As a pastor I find I have many different types of people to shepherd. Some are proud, and some have no self-esteem. Some are weak, and some are strong. Some are trying very hard to be the best they can be, and some are convinced they are already perfect. It’s not easy. I have to love all of them and shepherd each one as his or her needs require. For some that means offering encouragement and lifting them up. For others, it means awakening in them the realization that they need to change. Some need to face the consequences of their choices, and some need to move beyond them. If I am to be a faithful shepherd, I need to know each sheep individually and what they are dealing with, and the more I know about them, the better I can help them. There is no one magic approach that will heal everyone.
One of the biggest challenges I face is trying my best to see where each person is on that journey and how to help them go further. I must confess that it is not always easy. I am not always sure where someone is on the journey. I can best help my people by knowing who they truly are, warts and all. If I know what is really going on in their hearts, perhaps I can say something specific that will make a difference. Without this knowledge, I can only offer general platitudes.
Some people can be frustrating, especially those who see no need for any further growth. They think they are perfectly fine just where they are. That group includes the two extremes: those who don’t worship God because they think their life is just fine and don’t think they need him, and those who think they have arrived at perfection and have no need for any further growth. I find both of those groups difficult because they will not be guided; they don’t need any help. The people in between are where the real graces happen, with those who see the need for growth and want to be helped. Their weaknesses and needs may be as far apart as the tundra is from the tropics, but as long as they want to be better, there will be growth toward God.
Lately I have come across a trend, especially in newcomers to the faith and in people who have become painfully aware of their sinfulness: even if they have been forgiven in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, they still tend to view those who have been there before them as better than they, and they don’t feel worthy to be counted among them. I can imagine St. Paul going through that when he first met Peter, James, and John. After all, Paul had persecuted the faith and was trying to destroy it until Jesus converted him in dramatic fashion on the way to Damascus. With all of his sinful past, how could he now be counted as equals with the Apostles? But Peter denied Jesus three times, and James and John wanted to sit at Jesus’ right and left in His glory. They were not without sin. Every saint has his past, and every sinner has his future. Jesus has an uncanny ability to see past our weaknesses to the good we can do when we realize He knows all too well our sins and allow Him to work through us in spite of – perhaps even because of – our sinfulness. As St. Paul says, “when I am weak, it is then that I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:10) An ideal example of this is the recovering drug addict who has been sober for many years and is now running a program to help others with an addiction to overcome them. His awareness of his past and of how Jesus pulled him through gives him the desire and the ability to minister to others who are on that same journey. He might even feel that Jesus allowed him to go down that dangerous path so that he would be able to help many others to leave that road and start out on the right way. It can be the man who was once addicted to pornography who now runs a program to free others from their enslavement. He understands their pain and their weakness, and has a more burning desire for them to be freed from their burden.
I am a human being with my own sins, and sometimes someone confesses something to me that I have personally dealt with in the past or even at present, and I find myself in a good position to offer them advice that I have gleaned from my own struggle with that particular sin. But no one falls prey to every sin possible, and I’ve discovered over the years that I have learned a lot about the sinfulness of the human person from what I have heard in confession, and even if I never myself fell prey to a certain sin, the lessons I have learned from those who have puts me in a better position to understand and guide another. For this reason, I always tell people never to be afraid to bring your worst sins and fears to a priest in confession. We deal with the weaknesses of human nature on a regular basis and can usually appreciate what you’re going through, even if we haven’t been there ourselves. For example, my parents are thankfully still healthy, but I have counseled enough people dealing with invalid parents to know that they can find it frustrating and that they often lose patience with them. Although I am not married, I have dealt with enough people who are tempted to be unfaithful so as to be able to say something constructive to them. I have worked with teenagers for many years, and I know the strange, dumb, and embarrassing things they sometimes do, especially when it comes to sexuality: from the one fighting compulsive masturbation, to the one who took naked selfies and accidentally emailed them to someone, to the one who was caught by their parents in the midst of a sexual act, the list goes on and on. I always tell people the same thing: if there is anyone you should NOT be embarrassed to share your worst sins with it is a priest in confession. Remember that he has the power to offer you the forgiveness of Christ.
Sometimes I discover that people have quite the reverse attitude toward what they think they should appear to be in the eyes of their pastor and what they in fact should do. Perhaps because they respect their priest so much they want Father to think they are holy, and if Father should discover they have any faults or sins they would be mortified and it would ruin his opinion of them. But that would be like so wanting the doctor to believe you’re healthy that you don’t tell him when you are sick! If anyone needs to know your illness it is the doctor. Similarly, if anyone needs to know your weakness and sins it is your priest. My job is not to pretend you are perfect, but to see you as you are, to love you as you are, and to try to help you become perfect.
