>Part II What Happens in Confession

Posted: 16/07/2010 in Christian living, confession, devotions


The First Point is to give thanks to God our Lord for the benefits I have received. The second is to ask grace to know my sins and rid myself of them. -The Excercises of St Ignatius 43

Because of my own upbringing, I really cannot help but think of confession and reconciliation within a Catholic framework. Most people reading this are probably well past the reactionary, fundamentalist, or otherwise fearful dogmatism and misinformation that sadly infects a lot of American Protestantism. Still, I think that there might be a little resistance to what I am about to write. I promise that that this can be put safely aside.

I will say three things to the apprehensiveness to anything “Catholic.” First, think of following important Christians beliefs: The Trinity, the Incarnation, deference to the poor, and need to evangelize the world. All of these are important to evangelicals and not to be missed. Yet, these are also important in Catholicism. Which one of these beliefs should be rejected because Catholics believe it as well? Obviously, I think the answer is none of them. Wouldn’t it make sense to be open to an idea, regardless of what group says it?

Secondly, someone might say to this that Protestants already know everything they need to know, about confessing sins and such. Now, this could very well be the case. Someone reading this may already frequently confess their sins to other Christians and have the kind of grace and Christian love that people feel comfortable confessing their sins to them, than there is nothing to be said. However, if you cannot honestly say that you have perfected this biblical practice (James 5:15-16), then is there not something that might be learned?

Finally, confession –whether public or private- is not merely a Catholic thing anyway. The Book of Common Prayer –which holds spiritual value for many protestants- contains liturgies centered around public confession. Lutheran church services also have a tradition of the confession of sin. More will be said on Luther’s –and his understanding of Grace- later on.

With these three things in mind, let’s move on.

The practice of confession and reconciliation is fairly simple. It begins with two people in a very private environment. The penitent is the one who has sinned (whether by commission or omission), and the priest plays the role of the confessor –the one who hears the confession. (Terminology is confusing, as “confessor” can mean the person hearing the confession or speaking the confession!) I will keep these definitions consistent, as one might describe two roles in a play.

The penitent knows that he has sinned. He knows that he has failed in some significant way. He knows that he willfully and consciously chose evil instead of good. This isn’t something like an accident. It is not something that can be excused by diminished capacity. The penitent is not confessing that he stubbed his toe and blurted out “God dammit” out of reflexive response. He is more likely confessing a sin he was more conscious of, such deliberate gossip, downloading pornography, or refusing to think well of one’s neighbor. It may not even be an action, but simply feelings of inordinate anger, envy or even despair. Any Christian probably knows what this feels like.

The priest (or any confessor) will play the role of Christ’s representative. He will work very hard (as I am sure they do) to love the sinner as Christ loves the sinner. In this way, he plays the role as the one who absolves sin, rather than reminds. When the priest prescribes penance, it is for the purpose of further healing, not punishment. He will also suggest to the penitent ways in which he can overcome this sin and replace it with right-thinking, feeling, and doing. It is for this reason that the sacrament of confession is usually referred to as the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the Catholic Church.

It is very important to note that the priest never plays the role of the accuser. (This is, after all, Satan’s namesake) The penitent accuses himself of sin. He is, after all, the only one who can know well enough that he has done something wrong with full culpability. The act of confession begins with “I have sinned” not “you have sinned.” How different this is from what many of us are used to! It so obviously follows the advice of Jesus to see to plank in our own eyes. It is also similar to the fourth step of recovery ministries in which the addict takes a serious, personal, moral accounting –while the rest of the group is silent!

This point is so important I want to emphasize right here: the penitent and the penitent alone will accuse himself of sin. The confessor, who hears him, responds with patience, love, compassion, and never accuses the penitent of sin.

For those of us, Catholics or Protestants, who have experienced this, we can all remember the feeling of relief that comes confessing sin to another. The feeling of absolution is something that is not always found in confessing only in private prayer. Those who are close to us and those who love us can give us another set of eyes and suggest what we might do to be healed. Further, we also open ourselves up to accountability. Simply put, there is something profoundly different about speaking one’s sin to another, and then having that other not judge you, but remind you of Christ’s forgiveness.

There are doubtless a few objections that other protestants are thinking of right now. For instance, there seems to be little emphasis on church discipline or holiness here. The sinner is to easily “let off the hook” in this scenario. Some may think that since the priesthood was abolished by Protestantism, that this practice cannot possibly be facilitated in anything but Catholicism. These two objections, though sensible, can be discussed and overcome. First, holiness is of course important but that depends on what kind of holiness we are seeking. Secondly, we need not worry about the role of a priest because it is not totally accurate to say that Protestantism “abolished” the priesthood.

You’ll read a few more protestant things in the next blog.

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