Forgive me, Father: Confession offers path to healing, grace

| Susan Klemond | March 21, 2018 | 0 Comments

A woman goes to confession in darkness at the start of the Easter Vigil led by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican March 26, 2016. CNS/Paul Haring

Many Americans say they fear public speaking more than almost anything, but some Catholics also have anxiety about speaking privately with a priest about their sins in confession.

“Our sins only cause fear, confusion, division and harm,” said Father Mark Moriarty, pastor of St. Agnes in St. Paul. “God doesn’t want us to stay in that kind of terrible and harmful state. He is waiting and planning and nudging and encouraging us to receive his mercy.”

God offers peace, healing and joy to those who can overcome that fear and receive forgiveness for their sins in the sacrament of reconciliation, he added.

The season of Lent and especially Holy Week offer good opportunities to meet the Church’s requirement that Catholics confess serious sins at least once a year because the Church is commemorating Christ’s death and resurrection, Father Moriarty said.

“Lent is a beautiful time to acknowledge how much we need Christ and to personally participate in the saving effects of his meritorious death,” he said.

Is forgiveness a given?

Catholics might avoid confession because they fear God can’t forgive them, or they might be unable to forgive themselves, said Father Donald DeGrood, pastor of St. John the Baptist in Savage. But people can overcome this obstacle when they understand God’s love and mercy, which could assuage fears of having a bad experience in the confessional.

“The whole key is, how does God see it? He sees it as he gives the beautiful gift of mercy, and he wants us to receive it fully,” Father DeGrood said.

Father Moriarty noted that some Catholics stay away from the confessional because they’ve become spiritually “deaf.”

“They cannot hear God’s call with how busy life is and the general cacophony that surrounds us at all times,” he said.

Others might think their sins are common and not that bad, so they don’t feel compelled to repent.

Some Catholics don’t understand the difference between mortal — or grave — sins, which separate us from God, and lesser offenses called venial sins, Father Moriarty said. Mortal sins must be confessed to a priest, but venial sins can be forgiven during the penitential rite at Mass.

Regardless of Catholics’ misgivings about the sacrament, priests seek to be an instrument of God’s grace and warmly welcome them, Father Moriarty said.

“You really make our day when you come to us and it’s been a while” since one’s last confession, he said. “We’re not going to embarrass you; we’re actually very happy for you.”

All sins are forgivable except what’s technically called a “sin against the Holy Spirit,” which consists of confidently believing God will not forgive our sin, Father Moriarty said.

“By logic, God can’t forgive a sin that we don’t want him to forgive,” he said.

As soon as penitents ask forgiveness of this or any sin, it becomes forgivable, and God wants to forgive it, he said.

What are my lines?

When Father James Perkl, pastor of Mary, Mother of the Church in Burnsville, encounters penitents who don’t know where to begin, he asks them who they love. They tell him they love their family, God and others, and he asks them how they’ve hurt those they love.

“That’s when they begin talking about what they’ve not talked about for years,” he said. “That’s when that confession happens. They feel the burden that they’ve carried for so long relieved. It’s beautiful to witness the healing of the Lord.”

Priests, like doctors, are trained to understand injuries and find their sources, Father Perkl said, adding that they discover the origins and depths of sin and show God’s love for his creation through it all.

Catholics shouldn’t worry if they don’t know specific prayers and procedures for confession, Father Moriarty said.

“The penitent doesn’t have to know the entire formula as presented by Hollywood,” he said. “The most important thing is to have a sense of self-awareness for what are the more serious or mortal sins and some of the habits they need to change.”

When Catholics are unclear about confessing their sins, Father DeGrood said he hopes they will experience the priest as welcoming, encouraging and wanting to help.

The priests interviewed recommended reading the Gospels to understand how Christ encountered and healed sinners. They also suggested bringing fears and apprehension to prayer.

Father DeGrood advises penitents to make a list of their sins ahead of time if they fear forgetting them in the confessional, as well as using a good examination of conscience, which can be found on Catholic websites such as and

Grace and mercy

Although Catholics can confess their sins in prayer, the sacrament of reconciliation is necessary because it includes absolution, in which penitents’ sins are not only forgiven, but they are also wiped away completely, thus restoring their relationship with God and receiving the grace to fight future temptations.

“The role of the priest is to stand in the person of Christ in that sacrament,” Father DeGrood said. “It’s the power of the Holy Spirit that brings that beautiful gift of forgiveness.”

Pope Francis recently said that a good confessor is a good listener who must never forget he is not the source of mercy or grace, but that he is always an “indispensable instrument.” He noted that when priest and penitent both prayerfully listen to God’s will, confession can become an occasion for discovering God’s plan for the individual.

Although it’s common for Catholics to encounter obstacles when approaching confession, Father DeGrood said the key is to “be not afraid” and trust in the sacrament’s integrity and power.

In receiving the sacrament, Catholics gain a greater sense of gratitude to God, Father Moriarty said. And when they go regularly, they better understand the need for his grace and mercy.

— CNS contributed to this story

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