But sometimes people worry that, if they tell Father their sins and he remembers them, every time he sees them he will be recalling their sins and he’ll be ashamed of them. I can’t speak for every priest, but I can tell you what I feel. What I said above about the pastor needing to know his sheep and tend to them as they are applies here. If I pretended that my parishioners were a gathering of perfect people I’d be sorely deluded. My job is not to judge people nor is it to feel ashamed of them, as if their sin was somehow a reflection upon myself. The more in fact that I know about a person, the better position I am in to be able to respond properly to their needs. If I do in fact remember something someone told me in confession (which, by the way, I can’t even repeat to them), it only serves to help me know them better and respond in a more understanding manner to their needs. I find that the people who receive the most peace of mind are those who tell the full truth about themselves to their priest, trusting that he is there to help them and that he wants to help ease their burden. I will not feel like a failure if you confess your sins to me, nor will I lose respect for you because I know of all the horrible and sordid things you have done; on the contrary, I will feel like a failure if you were afraid to come to me! When I deal with a person and hear his confession on a regular basis, I end up developing a more complete understanding of him and end up loving him all the more. Everyone needs a place where they can divulge their deepest sins and failings. Who better to bring them to than your priest?
A parish is not a gathering of saints but of sinners trying to become saints. While we are all at different stages in our journey to holiness – to being the best version of ourselves that we can be – we will never be perfected until we enter into Heaven.
So don’t be afraid of your pastor or any priest with whom you have a good relationship knowing your faults and weaknesses. Don’t be embarrassed. The more he knows of you the more he can help you, and the more you know he knows of you, the more easily you will be able to share other problems with him, and the better he can help you grow in holiness and peace of mind.
This post is by special request from one of my readers.
A lot of information – and misinformation – has been going on about Pope Francis’ decision to continue giving individual priests the right to resolve someone from the sin of abortion without having to refer the issue to the Bishop. Let me explain what the situation is:
According to Canon law, bishops have the right to withhold forgiveness for certain sins to themselves. Usually the rationale for this would be to discourage people from committing the sin, knowing that forgiveness would require a communication with the Bishop and might make them second-think committing that sin. In some dioceses in the world the bishops have exercised this right concerning the sin of abortion and have withheld that permission from priests and retained it for themselves. That is not the case in almost all of the dioceses of the United States. Here in the Archdiocese of New York I have always had the right to forgive the sin of abortion in confession, so for us it’s a moot point. Last year during the year of grace, Pope Francis, in a gesture of mercy, exercised his authority to override the bishops and extended that right to all priests for one year. Apparently, he found the results of that favorable and has chosen to extend that privilege. The media coverage, however, has often failed to mention that most priests in the United States have had that right all along, and there were many people who had confessed abortion to a priest who were now wondering if in fact they had been forgiven. The answer is, yes you were! If the priest forgave you, it meant he had the right to do so. If he did not have the right he would’ve had to petition the Bishop for forgiveness for you, so don’t worry! If the priest forgave you, you were forgiven!
Another question I was asked was to comment on a response somebody had made saying that the priest’s forgiveness is only in the name of the church and not in the name of God, since no priest can forgive sins in the name of God. That is false. All one has to do is read John 20:22-23. The scene is the upper room where the Last Supper took place. The time is the evening of the resurrection. Jesus is appearing to the apostles for the first time on Easter night after his resurrection: “Then he breathed on them and said, ‘receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them; whose sins you retain are retained.’” (John 20:22-23) The priest does in fact have the authority to forgive sins in the name of God. Jesus gave the church and the priests that authority at his appearance to the apostles, the first priests. Notice that the Sacrament of Reconciliation was the first gift Jesus gave the church after his resurrection. Now that he had died to take away our sins he gave priests the authority to take them away in his name. So anyone who is trying to use the rationale that they don’t have to go to a priest for forgiveness because only God can forgive sins needs to reread the Gospel according to John. They are very much mistaken. In fact, anyone who has faithfully participated in the Sacrament of Reconciliation knows the peace that comes from the moment and will understand why Jesus in fact gave that authority to men. Just last week I was hearing the confessions of our third through fifth grade children in our Religious Education program, and after we finished, while I was talking with the children in the hallway, one of the boys said to me “I feel so good now! I feel like a weight has been lifted off me!” The other children all agreed. I told them that was the proof that they had made a worthy confession. Jesus gave this sacrament to us through the ministry of priests because he knows how important it is for us to have a human being tell us we are forgiven and not merely assume that because we knelt in church and asked God to forgive us that we are forgiven. I have a previous blog on this issue that goes into this topic in further depth. If you’d like to read that information, please click the following link:5 fears about going to confession, and how to overcome them.
