Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
Shortly ago, here on the Register, I wrote a short post about the Sacrament of Confession. That post received a lot of attention and comments by readers of the Register, some positive, but some negative. If you didn’t read it yet, my post was a satirical take on the pitfalls one might experience when making a confession. The satirical angle created issue with some readers, but that was not my aim whatsoever. If you’ve ever read C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters you might recognize the tone of that antagonizing demon who loves to corrupt the minds and behavior of humans. In that popular book, Uncle Screwtape advised a junior demon on the best ways to manipulate the souls and consciences of mankind, ensuring their eternal damnation. The point of the book—and also my post—was to use a creative style to understanding the mind, motives, and strategies of the enemy, Satan.
The satire I used, though, seemed to touch upon a few nerves unfavorably. These readers did not detect my satire, for which I am to blame, and I offer my most sincere apologies. And as a correction, I will, in more clear language, offer an identical message. Here’s a number of things you should avoid in your confession.
Try to be free of distractions
When in the confession line, you really should clear yourself of all possible distractions. If you can, leave your cell phone in your car. You don’t want to be checking Facebook, the score of the game, or the Pizza Hut menu. You want to be distraction free in order to examine your conscience more thoroughly, consider the ways the Holy Spirit wants to work in and through you, and how to best make a sincere and fully contrite confession.
Slow down, and take your time
Don’t rush the process. Appreciate being in line, even if it lasts a while. When it’s your turn, reverently make the sign of the cross, reigniting your confidence in the work of the cross, recommitting to your baptismal promises, and fully trusting that when you exit the confessional you are entirely forgiven. Take your time to go through your sins and don’t forget to mention the things you’ve not done, like pray, forgive, be merciful, etc. Take your time and allow yourself to fully take in the greatness of this privileged sacrament.
Don’t be defensive
Sometimes you might get a priest who takes the confessional as their opportunity to teach, whole others desire to be encouraging, and still others will persist with questions. Every priest is different, but they are all trying to help you complete your confession, receive absolution, and sin no more. This might require a bit of understanding on your part, and holy patience, too. Whatever you do, remain humble, and listen to what the priest is attempting to tell you. Don’t get defensive.
Don’t look for praise
You might not do this, but then again, you might not realize the subtle ways in which you do seek praises. You might name your sins, but preface and/or conclude them with the things you did right. You might be using complex theological words, interrupt the priest to supplement his advice, or offer a better quote you have in mind. The best offering you can make of yourself is the offering of the centurion: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you . . .” Stay humble. Period. Anything that rings of praise, don’t. and instead, find a way to praise others.
Along the same lines as slowing down and taking your time, you want to take the time you need to be specific about your sins. What caused you to sin? Is there a time of day [this sin] happens? Is there a common thread to your giving in to temptation? It will be more painful to confess strictly to looking at pornography than to just confess to looking at women with lust. It might be more painful, yes, but it will benefit your souls to practice the humility in a more specific confession. This honesty will grant you courage, self-integrity, discipline, and more. Don’t dance around the issue—confess exactly what you did. Sin is a disease, and a disease cannot be removed until it is properly identified.
Leave others out of it
General and simple rule: don’t bring others into your confession. Don’t confess the sins of others in order to make yours look less damaging, or to offer evidence of how [this sin] might not be your fault. Just don’t do it.
Absolution is complete and final
Lastly, you must have zero doubts about the finality of your absolution. Those sins are buried. Dead. They’re never coming back. Ever. So don’t think about them for a single moment longer. The work of the cross is unconditional that way—any other objection is an objection to the authority of Christ, so don’t do it. Have confidence in the graces given to you as a newly confessed soul, and be confident in the power of the sacrament over the realms of darkness.
In closing, I wish to thank all of the readers, even those who commented unfavorably of my previous post. One point was made, though, about being less desirous to read about the quality of confession, and that I should try to encourage going to confession as a whole. I disagree. Catholics come in all shapes and sizes: some are on the outer courts of the castle with the beasts, some linger in the courtyard with reptiles, and others are secure in the interior rooms, as St. Teresa of Avila demonstrated in The Interior Castle. Because of this variance in spiritual maturity, it is fitting, from time to time, to address those who practice their faith in order to encourage them to be better at it, while at other times, encouraging those who don’t practice their faith to do so with the most urgency.