Two years ago I served as a summer missionary at Life Teen’s Camp Hidden Lake. One of my jobs was to help facilitate the line for confession. I was able to watch as people lined up, eagerly waiting to receive the infinite mercy of God.
…Or so I thought. It only took me a few seconds to realize that most of them weren’t as excited as I was about the mercy God was ready to outpour.
Waiting in Line
After speaking with the teens, I learned that a majority of them were nervous to approach the Sacrament. Some hadn’t been to confession in years and were afraid they would freeze up or forget what to say. Some would say, “I’ve done a lot of terrible stuff I’ve never said out loud to anyone else before,” while others confided, “I’m afraid to see the disappointed look on the priest’s face. What if he gets mad at me?” Or even worse, “You don’t understand… It’s scary. I know that priest! He’s going to remember everything I said. He will never look at me the same.”
These feelings, while completely normal, can tempt us to believe the lies that we have to be afraid, or that our sins define us.
So What Happened Next?
I understood exactly where they were coming from. I asked, “Well, would you like to know what the harshest thing I’ve ever heard in the confessional was?”
Intrigued, they quickly nodded “yes,” so I told them.
The Confessions of (Not-So-St.) Kaitlyn
One Sunday evening, our Confirmation director announced that we were going to have an opportunity to go to confession. I immediately froze. I knew I needed to go, but I was scared of what I’d find if I examined my conscience.
Would I have the courage to say all of my sins? I thought to myself, “I’ll just go behind the screen so he doesn’t know who I am,” but that thought quickly turned into, “Maybe I won’t go at all. God understands that I’m not ready and He forgives me anyway, right?”
By the time I finished reading the examen, my list of sins was pretty dang long.
Then I remembered my first Steubenville Conference the previous summer and how I encountered the Lord’s mercy during Eucharistic Adoration. I realized for the first time that Jesus profoundly loved me and wanted to have a relationship with me. I had all of the resolve in the moment to make that happen, but had fallen short countless times. I began to reflect on that experience, “Well, here I am,” I thought, “I’ve wounded our relationship.”
However, deep down I knew that the only way our relationship could be repaired was if I had the courage to stand up and get in line. So I did.
Face to Face
My heart was beating fast. I pushed the heavy door open and, to my surprise, when I saw the priest’s face, the weight of all my fear lifted. He had a smile that stretched wider than the ocean! Even though there wasn’t a screen there, for some reason, I no longer felt the need to hide.
There was something special about this encounter. He asked me my name, we made the Sign of the Cross and, as I started to confess my sins, I began to cry. Instead of hiding my face, I couldn’t help but return his compassionate gaze.
This priest, standing in persona Christi, began speaking to me with the mercy of our Lord: “Kaitlyn,” he said, leaning toward me, “Our Lord gave His life to save you, but you have forgotten how to love yourself in light of this. You were made for Him and His unchanging love. And even now, He has never, ever stopped pursuing you.”
And then it hit me: Jesus Christ was speaking to me through this priest. I was encountering Christ, Himself. He didn’t speak with harsh words, but with a profound, gentle love.
The Harshest Thing I’ve Ever Heard in Confession
Next came the harshest thing I’ve ever heard in Confession:
“I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Let’s think about the weight of these words for a moment. When the priest absolves you, God is also saying, “I love you, I have always loved you.” “You are mine. I delight in you. I have not left you an orphan.” “I am not ashamed of you, afraid of you, or disgusted with you.” “My power is made perfect in your weakness.” “Finally, my son/daughter! You are home. Let us begin.”
The lost sheep? Found. The prodigal son? Embraced. The hemorrhaging woman? Healed. Lazarus in the tomb? Raised to new life. In Confession, you won’t be met with a harsh condemnation of your sinfulness, but rather, with words of radical mercy. We hear in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.”
The day I had that encounter with Jesus transformed my confessional experience for the rest of my life because I recognized His mercy was not harsh, but radical and restorative. He had been intimately present all along, waiting for me to return to Him.
Go in Peace
As I briefly recounted this experience with each teen in line that day, I watched as one girl began to truly believe it for herself. I saw her go into the confessional with a new mindset and come out changed. She tearfully ran over to me and said, “You were right — it really is Jesus!”
Confession is nothing to be afraid of. Sometimes it’s hard to face the Sacrament because we feel unlovable or like our sin is unforgivable, but when we remember that the person we’re talking to is Jesus Christ — who loves us unconditionally and doesn’t treat us harshly — it becomes much more of a commission than a chore.
If it’s been a long time since you’ve been to confession, or if you’re on the fence about going, know that the Lord is already pursuing your heart and longs to heal you with His mercy. I encourage you, despite any hesitations you may have, to muster up the courage and meet His merciful gaze. What that priest told me is true for all of us! Jesus has always been ready to embrace you and give you the strength to begin again. Let Him speak those powerful, “harsh” words of absolution over your life so that you may be transformed in His grace.
When you return home to God in confession, remember that all of the saints are rejoicing with you and singing your name in heaven! You’re never alone on your journey to holiness. You can also imagine me dancing and cheering your name like a crazy woman, if you’d like.
Do not be afraid! I’m praying for you!