So do not be afraid! If a priest for gave you the sin of abortion you were forgiven, and do not be afraid to go to a priest. Christ is in fact forgiving you through the ministry of the priest.
“I’m afraid when I go to confession that I may not remember everything I want to say. What do I do if I later remember something I should have said?”
I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that said! I also wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve said that myself! It does happen once in a while that we go to confession and later remember something we forgot to say. Does that make our confession invalid? Or do I have to go back and do it all over? The answer is, “no” to the first and “not necessarily” to the second. It’s kind of hard for a sincere confession to be invalid. Only if you deliberately held back a serious sin with some intention to sneak it past the priest could it be invalid. It doesn’t seem likely that someone would forget to mention something serious that is really plaguing him. Most likely, anything we forgot to bring up was of venial nature. But it does happen. So what do we do? Well, one thing I always do in confession to make sure I’ve covered everything is to say to the priest, “for these sins and any which I don’t now remember or realize I have committed I am truly sorry.” That gives me a sense of peace. But remember, the priest says “I absolve you of all your sins…” so unless there was a conscious effort to avoid mentioning a certain sin or something we deliberately did not confess, all our sins are forgiven.
Now for the real test: what happens about sins we don’t realize we’ve committed? Maybe we know something is sinful but we didn’t realize we had actually done it, or maybe we never knew something was sinful, or maybe we’re totally unaware that we have that sinful habit? Well, one thing I always try to remember is that, in our imperfect state, we are sometimes totally ignorant of our own sinfulness, and that may not be our fault. Of course we want to overcome all our sins, but what about the ones we don’t see? God is very much aware that in our fallen state, one of our shortcomings is not always being able to see all of our weaknesses. That’s why I always add in my confession the line I mentioned above: “…and for any sins I don’t realize…” Part of our growth in holiness is coming into awareness of our weaknesses. We should not expect to be aware all the time of everything that is wrong in our lives, and God is patient with us while we learn what sin is in our lives and how to overcome it.
So how, then, do we figure out what our sins are, especially if we don’t think we have too many? First of all, an examination of conscience and a good spiritual reading book will help point out things that we may not realize are happening in our lives or do not realize are sinful. Other clues can come from other people. Listen, for example, to the criticisms that people will sometimes offer about you, even if they are not always offered in the most charitable manner. Not every criticism of us is valid, and sometimes we will get conflicting opinions. For example, early in my priesthood one parishioner told me I didn’t seem to care about anyone over 18 years old, and another told me I had no interest at all in working with young people. Obviously they can’t both be right! Just because one person says something doesn’t mean it’s true about you. But listen for repeated comments. If you frequently hear someone say, for example, “he’s so critical” or “she has no patience at all”, chances are you may be guilty of being critical or impatient. Another thing I like to do is imagine I’m having a conversation with Jesus. I imagine he is in a chair in front of me and we are speaking face-to-face, and I ask him , “Lord, what are the things about me of which you are pleased, and what areas in my life do you want me to work on improving?” Sometimes the answer comes almost immediately to me. But I also believe, and have found, that God never leave such a question unanswered, and in his own merciful way he has a way of showing me the areas in my life where he really wants me to grow and change. If we practice these skills, I’m certain we will grow in our awareness not only of the sin in our lives but also of our growth in holiness.
Remember that one confession is not going to automatically bring us to perfection; rather, every confession is a further step of growth in holiness. The more frequently and honestly we confess the holier we’ll be bound to grow. Just like learning to play a musical instrument, frequent practice and frequent lessons help us grow to be a virtuoso, so the same thing happens with holiness. While all of our sins are in fact forgiven every time we sincerely confess them, even if we don’t recall everything that was sinful whether it’s because we forgot or were not aware of it – provided we have not deliberately left out something – we do need to grow in our knowledge of exactly what is sinful and of precisely what sins we are guilty. God is patient with the understanding that we’re not always aware of all the weaknesses in our lives and if we make an honest effort to overcome them as he shows them to us, we will grow in holiness. So do not be afraid if you have not made a perfect confession. A perfect confession is not one where we remember every single detail that must be confessed but rather one in which we can truly say we are sorry from the bottom of our hearts for any sin we have committed, no matter how small. If we can do that, then just like the thief on the cross, when we stand before Jesus in judgment we will hear him say to us: “this day you shall be with me in Paradise!”
