A reader returns to confession after 15 years

From a reader:

Your discussions of Confession helped me go to Confession for the
first time in 15 years. It was a wonderful experience. I did memorize
the Act of Contrition but I stumbled over it. Father helped me through
it – what a gift.

I stopped going to Confession after my second face-to-face. Both times
as I was saying my sins, the priests laughed (literally) at me and
told me that what I was confessing was minor. What they didn’t know
was I was working my way up to major ones. I was so hurt by them I
just could never work myself up again but the weight of my sin was
holding me down. I know you will keep promoting Confession, now I will

Have you been away from confession for a long time because of some bad experience?

Take heart and just go. Explain what happened and you’ll be fine.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in GO TO CONFESSION, Liturgy Science Theatre 3000, Non Nobis and Te Deum, Our Catholic Identity and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. mamajen says:

    A bad experience with an extraordinary minister scared me away from communion for months, so I can completely relate. Though I am constantly striving to better myself, I am a very sensitive, timid and private person, and admitting my sins (yes, even the “little” ones) to somebody else in person is an extreme challenge for me. You’d think that would deter me from sinning in the first place, but, alas. I think if a priest were to make fun of me or ridicule me in the confessional it would definitely traumatize me. I empathize with this reader, and admire his or her immense courage in tackling that fear!

  2. Will D. says:

    Both times
    as I was saying my sins, the priests laughed (literally) at me and
    told me that what I was confessing was minor. What they didn’t know
    was I was working my way up to major ones.

    Wow. I can’t imagine a priest doing that. I’ve had them warn me about scrupulosity when I’ve confessed certain things, but to laugh at you? It’s easy to understand why this person would be disheartened and abandon the sacrament after that.
    I’m delighted that this person has come back, I know it’s a daunting prospect. I made a confession last year on Holy Thursday after a similarly long time in the wilderness. Receiving the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist on a regular basis have changed my life in ways I’d never have imagined.
    Deo Gratias.

  3. cicada380 says:

    I can relate, but my story is not as extreme. It was hard to return to the Church after a bad experience with a priest in the sacrament of Penance. I made an appointment to go to confession because I was going to have surgery a few days later that it was unknown if I would survive – but I had 0% chance of surviving without it. After going through my sins, the priest refused to grant me absolution because he was “sure I was going to be fine” and the sacrament of penance was only for mortal sins. At that point I was hurt and confused. I didn’t seek out another priest because I was confused about whether I really did need confession. I became very ill within a day or so after that. I am now within the safe harbor of the Church thanks to Our Lady who has kept me safe so far. Went to confession a couple of weeks ago. The priest was very gentle and direct and helpful. Very thankful!

  4. Legisperitus says:

    So many horror stories about bad confessors. I won’t add to the list here right now, because I want to rejoice along with the whole Church over another person returning to the Sacrament!

  5. I went to confession one time a long time ago and the priest told me he would absolve me but couldn’t “guarantee it!”. He went on with his day I’m sure and I remained confused and hurt for years.

  6. Glen M says:

    I’d like to know what the idea was with leaving the confessionals in order to have face to face Confessions. Does anyone prefer that? The Sacrament is about getting sins off your soul. Face to face meetings seem more appropriate for spiritual guidance – which the Sacrament isn’t suppose to be primarily about.

  7. I should have added I’ve had great confessors since then! Yay!

  8. I agree. I focus on the same area as Will D focused on. This is a damn shame and a product of the last 2 (going on 3) generations of the infection of liberalism, modernism, feminism, and other “isms” that has come after the MISAPPLICATION of the “Spirit of Vatican II.” As a result many priests downgrade sins when clearly specific ones are of “grave material” or are “gravely dissordered” or worse a “grave offense”. I have been fortunate to be in confession with some fathers who do take it seriously and aren’t afraid to even mention the Devil in the confessional. However, as a whole, I get the idea that our clergy don’t get that sin must be treated as a spritual additction, and exactly that when not taken to task they spiral out of control, no different from addiction to drugs: The analogy starts with gateway drugs, like alcohol and weed and maybe E, sooner or later leading to cocaine, crystal meth or heroin. Rarely does one ever go for the hard stuff first. So with sin, the original poster is right that it is usually with small gradual exerpeinces that we end up in mortal sin. There are even theologies out there, like Jesuit Lonergan theology or just bad watered-down catechesis that promote this backwards thinking of sin or focus on social justice and “Jesus loves everybody” garbage.

