what you mean. On the other hand, you may find that, as with Lord Voldemort, the thing loses some of its morbid power if you just plain say it.

Anyway, a reader, Father R., asks:1

What would be helpful for me to say to a penitent during a Saturday evening confession time and with people in line? [I have to watch the time to be fair to the other penitents.]

I usually say that I understand that it was difficult to say certain things, to remember they are a beloved child of God, the distinction between attraction and action, and that the Church (and Christ for that matter) is not calling them to a loveless life. It will be a life of loving and being loved as Christ teaches (just like for everyone) and according to our state in life [i.e., single, married, clergy, consecrated religious]. I offer to meet with them if they want to talk further (just like with other penitents with complicated situations since my time is limited in the confessional). No penitent has followed up in this way.

I responded:

I think the most important thing is something you’re already doing: to offer to discuss their situation outside the confessional. I don’t know why nobody’s taken you up on the offer yet — maybe they’re too timid, or maybe they don’t want to bother you, or maybe they already have somebody to talk to about it. Maybe it would be good to frame your offer in terms of a question, something like, “Do you have anybody you can talk to about this?” I think it would be just impossible to deal with the problem without at least one person to talk to, one person who can be turned to when things look darkest.

It occurs to me that it might also be helpful to make sure they know that they are by no means alone in their situation. One hears plenty from dissenting Catholics, and from secular people who are openly gay and see no moral problem with homosexual activity; one hears less from Catholics who deal with same-sex attraction but still aspire to chastity. But there are an awful lot of us out there.

So, I don’t know. Readers, what do you wish you could hear in the confessional? What did you hear that changed your life? What did you hear that made you feel excluded or marginalized? What did you hear that made you feel loved? What have you never heard, but would love to?

And, of course, priests: what approaches have you used in the confessional that gay people have seemed to appreciate? Do you have any recommendations for Father R.?

1 Father R. gave me permission to use part of his email on the blog. Feel free to let me know in your emails if you would like to allow me to do the same, with all personal details removed, of course. I’ll never do it without asking, unless you make it clear that that’s what you would like.

19 Comments on “What To Say In Confession?”

  1. JohnH says:

    A perspective from a straight guy that might cross over somewhat. One of my favorite (and recently discovered) quotes on chastity is by Hans Urs von Balthasar—key part of the quote being about how chastity “demands a very great deal: namely, to subordinate everything to the love which does not seek its own; but it gives a great deal more: namely, the only true happiness.” Here’s the full quote:

    Christian sexual ethics is best advised to keep to the quite simple outline of the New Testament. For this is as unchangeable as the nature of divine love which is become flesh in Christ. This is unalterable because a “greater love” than the one shown to men in Christ is not conceivable, not in any phase of our evolving world. So long as the Christian’s heart and mind are spellbound by this humble and totally selfless love, he has in his possession the best possible compass for finding his way in the fog of sexual matters. With the image of this love before him he will not be able to maintain that the ideal of self-giving—of true self-giving, not of throwing oneself in front of people—is unrealistic in our world and impracticable. It demands a very great deal: namely, to subordinate everything to the love which does not seek its own; but it gives a great deal more: namely, the only true happiness. One can use sex, like drugs and alcohol, to maneuver oneself into a state of excited, illusory happiness, but one is merely transporting oneself into momentary states which do not alter one’s nature or one’s heart. The states fade and disappear, and the heart finds itself emptier and more loveless than before. It is only when the innermost heart of man is opened that the sun of love can penetrate into it. “Fili, praebe mihi cor tuum, Son, give me your heart” (Prov 23:26).

    A second quote, this one from Joseph Ratzinger, which ties into some of the best advice I ever got in the confessional, which was from a Dominican priest who told me to stop thinking about resisting temptation all the time and instead try to focus outside myself, on God and on others:

    “There is… a false concept of self-awareness that directs all of its attention to its own ‘I’ with its sins and virtues in a constant scrutinizing of its own conscience, in a continual seeking of its own perfection. The result is a religious egoism that prevents me from simply opening myself to God and keeping my gaze fixed on him, not on myself. A self-willed, self-centered piety has no time left to seek God’s countenance and to hear his liberating and redeeming Yes.”