I was having dinner with a friend the other night who is not Christian but who was asking me a lot of questions concerning what our Catholic faith is all about. When I explained it to him, he said I pretty much captured it in a nutshell. Since he found it helpful, I thought it might help someone else by posting it on my blog, so here goes!
With Original Sin, Heaven was lost to mankind. Satan had his entry into our world, and with him came his greatest weapon: death. No matter how good any one of us tries to be, because of Original sin, when we die, we would enter into Hell and condemnation for all eternity, and there was nothing we could do about it. A good image would be of us being thrown into a prison and shackled to the wall with the door slammed shut behind us. With Satan, all our pleading and begging for mercy to let us out falls on deaf ears. The only one who can help us is God. We need his help; without him we’re doomed. God did come to our help by becoming a man. He took on our human nature precisely so that now he could enter the realm of death, something he couldn’t do as God alone. He took on flesh in the person of Jesus, who is both truly God and truly man. When he died on the cross – which was his plan from the beginning – he was able to enter into Hell and free us. You can imagine it as Satan letting the one person in who had the key to our shackles and the gate to Hell. When he rose from the dead, he destroyed death’s hold over us. It’s as if Jesus paved a highway that goes right through Hell and up to Heaven. So Jesus totally reversed the power of death by taking Satan’s prime weapon and turning it against him. What Satan intended as the means to enslave us in his kingdom – death – is now the way we leave his power and enter into heaven. We will still die, but death now leads to our salvation and not our condemnation. But in order for us to follow the path, we have to be one with Jesus. God took on our nature, and now we must take on his. This is accomplished through the Sacraments. In Baptism, we die with Christ and are buried with him, but we also rise with him. We inherit heaven and become heirs with Christ to everything he won by his death. In the Eucharist, Jesus gives us his body and blood as our food so that our flesh is now made up of his flesh, and every time we celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and receive Jesus in Holy Communion, we are on the cross with him in an unbloody and painless manner, are buried with him and risen in him over and over again. It’s as if Jesus created a power line that transverses eternity for us to plug into his death and resurrection and receive the salvation he won for us once and for all. He made the sacrifice he offered on Calvary forever present to us in the Holy Mass. He also gave his teachings to the Apostles with the authority to continue these Sacraments for all of time, and told them to “teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:20) We still have to walk the path to heaven – there is no moving sidewalk that automatically takes us there – and sometimes, because while Baptism washes away Original Sin, concupiscence (the inclination to sin) still remains – we stray from the path. Christ calls us back to the right path constantly through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and teaches us through the Church, especially the successor to St. Peter (the Pope) to whom Jesus gave the ultimate authority to speak in his name (cf. Matt. 16:13-20), to help us know when we’re not sure if certain activities or beliefs lead us to heaven or not. So, in order to reverse the effects of Original Sin, we must accept Jesus as God-made-man, be baptized, receive him in Holy Communion every Sunday for the forgiveness of our sins, and allow him to keep us on the path to heaven by following the way he shows us through the teachings of the Church. Do that and you’ll get to Heaven. It’s as simple as that!
P.S. Thanks, Joe, for the inspiration!!
Every year just before Easter we priests get very busy hearing confessions. While many Saturdays we may sit in the confessional for long periods of time with no one showing up, before Easter people are calling at all hours and breaking down the doors to confess their sins. While on the one hand it is good that people are taking advantage of this wonderful sacrament of God’s healing mercy, on the other hand, it’s a shame they wait until Easter. Some people even say very proudly, “I go to confession once a year at Easter to make my Easter duty!” (So pat me on the back- I’m a good Catholic!) If you think about it, that is minimalism and one has to question the sincerity of the person’s desire not to offend God. Confessing only once a year is not something we should be proud of.
Imagine it this way: suppose a husband were to say to his wife, “Honey, if I tell you once a year around our anniversary that I’m sorry for anything I may have said or done to offend you during the past year, will you be happy with that?” Obviously, we know the answer to that is an immediate “no way!” That would hardly be sincere, would it? So why do we think that’s okay with God? Why do we think that once a year at Easter (the really holy people go at Christmas also) if we tell God we’re sorry for things we can’t even recall but assume we probably did during the year, that this somehow is a sign of a strong relationship with God and that He is pleased with us? I like to ask children this question: how often should a husband tell his wife he’s sorry for offending her? They always answer the very same way: whenever he’s done something to offend her! That’s what we should do with God. So, to answer the question that is the title of this blog: “How often should I go to confession?” the answer is, “Whenever we realize we’ve offended God.” If we are serious about growing in holiness and in a close relationship with God, that’s going to be far more frequently than once a year at Easter! See you in confession regularly!