Why confess to a priest? What if it’s been a long time?

By Jenna Marie Cooper

Question Corner

Q: Why must I confess to a priest? When I can just talk to God? (Newark, New Jersey)

A: Jesus told his Apostles: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20:23). Our bishops are the direct successors to the Apostles and, together with their priests, they share the same mission and sacramental powers given to the original 12.

However, while Jesus gave priests and bishops the authority to forgive sins, he didn’t also give them the ability to read minds. In order to offer sacramental absolution, it is necessary for priest-confessors to be made aware of the penitent’s sins. This happens through a spoken confession. Additionally, one requirement for absolution within the sacrament of reconciliation is true sorrow for our acts and a resolve to avoid sin in the future. Confessions spoken aloud give the penitent the opportunity to express real contrition.

Q: I have not gone to confession in years, and I'm anxious about it. Will the priest be angry with me? (Ohio)

A: Most priests will be happy to welcome you back to the sacrament – and not be angry at all. Your finally making it to confession is what is important. The priest asks how long it has been since your last confession only to gain some context, so he can better understand your situation and thus counsel you more effectively.

If you are nervous, there are practical ways you can find a confessional situation with which you are most comfortable. If you feel like you need to just dive in and talk, you can simply go to your parish at the normally scheduled time for confessions (typically found in the parish bulletin or website). But if there is a specific local priest whom you think would be an especially gentle confessor, it’s also perfectly fine to reach out to him directly and ask to make an appointment.

On the other hand, if you want your confession to be as anonymous as possible, you can go to a parish other than your own, even one in another town. If you have a shrine or pilgrimage site within driving distance, these places will often offer confessions as well, with priests you’re unlikely to run into in your day-to-day life.

You may find it useful to review the process of the sacrament of reconciliation, and its prayers, ahead of time. Do know, however, that if you get flustered in the confessional, you can ask the priest-confessor to remind you of what to do. Many confessionals even provide printed copies of the Act of Contrition.

Finally, as you prepare for your confession, it might be helpful to read and reflect on the parables in chapter 15 of Luke’s Gospel, all of which illustrate the joy God takes in those who repent and return to him. These include the parable of the lost sheep, the prodigal son, and the woman who rejoices over finding a lost coin. Jesus concludes the parable of the lost coin by saying: “In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Lk 15:10).

Jenna Marie Cooper, J.C.L, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to [email protected]