  2. ted says:

    as if the unrequited focus solely on the self simply exchanges one form of self abuse for another.

  3. Pat says:

    Early in my days at Steubenville, I found myself in the chapel looking for a confessor on a hot May afternoon. I admit I was approaching the sacrament with a bit of flippancy and a legalistic point of view: I talk, you talk, we’re done, and I can go get some beer and wings. I found an old guy and figured that he’d be a ‘nice’ confessor.

    About half way thorough my sin list, he practically yelled (or so it seemed), “STOP! You know what your problem is? You don’t love Jesus enough. If you loved him more you’d stop doing this shit. Now bow down and beg for His forgiveness while I absolve you. For your penance, spend an hour a day this summer in front of the monstrance.”

    I stuck to the penance, and that changed me more that summer than I can think of any other 3 month period…

    1. Dave Kjeldgaard says:

      Boy does that hit the nail on the head. My #1 sin is always not loving God enough. Prayer and adoration is the portal to being one with the communion of saints and holiness. Thanks for sharing that, I’ll be passing that along to my family.

  4. Ryan Gooseling says:

    I think it must be very difficult to be a priest who is confronted with someone caught repeating the same sin over and over.
    I have had priests who simply absolve the sin and leave you to begin again on your own, without much counsel or guidance. It alleviates the symptoms but does not get at the heart of the matter, which as John eloquently demonstrated is a transformation of the heart through Christ.
    On the other hand I have had priests who gruffly chastise you for not loving Christ the way you ought and demand that you change. In my own limited experience, this approach can be completely overwhelming, especially when you are already so acutely aware of your own failings and feel trapped in them.
    Perhaps some of us need the jolt that pat got from that elderly priest, perhaps others need an approach which is just as firm but more gentle. In any case, it is an awesome and terrible burden for a priest to be our bridge to Christ.

    Joey, great post. Keep up the good work bro!

  5. March says:

    I think if someone is not using the sacrament of confession genuinely, regardless of the sin, then a hard line approach is good and useful.

    But as a general rule, I don’t think taking a hard line with sins involving same sex attraction are helpful. It is often mentioned here that the root of same sex attractions is a problem of relationships. Then how much will it help for a confessor to hit hard? Hitting someone hard presupposes a strong relationship between the two people; and people with same-sex attractions have a hard time forming strong relationships. They, myself not excluded, are sensitive to rejection.

    When I am harshly rebuked in confession, I struggle going back. I struggle going back to any of the Sacraments, and to church. I don’t think that’s how it should be.

    The Church encourages compassion on cheating spouses because the one who cheats is often motivated by a lack of love and acceptance at home. The Church doesn’t say its okay to cheat, but she understands the need to understand the sinner and the weakness that motivates the sin. Same-sex sins are not so different. Its not the case of the teenager who looks at porn and can benefit from a strong hand guiding him or her away. Its the sin of someone who needs to turn away from their sin, without a proportionate outlet, and the somewhat hopelessness of knowing no matter how hard they fight, they will likely be alone in the intimacy of their heart for the rest of their life. A relationships from an alter Christus can go a long way in addressing that loneliness.

    Just my perspective. I think a confessor can win over a soul with words that extend a loving and accepting relationship to the penitent. And this can be done in a short amount of time. I would also encourage the priest, while still in confession, to try to arrange a meeting with the penitent that will guarantee as much privacy for the person as possible.

