We humans can be a bit fickle sometimes. What we choose to do with our time often depends directly on how the people and places with which we associate ourselves make us feel. If we don’t feel welcome in a place, we probably don’t stay long.
If we try a place or organization out on the suggestion of other people, but never really learn or understand what it’s all about, we’re also likely out the door before long. Likewise, if we devote ourselves fully to a place or organization, only to experience betrayal at the hands of that organization, surely it won’t take long for us to find a new home.
As a result, many who see the place that was left behind from a distance, and perhaps hear horror stories from others who’ve been there, will look with hostility upon it and never go near it if they can help it.
This phenomenon occurs in a lot of places, but none as much as the Catholic Church. For tens (maybe hundreds) of thousands of people today, the instances above are, sadly, more often than not very real and very legitimate beefs.
We could talk for days about who did what to whom, ranging from petty to incredibly serious, but I’m writing this post instead as a plea to those who no longer come to Mass as a result of those experiences, to those who no longer identify as Catholic, and even those who aren’t Catholic and are skeptical about the Church, to come back, to come and see one more time.
We all have people in our lives who have left the Church—who aren’t attending Mass for one reason or another, and there’s one thing we all should encourage those people in our lives to come back and do more than anything: Come to confession.
Now, I’m not saying this because those people are heathens in need of repentance before you can re-enter or anything—heck, we’re all unworthy all the time. We’re all sinners, and we all could stand to attend confession more often.
I’m suggesting confession, because the Catholic Church is about Jesus, and confession lets us meet Him face to face.
We believe that priests, when acting in their capacity as priests (saying Mass, anointing the sick and dying, hearing confessions), are acting in persona Christi—literally “In the person of Christ.” In his priestly capacity, that’s no longer Fr. Bill on the altar or in the confessional. That’s Jesus.
To boot, the seal of confession is what makes this such a powerful sacrament. That means the priest will never, ever (ever!) tell anyone. Seriously, never. Because if he did, he’d be removed from priesthood immediately and would excommunicate himself from the Church. For real.
No one else is offering that. Especially in a culture that insists on broadcasting every little detail of one’s life.
Even so, the thought of going to confession usually brings the response, “I don’t want/need to go,” especially among people who haven’t gone in years.
But dig deeper and I’d bet it’s more one of two things:
- “I don’t want the priest to judge me for things I’ve done wrong.” OR
- “I experienced hurt at the hands of a priest, and I’ll never trust one again.”
Not going to Confession is typically rooted, on some level, either in fear of being exposed, or a fear of being hurt again.
The Fear of Being Exposed
Fr. Connor Danstrom of the Three Dogs North podcast said, “The reason we’re afraid of saying sorry is, we have to admit we’re wrong and then we’ll feel bad about ourselves, and that it feels like it costs us something, or we think that the one we’ve wronged, if they find out, will be mad at us.”
However, the reality of it couldn’t be further from the truth. Fr. Danstrom went on:
Why live like this?! God is merciful, and He’s not mad. God already knows [your sin], and He’s not mad. Plus, apologizing and admitting your responsibility for your actions won’t make you feel worse than you already feel, it’ll make you feel better!
The first step to coming closer to the fullest possible happiness in our lives is to admit we make mistakes and to do something about them. The second step is to believe we’re worthy of forgiveness.
The latter part may just be one of the greatest (and quietest) epidemics facing our culture today. I say this because I hear people say, “I’m not perfect” all the time, but I almost never hear of people saying, “Will you forgive me?” I really don’t think many of us think we’re worth forgiving, and yet it’s exactly what we have to believe in order to come closer to the Lord, closer to living life “to the full” (John 10:10).
Saying, “will you forgive me?” requires us to have 1) humility to honestly acknowledge our imperfection, and 2) a radical awareness of our worth that involves letting ourselves be forgiven for things we’ve done wrong.
The Fear of Being Hurt Again
We all know people who have trouble with the Church on some level. Maybe they’re angry at God for a loved one’s sudden death. It could be that they were embarrassed by a priest at the parish while serving Mass or serving in some other capacity. Or perhaps they were abused by someone in the Church, and maybe even (God forbid) by a priest.
None of those should ever be taken lightly, at all. In fact, that’s precisely why they should go and bring that to Jesus himself through the person of the priest in confession.
But why would anyone do that? And especially after experiencing what could be a crippling, life-altering hurt?
The reason, and I don’t at all mean to trivialize the problem, is because though all elephants are gray, not all gray things are elephants.
When a person is recovering from a trauma, especially at the hands of a trusted individual, trust of any kind becomes difficult. But trust of a similarly-situated person can be impossible to fathom. For example, some years ago a close family member was a victim of rape at the hands of a man. In the aftermath she began to see and treat every man she encountered as a potential attacker. Over time, however, as she began to see and experience the falsehood of that implicit belief, she realized that the only way she could experience healing was to stop seeing “all gray things as elephants.” Her attacker stopped having power over her as soon as she realized that he was one man, and not all men.
Similarly, those we know who have been abused or otherwise hurt at the hands of a priest can find comfort and healing in knowing that not every priest is a threat. In fact, the vast majority of priests are good and prayerful men, seeking to live out each day for the good of God’s Kingdom. The priests who abused and the priests who otherwise hurt people were, in those moments, not acting in persona Christi, but were sadly acting out of their fallen and sinful human nature.
This is not to explain away the problem, but rather to make an important distinction: though we can hurt each other, Christ would never hurt us.
I’d encourage anyone to not let a bad priest keep them from meeting Jesus in confession. It isn’t worth it to let a bad priest continue to have power over us, our friends, or our family members, because Jesus meant us to have a “peace beyond all understanding.” Not a fear that keeps us away from him.
So bring your hurt to the Lord—your deepest hurt—the one you think you can share with no one. There’s literally nothing off limits to what you can say.
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “The Confessional” by David Wilkie painted in 1827.