Monday, January 25, 2010


Amongst my Protestant friends, the Catholic practice that is most often discussed is confession. Not that it came up a great deal. But I do remember at least a few conversations about it. I can’t really think of any other Catholic practice that has been discussed more than twice.

And the reason I think my Protestant friends are comfortable discussing confession is because they think they understand it. And that ‘think’ should probably be underlined, made bold and highlighted. But things like devotion to Mary and the Saints and transubstantiation are harder to discuss, because they seem so foreign. Whereas confession. That seems easier to get your head around. They think it’s simply telling a priest what you have done wrong. Kind of like pastoral counselling.

But it’s not like pastoral counselling. And I think perhaps that ‘think they understand it’ may be one thing that prevents them from understanding it. Because they don’t look too deeply into it. And as a result, they miss the whole sacramental nature of confession.

It’s hard for me using words like ‘sacramental’ because I always feel like I’m talking about something I don’t really understand. I know I don’t fully understand the nature of the sacraments. I know I don’t come anywhere near to properly understanding the nature and purpose of confession. When I was going to the Pentecostal Church, I thought I did understand it. Now I realise I really didn’t have a clue. So because I do not fully understand confession, I’m actually not going to talk too much about its sacramental nature or anything like that. I’ll leave that to people who know more than me. And in all honesty, I have a feeling this post may be more a Protestant view of confession than a Catholic one. So keep that in mind. (Sometimes I get the feeling that I should start every post with ‘This is written by someone who has no idea what they’re talking about.’) But I write anyway. It’s how I try and make sense of things, I suppose.

Anyway, I have been to confession twice now. And that probably left me feeling more confused than ever. Because it was the same church, but two completely different experiences. For the first one, it was just like having a chat with someone. We sat on chairs. I said what I wanted to say. And that was pretty much it. If I said a prayer, I don’t remember it. It was very casual. The next one was almost the complete opposite. The curtain was pulled over. I knelt down and there was a print out in front of me of what I needed to say and when I needed to say it. That was very helpful actually, because then I knew I things the correct way.

So – confession. My semi-Protestant, semi-Catholic view of it.

In the Pentecostal Church, we are taught that you only need to confess your sins to Jesus. There’s no need for a middle man. But at the same time, they emphasise the importance of fellowship groups and pastoral counselling. So it seems they recognise the value of saying things out loud. And I know, from past experience, that just confessing sins to Jesus alone can leave you feeling a bit unsure about whether your sins are really forgiven. It’s nice to say them out loud and hear that nobody thinks you have been permanently separated from God for what you have done.

But at the same time, sin does cause a separation. And I think that could be a very important point. Because when people are just confessing their sins to Jesus alone, it could lead to them failing to see that separation. When it’s just a simple matter of saying I’m sorry God, good I’m forgiven, then it doesn’t really seem like that big a deal. And confessing to other people in the church may be beneficial psychologically, but spiritually I do not believe it does anything to heal that separation. It’s kind of nice to go, oh well, so and so doesn’t think what I did was too bad and so and so struggled with the same failing. And now I have a whole heap of bible verses to read – that generally (in the church I was at, at least) are more designed to make you feel better rather than anything else.

But speaking from a psychological viewpoint, it can be very hard when you have something on your mind and you can’t tell anyone.

Just forgetting about sin for a moment. There are many occasions when someone has something they would like to say, but they can’t or are afraid to. For instance, I have a friend who really hurt me a while back. We’re still good friends. And I have never told him how much I was hurt by what he did. Because I decided to forgive him instead. And the reason I decided to do that is because I knew nothing would be gained by me saying something. It wouldn’t benefit him. It wouldn’t benefit me. But at the same time, there’s this thought in the back of my head that kind of hurts a bit, because it is left unspoken.

The attitude nowadays seems to be speak whatever is on your mind. Because it is good psychologically to get whatever it is out into the open. But sometimes what you are thinking won’t do anybody any good. It may not even be because it would hurt them. Sometimes it won’t hurt them at all. But it’s not going to benefit them from a spiritual perspective.

I used to think that anytime I had anything nice to say about anybody I should just come right out and say it. I still probably lean towards that view a bit. But I have realised that just because something will make someone feel good doesn’t mean that it will necessarily be beneficial to their soul. And that can be hard sometimes. It can be downright difficult to want to say something but know it’s not the right thing to do.

Anyway, I’ve kind of gone off track a bit here. (Probably a case where the unspoken thoughts inside my head tried to make a dash for freedom.) But the point is that when people have things they want to say, but don’t or can’t, it can be difficult to deal with. It’s hard to live with unspoken thoughts. They’re not the most agreeable of mind-guests.

So emotionally, getting thoughts out into the open can be very good for you. But spiritually, it can be quite detrimental.

So one of the benefits of confession can be simply to get some of those outspoken thoughts out in a safe place. And fellowship groups and pastoral counselling aren’t covered by the seal of confession. I know people who have shared things in fellowship groups that were later shared with others. I myself told the pastor’s wife something, who later went and told her husband.

But it is a very minor benefit, considering what else confession does.

Because if unspoken thoughts are difficult to live with, sin takes it to a whole other level. Unconfessed thoughts affect your mind. Unconfessed sin affects your soul.

And in the grand scheme of things, feeling a bit of mental anguish or emotional turmoil isn’t really that big of a deal. It can be nice to get it all out in the open. But it’s not really that important. If I die with thoughts left unspoken, it’s not really going to matter. But if I die with unconfessed sin, it may very well make a huge difference.

I am going to leave this post here. I don’t feel like I’ve finished. But maybe it’s not a post that can be finished now. Because in order to finish it, I do need to understand more about the reason and purpose of confession and its sacramental nature. It seems like haven’t even touched on what’s important and as soon as I starting to get just a teensy little bit closer to it, I run out of things to say.

