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What To Do When Confession Goes Bad

October 6, AD 2012 19 Comments

Last week I published a post called “5 Tips That Will Change The Way You Think About Confession.”

Overall it had great reviews. It resonated with how a lot of people feel about the sacrament.

A woman wrote an email to me lamenting the fact that her sister had actually had a really bad experience in confession. As a result, she has not been back in years.

So what do you do when you have a bad experience in confession? Here are five possible scenarios and five appropriate suggestions on how to handle each one.

1. The Priest Yells At You

In the last post, I asserted that this probably wouldn’t happen. But as I learned, it unfortunately has.

In the case that the priest yells at you for having been gone for so many years or for the sins you have committed, handle the situation as you would in any other social situation. Simply ask him for a little more respect, and remind him how difficult it is for you to be there.

You have just as much as dignity as he does. If he persists, simply get up, leave, and find another priest to hear your confession as soon as possible. If you feel compelled, contact the priest at a later time to tell him how you felt you were treated.

2. You Lie or Withhold Necessary Details

Confession can go bad if you lie or withhold details. Why? Because it won’t count.

In order to ensure that you’ve made a good confession, you have to say all mortal sins that you are aware of, and the number of times you’ve committed them, if you know that number. Venial sins do not have to be named, but you might as well since you’re there.

If you have lied in confession or omitted the necessary details, go back and make a good confession. Listen, many of us have done this out of fear or pride. It’s not fun to admit or to confess to the fact that you’ve made a bad confession, but it’s a great way to be extremely vulnerable to receive God’s healing mercy.

3. The Priest Tells You It’s Not A Sin

This is famously referred to as  “confession wars.”It’s when one priest says one thing and another priest says something different.

It’s not helpful to the sinner to hear that their sins are not a big deal. Why? Because later when the person is tempted to commit the sin again, he will use the justification that Father So-and-So said it wasn’t a big deal.

To avoid this, find a priest who will give you the truth even when it hurts sometimes. Jesus says that the gate to Heaven is narrow, so you want to make sure your confessor is going to do whatever he can to help you get through that gate.

4. You’re Not Actually Absolved (*updated as of 10/7)

To be absolved from your sins, the priest must say the trinitarian formula over you:, “I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” at least “I absolve you” (see Fr. Z’s take on it). The Church teaches that if these words are not said, there is no absolution of sins and the confession is not valid* (see note below).

Two things can happen. Either the priest can just leave it out altogether, or he might use a different formula. Either way, it doesn’t count.

On another note, one trendy formula  that may or may not still be happening is an attempt to absolve “in the name of the Creator, and of the Redeemer and of the Sanctifier.”

While this formula is very beautiful, it has at least one problem. Sins are not absolved in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. They’re absolved in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

5. The Seal of Secrecy is Broken

Breaking the seal of confession merits the priest the most serious punishment the church has. Paragraph 1467 is very clear on this:

Given the delicacy and greatness of this ministry and the respect due to persons, the Church declares that every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents’ lives. This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the “sacramental seal,” because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains “sealed” by the sacrament.

If this happens to you or you become aware of this serious matter, it’s time to call the office of the Bishop. You owe it yourself, to your Catholic brothers and sisters, and to the priest himself, to say something.

* Catechism paragraph 1449. Note: This applies to Latin-Rite Catholics. Other rites may have different formulae. See paragraph 1481

About the Author:

Ryan Eggenberger is a partner at Little Flower Strategies, LLC. He writes about travel, marketing, and his terrible parking skills. Follow him on twitter at @RyanEggenberger.