    Priests, as a faithul young Catholic male stuck in this ever decaying world, please I beg you to treat all sin seriously and not make this a joke. This is everyone’s spritual salvation we are talking about, and furthermore you will be judged much harsher by Jesus as you are his consecrated soldiers going out there in this spiritual war.

  9. frjim4321 says:

    All the more reason for providing SCREENS while celebrating the first/preferred Rite.

    I think we are the only parish around that provides screens for almost every station during communal penance – and the church is nearly full.

    It’s pretty clear that screens are supposed to be provided.

    As far as someone being scared from going to communion because of a conflict with a Eucharistic Minister, I wonder what that was all about. A person can just as easily to go another person the next time. Actually the same applies to a so-called “bad experience” with the second form of the Rite of Penance. Just go to another priest.

    Pastorally I have heard numerous stories of “bad experiences” with priest given as an excuse for no longer going to church, no longer participating in communion, no longer celebrating the Rite of Penance. I believe it about one out of five times.

  10. Maltese says:

    Next time a priest laughs at you, walk out of the confessional and go to a priest of the FSSP. This will teach the priest a lesson and afford you a laugh-free confession!

    As far as the act of contrition goes, there is no specific formula; just say, “Jesus, I ask you to forgive these sins, and any I’ve forgotten.” Or something similar to that. The specific words of the act of contricion, as long as they are said in good faith, have no bearing on the Sacrament of Reconcilliation.

    Just get in there and confess you sins! (Confession, btw, is Biblical: Christ told his Apostles–the firest Bishops–to go out and forgive sins).

  11. plemmen says:

    In another thread I made mention of a very long confession. It was my first in many years and was very involved as I had been in error for many years including ordinations and elevation to the Episcopate, all invalid and illicit, thus sinful. I made the preparations carefully and with the foresight needed for these errors, the hierarchical involvement, etc. Once all the ducks were in a row and the canonical issues addressed, I made a forth-right, complete, heartfelt and sincere confession. I walked out of the cathedral after completing my penance drained but almost giddy with happiness to be truly in a state of grace.

  12. mamajen says:


    Regarding the Eucharistic Minister incident: I was a college student at the time, in an unfamiliar parish. I went to receive on the tongue, as I have all my life, and was sternly told “we don’t do that here”. I was humiliated, and not being familiar with the parish I didn’t know if anyone else would allow me to receive on the tongue without creating a spectacle. I don’t think it was right of me to allow my fear and humiliation to keep me from communion, but that’s what happened at the time. People react differently to things. I had a lot of psychological “baggage” at the time, and lacked the maturity that I have now.

  13. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Well, there’s always been some face-to-face Confession. If you are having a mortal sin emergency or just need to go where there’s no confessional, and you grab a priest wherever you happen to be, there’s nothing wrong with face-to-face. (Although a lot of priests in this situation will sort of turn their head or not look directly at you or lean over, so there’s sort of an invisible screen.) But probably most people do better with the screen.

    I’m sure bad confessors usually don’t mean to hurt people. (Some probably do.) But that’s the perils of not sticking to the script — more chance to mess up big time.

  14. brotherfee says:

    Well, the priest needs to be told about his inappropriate behavior hearing confession. He may not be aware that a certain behavior or expression can be intimidating or belittling to the penitent. Best to approach the subject in the priest’s office and state exactly what made you uncomfortable.
    A poorer option is to avoid that priest the next time. Much better to talk to the priest, yeah it may be difficult to do, but you may help the priest realize something he’s doing that causing a problem, he may be thankful for the help!

  15. AnAmericanMother says:

    We were visiting my in-laws, in a diocese that has something of a reputation for wackiness.
    Went to confession face to face . . . that was the way it was . . . as I was recounting my sins the priest suddenly shouted in a voice you could have heard across the interstate (and more to the point, all over the church) “THAT’s not a sin!” I’m almost positive it was, but I just said very meekly, “Yes, Father.”
    If I had been a new convert at that point, or a young sensitive girl instead of a 50-ish courthouse rat who’s had judges yell and threaten jail, it would have been pretty traumatic. As it was, I found a different parish to go to when we’re visiting.