  6. E. George says:

    I might not mind a sharp rebuke in the confessional (to shock me out of complacency), though I’ve never really had one. The closest I’ve come is a from a semi-regular confessor who gets frustrated with my confessing the same sins repeatedly, going so far as to suggest I seek counseling for addiction. Maybe not a bad idea, but less spiritually helpful than I would hope (I consider confessing to him penance in itself). What I really don’t care for is when the confessor says “God doesn’t care about your sins, so you shouldn’t either” or “don’t waste my time confessing these things, confess sins of omission against charity instead”. These kinds of responses can be very deflating, seeming to negate the purpose of confessing sins in the first place, making me wonder why I bothered making myself emotionally and spiritually vulnerable to a near stranger. The best confessors in my experience acknowledge the gravity of the sin, commend me for confessing it, emphasize God’s mercy and forgiveness for me personally, and give a penance that is neither too little nor too much. The tone of voice helps greatly too. When priests sound concerned and compassionate, not bored, indifferent, or frustrated, even hard advice can be much easier to take.

  7. justamusician says:

    This is an interesting problem and I’ve discussed it with more than one priest. Some priests simply absolve and move on, some offer counseling or encouragement. I was once told in a Confessional that I was going to Hell (I thought the avoidance of that fate was why I was there) because I wasn’t being serious in my resistance of certain, habitual sins (and not just sexual stuff is habitual, btw). The interesting theme, even from the ones who offer advice or try to root out the matter is that there ARE time constraints, and even the advice/encouragement/discussion that occurs in the Confessional is rarely really enough. Having been someone who either waits to go to Confession until all of the nice people who surely have more mundane, less serious sins than I get through the line, or trying to sneak in one last soul-cleansing before a major feast day, I can say there’s a certain anxiety when someone in front of you suddenly is taking a long time and you’re afraid you may not make it in during this particular time (yes, I’m aware that intending to go to Confession and missing it but intending to go at your next opportunity is a form of repentance in itself…but…I don’t want to allow myself to become too lazy). I would recommend people who have things they need to suss out (please note: I’m preaching at least as much to anyone else as I am myself) take up a priest when he offers additional time outside of the Confessional (or even to schedule private Confessions which may alleviate some of that time constraint – at least a little…priests are still busy).

    On the other hand, one of the things that originally frustrated me greatly from a priest but now makes a fair amount of sense is that just because “all the priest does is absolve you” and then sends you out on your own, it’s still a valid, spiritually-fulfilling Sacrament. I was put off by this attitude because it IS frustrating when you get the absolution and five (or ten, or a Rosary) Hail Marys. At the same time, it’s true – the Confessional is the place to restart your relationship by washing the dirt away. If you want (need) more guidance, perhaps scheduling time for it is a good idea. I’ve tried a couple different spiritual directors with different results (both because of lack of fit or lack of time [the priest] or lack of commitment [myself]). It’s a good thing, and they don’t always have to be priests (though having a priest you can talk to is awesome for its own reasons). It’s a complicated issue, to be sure.

    One reason Father R. may not get much response from the, “Come talk to me some other time,” is that there’s a bigger fear there – it’s like being called in to the Principal’s office, but with spiritual consequences. There’s also the reality that if I show up and talk to a priest, he’s going to know who I am (this is different from the Confessional because there’s at least the possibility [usually] to use the screen). Perhaps offer to meet them in the Confessional at a certain time on a certain day and have that be a meeting place? I don’t know if that would work or make sense, but it might help those who are terribly afraid of, “Father’s going to know what a terrible person I am and I can’t live with that.” (Not that I’ve ever felt that way about going to a priest…or another person when I need to confess something to him/her…or myself…or whatever. Totally never happened.)

  8. Fr. Dave says:

    Father R. and justamusician are absolutly correct about the time thing. When I hear confessions on a Saturday before Mass, there are two competing tensions. On the one hand, I want to do the best possible job for the person in the confessional with me, no matter what. On the other hand, I know that everyone in that line WANTS their confession heard. I get that, I’ve been there myself. I also know firsthand how much it sucks when the priest emerges from the confessional, looks apologetically at the remnant, and tells us that Mass is starting in a minute and a half and he needs to get ready. Although it’s not practical for all priests, what helped at my parish was setting up an hour for confessions at night during the week. Far fewer came, but the penitent and I had a bit more freedom to really get into stuff. Another perk of that is that there isn’t a hard deadline, so if you go over the hour, it’s no big whoop.

