As a cradle Catholic, I vividly remember my first confession as a nervous 7-year-old, clutching a piece of paper with notes scrawled on it as I took my place in the old-fashioned confessional in my childhood parish church. (The notes were my idea; I’ve always found lists very reassuring.)
My parents were regular and joyful confession-goers themselves, openly talking to my sisters and me about the grace of the sacrament. So, while I was nervous, I also remember looking forward to it. It was a sign that I was becoming responsible for my actions, that I wasn’t a little child anymore, and there is something exciting about that.
I also remember the physical feeling of relief that I experienced when the weight of all the bad things I’d done in my life up until that moment lifted off my chest, and my slate was wiped clean when the priest offered the prayer of absolution.
Since then, even during times when I’ve struggled with my faith in other respects, I’ve always craved the regular sacrament of confession and missed it when I haven’t gone for a few months. It feels like the spiritual version of a thorough teeth cleaning or a painful workout — it’s not fun, and it takes some discipline, but it’s good for you. When you’re in touch with your spiritual life, you can feel confession making you healthier and stronger.
I was lucky to learn early that confession is a beautiful gift, but as I grew up I also realized that many people outside the Catholic Church are horrified at the idea that I regularly tell someone all the bad things I’ve thought and done. When I look at it with an outsider’s eye, I can see their perspective, but there’s so much more to it.
Here are just a few reasons I love going to confession.
It’s an opportunity for honesty
Humility seems to have fallen out of fashion, but I think this actually comes from a misunderstanding of what admitting fault is really all about. Humility is not a self-hating or insecure mindset, it’s about honestly facing our limitations and flaws — acknowledging that we’ve hurt someone and attempting to repair the damage.
The modern “you do you” sentiment is great insofar as it affirms self-acceptance and our uniqueness, but it can be toxic if it encourages us to just do whatever comes most naturally to us without challenging us to be better people.
Regular confession builds up honest self-awareness, helping us to examine the parts of ourselves that it would be easy to ignore. It also enables us to see patterns in our struggles and to reach for help in breaking those patterns. Confronting and confessing our sins with God can help us be more honest about the ways we’ve damaged our own lives and relationships with other people. That’s what sin is: thoughts, words, actions taken and not taken that injure our relationship with God or with others. If we are to grow into the people we are created to be — to truly flourish — we need to acknowledge and grow beyond the habits and decisions that inhibit the ways we love. Honesty and humility are the only ways to get beyond selfishness.
It’s about love and grace, not guilt and punishment
A common misconception about confession is that it’s about reinforcing guilt or accepting some kind of sadistic punishment for the mistakes we make. But this couldn’t be further from the truth; as Emily Mae wrote in her account of returning to confession after years away, God is like the father in the story of the prodigal son, thrilled that we’ve returned and ready to welcome us with open arms. Priests know how to convey this mercy to us — that’s their job in the confessional.
In my 25 or so years of going to confession in different places (and sometimes languages) around the world, with all kinds of different priests, I’ve only ever had one or two “bad” experiences, and those “bad” experiences weren’t in themselves particularly terrible — they were just a little more awkward than usual for one reason or another. Every single other time, the priests have made me feel like a rockstar for going to confession, and encouraged me with the words, “Thank God for a good confession.”
Far from being a punishment, penance is actually a very practical acknowledgment of the fact that no matter how sorry we are for our actions, they have consequences. God invites us to participate in the act of healing from the effects of sin through penance (which is usually prayer), which is incredibly empowering.
Rather than self-loathing, confession actually promotes the healthiest kind of self-acceptance and self-love: we are encouraged to see ourselves as God sees us, as we truly are, with nothing hidden and no false pretenses. And the best bit is that as our creator, God knows who we are meant to be — free from sin. Confession gives us a roadmap to become that best self, little by little.
It helps us change our behavior while being totally private
Positive affirmations have become very popular in recent years, driven by the abundance of research suggesting the benefits of saying things out loud. For example, cognitive psychologist Gary Lupyan explained, “Language is not just a system of communication, but… it can augment perception, augment thinking.” Vocalizing things can change the way we see and think about ourselves and the world.
I’m always blown away by how beautifully designed the sacraments are, with such an attention to detail — they demonstrate God’s love and tender care. On a very human level, there’s a real benefit to saying things out loud — it’s cathartic to share the things that burden us. Confession is a way to stay accountable to ourselves and to God, but in a safe environment.
The seal of confession is a really serious thing — far more serious and binding than a therapist’s confidentiality agreement. The Church formally states that it is a crime for a priest to break the seal of confession — they are not even allowed to make use of the knowledge that confession gives him about someone’s life.
That’s without any exceptions, under any circumstances. Not only is the priest required to keep what you’ve told him to himself, he must also act as though he knows nothing about anything he has heard inside the confessional, even to you in private. Throughout history, many priests have given up their lives rather than give in to pressure to share the secrets they have heard during confession.
Non-Catholics often ask why we can’t just keep our sins between us and God, why the priest has to be present at all. Knowing myself, I am sure that if I didn’t have the formal ritual of confession to hold me accountable, I’d easily slip away from a habit of acknowledging and asking forgiveness for my sins. But the seriousness of the seal of confession also means that in a very real sense, our sins are in fact kept between us and God.
It’s easy to say that God loves us and we love Him without really, deeply thinking about what that means in practice. Confession is a chance for us to experience God’s love and mercy — and not just in theory. When we state our sins out loud and hear that God forgives us, we are given a fresh start, a chance to put our sins behind us. Through confession, we learn that God’s love and mercy really are boundless.