  16. michelelyl says:

    I had to comment.
    Young Canadian…you don’t know what you are talking about. You are assuming things that may or may not exist. I’ve been going to ‘face-to’face’ confession since I was permitted. I’m 53 now, and have been to Confession many, many times. I’m a sinful woman, and well aware of it and my need for the healing absolution of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I also work at a Roman Catholic Parish as a Pastoral Associate.
    In spite of human priests who were busy, arrogant, liberal, post-Vatican II, feminists, uneducated, Jesuit,etc. I have found that face-to-face Confession has always been a grace-filled, incredible, forgiving experience. Even when the priest was busy, pre-occupied, drunk, disdainful, sarcastic, angry, or dismissive.
    I even went to the Sacrament of Reconciliation at Religious Education Congress last weekend in Los Angeles CA (well, actually Anaheim CA) . It was in a private booth, and followed the usual form. I was given absolution, a penance I could remember, the form I know that is accurate–and I didn’t get a counseling session on new age philosophy. I encountered a compassionate priest who listened, said what needed to be said, and sent me on my way. I wasn’t traumatized or concerned about the validity of the Sacrament.
    “Oh, My God, I am sorry for my sins. In choosing to do wrong, and failing to do good, I have sinned against you and against your Church. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned against you, whom I should love above all things. I firmly intend, with the help of your Son, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin. Amen.” Jesus, have mercy upon me, a sinner. (Mother Theresa)

  17. Steve Gallagher says:

    I’ve never liked face to face confession. It isn’t the issue of seeing the priest while I’m speaking to him, it’s just that the confessional with screen is part of the whole unique experience of the sacrament. Face to face just seems like we’re sitting there shooting the breeze, rather than it being the solemn and beautiful gift from God that it is.

  18. scarda says:

    A priest once laughed at one of my sins while I was in confession, and it cheered me right up. I laughed too, received absolution, and went out of the confessional cleansed and lighthearted. Not all laughter is mockery, you know; sometimes it is sympathetic. It probably cheered the priest up, too. Being spiritually spotless is a giddy kind of feeling! Granting that state of grace must be even more delightful.

    [I think the difference lies in being laughed at or laughed with. A laugh from a confessor can mean that he knows exactly what you are talking about because he, also, is a sinner. There is a difference, and I think we can tell when it is the one or the other.]

  19. michlelel, I am not downplaying face-to-face confession in itself. To me whether it be screen or in person, the Sacrament, when done under a priest with valid and licit canonical faculties, AND under the ordinary of the diocese (bishop), it is a valid confession (though not saying the father of mercies thing might not be smart, Fr. Z has adressed this matter a number of times here on WDTPRS).
    Where my comments are aimed at is 1) mainly the downplaying of sins when their matter is truly grave or disordered or 2) downplaying even the venial sins. Did you see my analogy and also correlate that with the original poster’s story of “working his way up to major ones?” and 3) laughing or saying innapropriate things to a pentinent, whereby they become misconstrued and make the person never want to come back to confession again.
    While always the sacrament when done in the right conditions as I listed above will “wipe the slate clean,” as is common language about the sins of the pentinents, regardless of how that priest leans theologically and ideaologically, confession should also be treated as a time to help the pentinent realize that sin is no laughing matter, even the venial ones. Think of a child. They are always testing their parents to see how much they can get away with. The parent has to stop while they can, else the kid will go as far as he can. That’s what happened with this pentinent and he realized this with his mortal sins. Thank Christ (and Fr. Z) that he woke up, else who’d know the state of his soul were he to die suddenly from a heart attack or in a motor vehicle accident.
    Furthermore, I’ll even take a odd comment about the sacrament from one of my friends who studies one of those isms/theologies I mentioned, comparing the Sacrament to an ‘older form of what would be psycho/talk therapy in modern day.’ The goal of the therapy is to help the person see what they are doing wrong and that they come to realize a course of action must be taken, perhaps even going as far as to tell them a specific treatment plan (e.g. cognitive behaviour therapy to reduce or eradicate a maladaptice behaviour). For that pentinent to take the course of action in their ‘therapy,’ our priests have to help them realize that even minor sins ruin our relationship with the Lord, helping them truly be contrite for their sins, by ensuring they don’t get that far down the road of sin nor repeat coming to the confessional for them. Part of this spiritual ‘treatment plan’ so to speak is haing the pentinent know the gravity of sin, or if venial, what it does and to turn away from it.
    That adresses 1 and 2. As for 3, the priests have to realize that this is sensitive matter spiritually and emotionally for pentinents. If the priest is jolly like St. Nick, fine that’s his personality, but laughing at them, saying out loudly that’s not a sin as another commenter mentioned in a prior experience, or downgrading sin isn’t going to help them on multiple levels and like our poster, will turn them away either from the trauma or leave them thinking “hey I don’t need confession” cause Jesus loves me, and “what’s the purpose of this anyway?” Don’t forget also that 1st confession is done at 7-8 years old mostly, and if they are not taught after that about sin or the purpose of the Sacraments, or their parents dont take them, you can guarantee it’ll take a lot of convincing or repeated reminders to get the person back after who knows how many years of unaccounted sins.

