I fear that private confession is a lost art. We all know the scene from the movies: the elderly priest sits in a darkened wooden booth with his purple silk stole, and a parishioner steps in. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” he says, across a screen that’s not fooling anybody. The idea of being that penitent Christian—baring one’s soul to the ear of his priest—is foreign to so many. It may be due to an anti-Roman Catholic sentiment for protestants, or it could be because in our individualistic culture, we are afraid of revealing ourselves to another person. But whatever the reason, private confession today is about as common as a Tridentine Mass.
Whenever I teach about confession, I end up answering more questions about the seal, or the secrecy to which a priest is bound, than about the rite itself or even the theology of it. That is because people are afraid of being found out. But we’re all sinners, and we believe that on the Last Day, when we’re brought into the light, our sins will no longer be able to hide in the shadows of secrecy. As Jesus said to Nicodemus, “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed,” (John 3:19-20, ESV). If indeed, our particular judgment will bring into the light that which is in the shadows, why not enjoy now the freedom that God offers us through confession—why do we instead choose darkness?
Until a few years ago, I was that very person who wouldn’t dare darken the door of a confessional—though one of the Episcopal churches I attended did have one. And I never would have called my priest to make an appointment for Reconciliation, as the bulletin suggested each week. I have gone to confession now with at least some regularity since college, when I started my process to being ordained a priest. Even then, I only did it because I was told it would be a good thing to tell the Commission on Ministry about my spiritual life. But what I found as I sat down across from that old priest fumbling to find his collar on his messy desk was not what I expected. I was meek at first, mumbling through the prayers, but as I began to read the list that I had prepared, I got louder. Instead of feeling embarrassed, I felt free for the first time in a long time.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the twentieth century Lutheran martyr, claimed that even Christians who are active in their churches often live in isolation because of their sin. In his book Life Together, he said, “He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone. It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners… So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship.” The greatest danger is not openly known sin, but hidden sin—Christians who live masked lives of congeniality while weighed down by brokenness.
That sort of guarded fear is the status quo in North American culture today. But this is an instance in which the church is called to break the conventions of culture and live differently. Doing so will change individual lives as well as the common life of the church—because if the condition of sin is a person choosing to separate himself from God, it is also necessarily the choice to separate himself from the church, and the church will suffer as a result.
When sin remains in secret, your brother will not be able to build you up, nor you him. That is a broken system. None of us will be able to come to healing in an environment where we cannot recognize the sickness in one another, and we might even lose the ability to recognize it in ourselves. If, instead, we muster the courage to be people who acknowledge our sins before God and the church, then we will be free together rather than in bondage alone. If we utilize the sacrament of confession, and if we trust our priests to provide good counsel and a discreet and understanding ear, then we will no longer belong to an organization that fails to make a difference in the lives of its members, but will instead be the church, the community that cures the souls of her faithful.
According to Bonhoeffer, that sort of community is what God uses to lighten our darkness: “A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person.” The freedom I felt in my first confession was just that—an experience of the living God bringing me into the light—and the priest who was there with me was God’s sign for me that I would never be alone in my sin again. Making myself say the things I would rather have ignored and hearing the words of absolution from that priest wasn’t something that I knew I needed, and yet my soul cried out desperately for it and was satisfied by the experience of it. Confession draws us into the church, reminding us that even in our sins, we are not alone.
Author’s Note: If you’re looking for resources to help you make your confession, Reconciliation by Martin Smith is an excellent and easy to read book that will help with your preparation.
The Rev. Perry Mullins is a curate at Good Shepherd in Dallas