    As far as the advice I give, it sort of depends on where the penitent is at and how much time I have. If it’s a Saturday crush, I tell them that the Lord appreciates the efforts they have made, that He is with them in their struggle, to do the best that they can in the future, and to try to do just a little better next time than they did this time. Two Hail Marys, an Act of Contrition, and we’re on the train to the State of Grace.

    If I’ve got more time, I try to find out where they are vis a vis a particular sin. What they’ve done to try to correct it, look at some of the emotions surrounding it, and so on. Being semi non-judgmental is often what is wanted/needed. BTW, I say semi non-judgmental because it IS confession; a degree of judgment is kind of baked in the cake. Reassurance and exhortation are added as needed by the individual. It may also be necessary to undo some of the harm done by my brethren. My mind goes back to one occasion where I had someone in tears because some knobhead consigned the penitent to perdition. It was difficult not to throw the SOB under the bus, but after all, it is about the person in front of us, not the other yutz, so contradiction of the other priest, a restatement of the Church’s love, an expression of sympathy, and an assurance of prayer were enough to dry the tears.

    I hope this was helpful to someone. If anyone is having, or has had, a bad experience in the confessional, please, please, please, find another confessor. Don’t let some jerk keep you away from the healing and grace that God yearns to give you in the Sacrament. Don’t let anger, embarrassment, or anything else keep you from Christ’s mercy. A phrase that works here (although uttered in reference to something else): All that is necessary for evil to triumph id for good men to remain silent. Don’t remain silent, confess!

  9. Theresa Zoe says:

    Interesting that you mention masturbation. I was addicted to it for many years and confessed it many, many times (although I never googled how to confess it…).

    I’ve heard a range of things from “you shouldn’t do that” to “if you continue down this path of self-hatred” to “you are hurting God” to more neutral things like “it is good you continue to confess this”. I don’t know what the best thing I’ve ever heard in confession is but something that sticks out is a priest once told me “You don’t need that. You are a princess and princesses are pursued”. It made me change the way I looked at myself and my life, especially because, at that time, I didn’t feel particularly like a princess or even very feminine let alone an example of womanhood.

    Something I’d love to hear in confession though is “I’m sorry you struggle with this”. Just someone to be sympathetic to the fact that I struggle and that it’s hard. I may not be addicted anymore but everyday is still a struggle. It would be so reassuring to hear that because, I’m pretty sure, Jesus is sorry I struggle and it would be nice for someone to acknowledge that. I know that doesn’t mean He’ll just take it away or make it disappear, but just knowing He (and others) get it would be so healing, so merciful.

  10. Alexis says:

    I always think of St. Paul, who said three times he asked Jesus to remove the temptation, and Jesus said he would not, but that his grace was enough to overcome it. I have found that to be true … although I still pray for the temptation to be taken away!
    To answer the original question: After not having been to confession for many years, I went to a priest that was recommended to me as an excellent confessor. I was so startled by this priest, I returned every few weeks for confession. It finally dawned on me that going to this man was exactly like having Jesus hear my confession. I guess the question is, how would Jesus speak to the person confessing to you?
    I find all of the posts here very helpful. Thank you, all.

  11. Baronius says:

    I had a different life condition that used to affect my confessional time – mine was severe scrupulosity. I needed a priest outside the confessional to help me understand it. I’ve got to say, it wasn’t easy to find anyone who was willing to help me with it (and I say that objectively now; at the time, it was overwhelming and horrific how isolated I felt). I wouldn’t expect a priest to be able to diagnose OCD, but I’d think that scruple attacks aren’t uncommon among the penitent.