  20. Faith says:

    No commentor has mentioned my experience. One priest told me as long as I don’t commit a moral sin, I didn’t have to go often; every three or four months will be fine.
    Another wouldn’t give me absolution because he didn’t see any sin?
    And another asked me, don’t you have another confessor you can go to?
    Presently, my spiritual director hears my confession before our session. We gauge my progress by this and the direction follows. It fits me so perfectly that I wonder why some say confession doesn’t belong in spiritual direction.

  21. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:

    I thought priests these days were overly concerned with “pastoral thinking”, but the blog entry and the following comments all break my heart. :(

  22. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:

    And, just to put in my two cents. Face-to-face confession was all that was available for me until I learned to drive…but even then I really had no idea anonymous confession was available anywhere else. I went to Catholic high school and they would bring in 8-10 priests for school-wide confession days and NO ONE was available for anonymous confessions. Needless to say, by the time I was able to drive, I hadn’t been in a state of grace in several years because of the extreme embarrassment/timidness at the thought of confessing my serious sins to my priest’s face. Screened anonymous confessions remove a barrier to the Sacrament for the timid laity and help remove any issues of the priest “knowing who did what” in legal matters. I am of the opinion that priests who do not offer the possibility of anonymous confession simply do not want to hear confessions in the first place.

  23. PhilipNeri says:

    I’ve never laughed AT a sinner in the Box, but I often smile and laugh WITH a sinner as a fellow sinner. In face-to-face confessions, I often smile when some particular sins are confessed. For example, “I got angry in traffic and yelled at the other driver.” I do this too. So, I smile not b/c I think the sin is funny or cute but b/c I can empathize. . .all too well.

    An aside: other priests will likely agree here. . .please, avoid explaining your sins. If the circumstances of the sin are important, your confessor will ask for details. We don’t need to know that you were driving to visit in your aunt who is sick b/c she had a fight with her husband about his drinking and womanizing. Stick to confessing YOUR sins. Details are for spiritual direction.

    Fr. Philip Neri, OP

  24. MuchLikeMartha says:

    Congratulations to the original poster!! What wonderful news to read on this Good Friday morning!

    As a convert it took me years to recognize true sin because in the non-Catholic world it simply isn’t recognized as such. I heard a Lutheran minister say on a radio program that, “Uncondemned sin becomes acceptable sin.” How sad and how true. We’ve been fortunate to have some excellent materials at our parish which break down the Ten Commandments to such a degree that it makes seeing your sin(s) very clearly for things that we might otherwise see as a shade of gray. For instance, I’d never heard of sins of the tongue, calumny, etc., much less thought of plain old “gossip” as being sinful. If it hadn’t been broken down for me in that way, I’d never have known any better.

    This is one Catholic who is very grateful for the occasional 2 x 4 upside the head.