It’s the way I feel about a lot of things these days. As though I’m looking at faith through a pair of binoculars. And just as something starts to get into focus, the binoculars fall from my hands. And I realise how far away I am from what I was looking at.


  1. Hi Liz,

    In terms of Confession (or Penace) as a Sacrament, you firstly have to understand the nature of sin.

    Basically, a sin is something which offends God. Now, God being of infinite majesty, each sin is, in a sense, an injustice of infinite offence.

    Since God Himself is the only infinite creature, only He can forgive sin. And man, being a finite creature can make no satisfaction to God in ways of penance, which merits anything of an infinite value.

    The Incarnation (when God [the second person of the Most Holy Trinity] united His divine nature to human nature, and became man, He became true God and true man - two natures in the one person of Jesus Christ.

    Due to Christ's divinity (or divine nature) He had the power to forgive or absolve sins. Which is why you will often see examples in the Gospels of Christ saying, "Your sins are forgiven."

    And because Christ had two natures (a divine nature and a human nature), He was able to satisfy God's justice. His human nature was capable of suffering, and His divine nature was capable of offering infinite reparation for sin.

    On the night of the Last Supper, Christ (Our Lord) instituted the priesthood. After His resurrection, Our Lord appeared to the Apostles:

    " ... he breathed on them, and he said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them, and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained. (John 20: 22-23).

    Christ gave His priests the power to forgive sins. He gave this power to no-one else.

    As the Fathers and Doctors would have said in the days of the Council of Trent, "Let anyone who says a person can confess their sins to God in private and be forgiven, let them be anathema. Let anyone who says a person can confess their sins to a person who is not an ordained Catholic priest, and be forgiven, let them be anathema."

    The catechism teaches us that our souls are born in a state of sin, due to Original Sin. What it means is we don't have the Sacramental grace of God in our soul. We are not in a state of friendship with God. The Sacrament of Baptism puts a soul in a state of Sacramental grace, and in friendship with God.

    The only way a soul can lose this grace is by sin. And the only way a soul can recover the sacramental grace of God after sin, is via the Sacrament of Confession or Penance.

    When we are in a state of grace, we are in a state of friendship with God. When our souls are in a state of mortal sin, we are enemies of God. He still loves us, and is as unchanging and the selfsame as ever, but we have made ourselves His enemy. God knows our weakness and the frailty of our human nature (He created it). In His mercy, he instituted the Sacrament of Confession, so that souls of good will, who have the misfortune of falling into mortal sin, can regain their baptismal innocence.

    The teaching of the Church on Sin and the Sacrament of Penance is very simple.

    There are two types of sin, mortal and venial sin. Whilst venial sin does not make you lose the grace of God, repeated venial sins which are disregarded as 'not serious' predispose your soul to fall into a state of mortal sin.

    In confession you are only obliged to confess your mortal sins.

    As an adult convert, there is so much to learn, as you would be well aware, and yet these simple truths used to be taught to children, so that by the time they were adults, they were rooted and grounded in the rudimentaries of the faith.

    None of the simple, basic Catholic truths are difficult to grasp. It is, however, difficult to find Catholics who have a grasp of them. Because the modern church has lost the total plot in relation to basic Catholic spirituality.

    David ...

  2. Hi David,

    I suppose I'm a bit of a different kind of convert, because I was baptised and confirmed in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (the Ukrainian Orthodox Church confirms babies at baptism). And I did have my First Holy Communion in the Roman Catholic Church. I feel like a convert. But I suppose I'm probably thought more of as someone returning to the Church - even though the Roman Catholic Church is not the Church I was actually baptised in. Anyway, the priest told me I don't need to go through RCIA.I just needed to read some books he gave me and go to confession. So I am not learning the kind of things that adult converts usually learn.

    But my sons have just had classes when they had their First Reconciliation. So I thought it might be interesting to see what they thought about it. Firstly, they did not know what confession was. I had to point out to them I was talking about their First Reconciliation. Next, one of them said that it was to tell God they were sorry for what they had done wrong. The other one said that he didn't know what its purpose was. He wasn't quite sure why he was there. So then I said well what did the Sister tell you in the classes. They both replied that she told them that God loves them and that was about it.

    In all fairness here, I should point out that I also had a book to do with them at home. And a lot of that book was just filled with fun activities to do. But there was a fair bit of information in there that they seem to have completely forgotten. So it's probably my fault as much as anyone else's. Still, it was a bit of a shock to find out how little they actually knew about it.

    And also, I went back to the books the priest gave me and reread what it said about Confession (which I probably should have done before writing this post, but anyway). And I found that I too had forgotten a lot of what I had read.

    I came across some of those anathemas the other day. In the book I was reading, Christology of the Later Fathers, it had a series of documents from when the Church was deciding things related to the nature of Christ. So they had different examples of the creed and documents like that. But anyway, it had The Third Letter of Cyril to Nestorius, where it lists a number of things and finishes each one with 'let him be anathema'. So for instance, the first one is 'If anyone does not confess that Emmanuel is God in truth, and therefore the holy Virgin is theotokos - for she bore in the flesh the Word of God become flesh - let him be anathema.'

    I found that interesting. Firstly, because the very first one has to do with the Virgin Mary. And secondly, because it was interesting to see that the phrase 'let him be anathema' has been around since 430, when Cyril wrote the letter.


  3. I just realised that last bit might be a bit confusing to anyone reading along, because I described my post as a Protestant view - but the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is not Protestant. So just to clarify, I stopped going to church when I was 14. My mother was raised a Methodist and she passed on her Methodist views to me. And I joined the Pentecostal Church when I was in my twenties.



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