    In my case, I needed someone to sit down with me and explain the terrain to me. Spiritual direction, rather than just a confessor. I can get on a soapbox about how parishes should encourage confession, through increased hours and increased mention of the need for it, but the lack of spiritual directors is a whole additional problem.

  12. K says:

    I know someone who struggled with this situation quite a bit. He was going to confession regularly, and some priest said, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” It was the absolute worst thing he could have said. And another time some other priest just yelled at him. Both of those priests should be thanking God that this guy didn’t leave the Church on their accounts.

    I highly recommend (mostly for priests, but for others as well) Fr. Harvey’s article on this issue, found on the courage website: http://couragerc.net/Masturbation.html.

    No matter what the sin, I don’t think yelling at someone or accusing them of insanity is ever a good idea in the confessional. It is an incredible act of humility and vulnerability to show up and share your deepest darkest sins… good priests recognize this and know that offering constructive advice and encouragement is far better than a scolding.

  13. Several people have wondered here why priests respond as they do, especially when they don’t dig deeper, or don’t even mention a particular sin in their counsel.

    I can offer two reasons:

    1. Sometimes people seem to genuinely mix confession and counseling together. While it’s not terrible if they happen together, it is important that people clearly understand the difference. So when a priest enters into a kind of counseling mode, he can reinforce that confusion.

    But another thing occurs to me in that vein: a priest who enters into counseling, while in the confessional, may invade the privacy of the penitent. It’s one thing to consent to make ones confession; it’s a different thing to consent to a counseling discussion.

    2. But here’s another reason I will sometimes not dwell on a particular sin–especially when it seems clear its a frequently confessed sin; and especially self abuse or porn: because sometimes penitents will become overly focused on that sin, as if that’s the only thing in their spiritual life that needs attending. That, in turn, can make it harder to break the habit. So, sometimes I will make a point, in talking to a penitent, to focus on other sins that person may have confessed; not because I disagree with that person confessing the sins of the flesh, but because I may sense the person could be overly focused on just that sin.

    Finally I’ll say this. Sometimes I just haven’t got a single idea of what to say; and in those cases, I think less said may be best.

  14. John says:

    When I finally had the courage (pain?) to confess some difficult SSA issues, I made an appointment with my parish priest. For my own conscience, I did not try to find politically correct euphemisms to describe my sins. The most memorable thing the priest said to me when my confession was done was that God loved me. I cried. It was exactly what I needed to hear.

  15. Wayne says:

    I have a habitual addiction to this vice. I’ve been yelled at by priests who told me I needed therapy, and I can honestly say that this particular confession didn’t help me, as the priest made me feel like I was some kind of freak. I’ve also been to priests who barely say anything, and also priests who have been very compassionate.

    One of my troubles is, I think, that I have obsessive compulsive disorder, which is sometimes expressed by my being hyper scrupulous. Going to confession is a torture for me, and I think I’m overly concerned about all of the details of my sins. I even feel the need to describe the kinds of sexual thoughts I had. Does one need to describe the kinds of thoughts they engaged in, or does simply saying “impure thoughts of a disordered nature” cover everything? That may be why the priest who yelled at me did so; I went into morbid detail of every sin during that particular confession.

    1. My usual rule, if I’m not sure about how much detail to go into, is to start with something generic (e.g. “impure thoughts”) and then to be more detailed if (and only if) the priest asks me to be more detailed.

      That way I am trusting the priest to know his job, and trusting God to give me a priest who I can trust to know his job.

  16. savo says:

    I remember in The Bible, mercy triumphs over judgement. Also read as, mercy wins over judgement. If I am being trespassed of my sacredness, I say in silence, turning the other cheek, mercy anticipates judgement. Regarding sin, sacred silence is prayer. One’ssituational habit of sin can be avoided by living within the sacred silence. A priest once said to me in the confessinial, ”You are responsible to be engaged with the Holy Spirit.” I have sinned less since I heard these words, and l live more now in prayer. I wish you the Holy Silence.

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