  25. Trad Catholic Girl says:

    “This is one Catholic who is very grateful for the occasional 2 X 4 upside the head.” It’s clear that some people like and do well with corporal punishment, while others who are already traumitized, and have difficulty distinguishing what is real, just shut down. Priests, if you know someone responds and learns well through pastoral guidance, why force corporal correction?

  26. Peggy R says:

    I don’t like the confession ‘services’ they have during Advent and Lent at our parish. I can go to private confession at an OMI shrine 15 miles away any weekday. There are screens as well as chairs for face to face or anonymous confession in private rooms. The parish ‘services’ have several priests about the church–or for PSR kids, which is nice that they do–in the gym. The priests stand and it’s face to face of course. And it is without structure. (I have a hard time teaching the structure to my own learning disabled kids and our parish doesn’t help.) I was going to pass on confession with the PSR kids, but I had a sin on my mind that day, so I confessed. I usually keep my head down to avoid looking at the priest and maintain some sense of the anonymity of the confessional. My pastor called me by my first name in beginning the confession. I didn’t like that. Even though he saw my face, saying my name in the process took away my privacy even more. I went to another private confession at the OMI shrine this week.

  27. pelerin says:

    It is always so good to read about someone who has gone to Confession after a long length of time. There was a wonderful moment on a recent BBC documentary when a lady told how she had returned to the Church after 60 years. It’s never too late!

  28. MuchLikeMartha says:

    Trad Catholic Girl, I wasn’t talking about corporal punishment at all, and I apologize for the confusion. What I meant was that it’s not enough to tell someone simply not to gossip or whatever. I think for many of us who weren’t raised with a more detailed sense of sin and why it is such, we need to have it spelled out in black and white in no uncertain terms (sometimes with the 2 x 4). I fully understood the major mortal stuff: don’t kill, don’t steal…the things that were blurry to me were things like refusing to control my temper and hurting others with my words. I fully needed to understand where to draw the line in the sand in order to really understand, accept and participate in the fullness of the Sacrament. I like the materials and Priests that give it to me straight as opposed to vague suggestions that leave me wondering if I’ve really sinned at all and how badly.

  29. Sixupman says:

    It is true that many clergy no longer believe in Confession and Absolution, hence the dearth of the availability of the Sacrament.

    A church which I attend [Oratory] has Confessions six days a week, twice-a-day. Holy Week and Christmas extra opportunities when the queues are long, even with three priests Hearing the same.

  30. TomG says:

    Sixupman: I don’t believe that, as you say, “many clergy no longer believe in … .” I’ve had a number of priests over the past 30 years or so who I know were liberal/not seeking true holiness but were clearly taking seriously their role as confessor. I think when the bishop really is on board with frequent confessions, it will begin to spread throughout the diocese. To me, it’s really that simple.

    BTW, you are very blessed to have such a church. That’s almost as good as the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in DC.

  31. AnAmericanMother says:

    Trad Catholic Girl,
    I think you’ve run afoul of Kipling’s old adage about English English and American English, though in this case it’s Southern English.
    The “two-by-four” saying is a Southernism, arising from the proverbial hard-headedness and imperviousness to reason of the old plow mule, which you may have read about in Mr. William Faulkner’s stories. Your plow boss would say that he “had to hit the mule with a 2 x 4 just to get his attention.” It (along with “beating him like a rented mule” and “grinning like a mule eating briars”) has passed into the common speech, although the mules are long, long gone.
    I frequently use this expression to refer to (a) my middle dog; (b) my youngest son. I would never whack either one of them with a two-by-four. All it means is that they are both hard-headed and stubborn, and it takes something memorable to attract their attention.
    I’m sure confessors encounter these types ( cough . . . cough ) on a regular basis.

  32. KFT says:

    To the OP….welcome back!! Awesome x 2!

    Adding my 2 cents to the conversation, I don’t think I have ever been treated unkindly in confession. Some experiences have been better than others, but none have been bad. I prefer face-to-face, whether I know the priest or not, but that is just me. At our church, there is just one priest, so you can be pretty sure who will be hearing confessions. In the five years, our current pastor has been there, someone eavesdropping might have heard some laughter coming from the confessional, but also much sincerity and wisdom.

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