I stopped going to confession when I stopped going to a high-school-provided large penance service for students during Advent and Lent.
In college, I prayed sometimes and went to dorm mass on occasion — but walking into the basilica to go to confession was just too much. Confession wasn’t something I liked very much as a child, and the thought of saying my college sins out loud to a priest was totally overwhelming.
When the first Lent rolled by, I didn’t think much of it. By the time I was in my 20s and graduated, I had stopped going to mass altogether, and confession was a distant memory.
When I was 23, though, my feelings toward attending mass and practicing my faith drastically changed.
I was going through kind of a tough time trying to figure out what I wanted in life and how to be happy. By chance, I listened to a Bishop Robert Barron podcast about God’s love and the Eucharist, and that convinced me to give mass another shot.
Going back to mass
Mass was more beautiful than I had ever remembered, and I ended up attending almost every day while I tried to figure out myself and my relationship with God. I never received the Eucharist, though.
I attended Catholic school for my entire life — literally kindergarten through college. So I’d had enough religion and theology classes to know that you’re not supposed to receive the Eucharist in a ‘state of mortal sin.’ This isn’t to punish anyone, like it may seem. Really, it’s a sign of our own decision to turn away from God. (Fr. Mike Schmitz has a great video that explains this better I can.)
Prayer, mass, and Bishop Barron podcasts were all helping me desire to be closer to God, and I was starting to find my way again. But I knew that confession was an important step for healing both my own heart and my relationship with God.
But how could I go back? As a kid, I was taught that it’s important to name all of your sins out loud to the priest. There was no way I could remember every sin from the past five years, let alone name them for a priest.
I thought I would die of embarrassment from saying some of those things out loud. Plus, what if he got mad at me and affirmed all my fears that I was a horrible person? What if I was unforgivable?
My desire to receive the Eucharist ended up winning this internal battle. As terrified as I was of confession, I longed even more to participate in the “source and summit” of my faith, to be able to fully participate in the fullness of Christ’s gift to humanity.
Finally, I decided to go.
Going back to confession
It turns out that it’s not difficult to find a time to go to confession — most parishes host a confession time multiple times a week, and some even have it every day! And I’ve never seen a church bulletin that didn’t also invite you to call the rectory to schedule a time to meet with the priest if the regularly scheduled times for confession don’t fit in your schedule.
I found a time that worked for me (ironically back on campus at the basilica I never seemed to be able to walk into as a college student). I found an examination of conscience online and read through it as I waited in line. My heart was pounding, and I was preparing for the worst. I don’t know where I got the idea that I was too awful to be forgiven, but that was my deepest fear.
Finally, it was my turn. I walked into the confessional and decided to go face-to-face with the priest because I didn’t think I could reach the tissue box from behind the screen.
The priest was an elderly man with wonderfully kind eyes. Still, my heart was pounding, and my hands were sweaty as I began, “…it has been five years since my last confession.” (I looked up all the things you’re supposed to say ahead of time online.)
He sat and quietly listened while I cried through everything I could remember. Honestly, I couldn’t remember all that much, and I made more generalizations about what the past five years had been like. When I said everything I thought I could, I looked up at him again (I had been avoiding eye contact while I went through my history).
I waited for him to tell me how wrong I was and give me a harsh penance.
To my great surprise, he smiled and thanked me for a good confession. He said it was good that I had come and that he hoped I knew God’s love for me.
Even more shocking was my penance of five Hail Mary prayers.
I made my ‘Act of Contrition’ as sincerely as I ever had in my life, and our session ended with the priest inviting me to come back in 4–6 weeks.
It could not have been more ‘by the book’ if we had been sitting in front of Miss Brown, my second grade teacher.
What I realized by going back to confession
When I walked out, I was a little confused. I thought it would be a huge deal that I had been so awful. I thought that the hammer would be brought down on me or that the priest would make a big deal out of how long it had been since I last received the sacrament.
Bewildered, I kneeled down in the nearest pew to pray my penance.
Then, it hit me.
God’s love and mercy for me was normal. It is constant, routine, everlasting. I may have felt like the worst sinner to ever walk the earth, but the truth is, in every moment throughout my entire life, God was ready to forgive me.
Going to confession was normal. It is a special way for God to communicate His love and mercy to us.
That’s when the happy tears came — as I realized how much God just loves us. There was something unexpectedly beautiful about how normal it was for my sins to be forgiven.
Confession was a huge obstacle that I had built up in my mind. But in the end, it wasn’t an obstacle at all. It was a bridge, an invitation. It was a way to reunite with God.
Pope Francis says, “Confession is the place in which God’s forgiveness and mercy are received as a gift.”
Those things were never lacking on God’s end — I had just been turning away from them for years. Returning to confession is how Catholics are invited to turn back and receive these things as a gift, not ever as a punishment. The sacrament is a way to demonstrate freely our love for God.
As close to God as I felt in that moment, of course I sinned again. And about 4 weeks later, I found myself walking back into the confessional — still anxious, but ready to receive the gift of forgiveness.
It took a lot of courage to feel ready to even take steps to go back to confession, so I understand why people are hesitant. But if I could share anything that I learned from my first confession in five-and-a-half years and the many times I have returned since then, it would be that God is always ready to demonstrate His love and forgiveness to all who seek it.