With the best of intentions, I meant to keep a record of my RCIA experience. I wanted to be able to look back on it in times to come. And then life happened, and I’ve barely written a word. Never mind.
Anyway, suffice it to say I’m nearly there and on Saturday next week I’ll be officially joining the Catholic Church. I’m looking forward to that, but I’d also like to reflect on a few things which have happened over the past few months. The most recent being my First Confession.
Actually, there’s a convert in Canada who is going through exactly the same conversion process (although from Evangelical Christianity rather than Anglo-Catholicism) but who is a much better writer than me, annoyingly… If you’re at all interested in conversion you should be reading his blog, and he has written a wonderful piece on the Sacrament of Confession: ‘How First Confession Blew My Mind’:
If I were in charge of marketing the Catholic Church—and I might take a run at the job if it opens up—I would put the Sacrament of Reconciliation on the top of the list of things to “sell.” I’d put up billboards across the country touting the amazing power of forgiveness that exists in the Catholic Church’s practice of confession. A remarkable power—and power remarkably different from anything I’ve ever experienced as a Protestant.
I’d advertise confession as a gift.
Because I’m convinced that the sacrament is the most under-valued gift. One of the greatest hidden treasures of the Catholic Church. And something that’s completely blown my mind and convinced me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this is how God intended Christ’s sacrifice to have worked.
To actually be able to hear that I’m forgiven, to know that I’m truly reconciled with God—that our relationship is repaired—is absolutely mind-blowing.
I’m not, and never have been, an Evangelical Protestant. But I do know people who are, and I know that one of the appeals of the Evangelical churches is that people who join them often feel as if they’ve been born again, made new, all the mistakes of their old life wiped out. It’s a powerful appeal, because forgiveness is something almost everyone is searching for.
And the thing is, the Catholic Church turns forgiveness into a real and tangible thing, a glorious Sacrament which is exactly as Our Lord intended.
Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained. John 20:23
As an Anglican, I wanted my sins to be forgiven. I said sorry to God in my prayers. But still I didn’t feel forgiven. The sins I had committed in my life still lay like a weight on my shoulders, and no amount of prayer could make me feel truly free.
Fast forward a few years, and I am preparing to make my First Confession in the run up to Easter. I’ve reflected, I’ve written a list which takes up most of an A4 sheet of paper, and I’ve found the right places in the Missal so I’ll know what to say when I get in there. When I enter the Confessional my hands are shaking and I am so nervous I have to clear my voice many times before I can start.
I can see why some Catholics stay away from the Confessional. You open up all of the old wounds you inflicted on yourself in the past. You say things you have been embarrassed about for years. You tell the Priest things you’d never dream of telling to another person. It’s not an easy thing to do. People who don’t like the Catholic Church often paint Confession as a horrible thing – a way for Priests to have power over their congregations, making you confess all the sordid details of your life to them so you are humiliated and they know all your dirty little secrets. But in reality it’s something quite different.
I can honestly say, without any exaggeration, that when I heard the Priest say the words of absolution I felt almost literally as if a weight had been lifted. I knew with absolute certainty that the burden of sin I had carried with me for years had been taken away. In the Confessional I was crying, but when I walked out I had the biggest smile on my face. The grace of this Sacrament is incredible, and suddenly it all made sense to me.
So here are a few pieces of advice for anyone else making their First Confession. Most of them are common sense, but it bears repeating I think!
1. Take plenty of time to reflect a few days beforehand. It’s not easy to remember all your serious sins if you were baptised as a child and have never been to Confession, but you do have to do your best to remember as many as possible. On the day if you’re anything like me you will be so nervous that it’s hard to reflect on anything with any clarity.
2. I know some people say you shouldn’t write down your confession, but at least for this first time I found it very useful to have a list. For a start, I was so nervous when I walked into the Confessional that I wouldn’t have remembered most of the things I wanted to confess; and for another thing it took some of the emotion out of the process as I could simply read what I had written down. That doesn’t mean I didn’t feel it; but it made me calmer. This comes with a huge caveat, however; make sure that nobody – nobody – has access to that piece of paper other than you, and that you tear it up and throw it away immediately afterwards. What you have confessed is, and should remain, private.
3. Take some tissues.
4. Further to point 3, don’t be embarrassed if you start crying. I’m sure the Priest regularly deals with people having a massive emotional breakdown in the Confessional. If you do start to cry, just keep going with your confession and I promise that you will feel better once it’s over.
5. This is a personal preference, but I would recommend using a Confessional if you possibly can. I know that a lot of Priests now encourage you to sit or kneel next to them, but it really helped me to have that distance, and not to be able to see the Priest’s face fully (although of course I knew who he was!). I was able to concentrate on the fact that I was confessing to God, and the personality of the Priest wasn’t important. It shouldn’t be a cosy chat and for me the act of kneeling, the Priest being behind a grille, all helped with this.
6. A useful piece of advice I was given before my confession was not to elaborate too much. Just list your sins in number and in kind. If there are any circumstances which are particularly relevant mention them. For example, if you stole money it might help to give the amount and when you did it, and possibly even why (because stealing £1 from your sister’s money box because you didn’t have enough to buy her a birthday present is a less serious sin than stealing £50 from your work because you wanted a new pair of shoes). Likewise, confessing the number of times or frequency with which you’ve commited a particular sin isn’t just a weird custom, it helps the Priest to know whether it’s a habitual sin or a once-off, which is again going to alter the seriousness of that sin and its effects. But beyond that, you don’t need to go into detail. Keep it as simple as possible and move on rather than wallowing in the badness of it all.
7. On the other hand, you do need to be specific. Saying ‘I’ve sinned against X commandment’ is not enough. Don’t bother with euphemisms for things you’re ashamed of – it’s quicker just to say the words and get it over with! An ex-Anglican Priest also pointed out to me that some churches have the 10 Commandments in a slightly different order so do make sure that if you mention a Commandment you’ve got it the Catholic way round – you don’t want to find yourself inadvertantly confessing to murder!
8. When you have finished you say an Act of Contrition, which at least in my Missal contains the words, ‘And with the help of your grace, I will not sin again.’ We discussed this in depth in RCIA. It’s a big promise. You don’t promise to try, you promise to do it. You have to walk out of that Church determined not to sin again. Of course, human nature being what is is, you will be back with a new list of sins in the not-too-distant future, and in all likelihood they’ll be the same sins that you confessed last time because they are your besetting sins and human nature is like that. But you have to make a firm intention that you will change your life.
9. Further to that thought though, don’t be too cast down when you almost immediately start committing sins again. Having left the Confessional bouyed up by an immense feeling of grace, I can see how some people end up going back every single day. Confession could so easily become addictive! But that’s not really the point of it. Go regularly, but don’t become over-scrupulous. Remember that venial sins can be confessed privately to God at the end of each day, at the start of Mass during the Confiteor, and really at any time.
10. One final thing – don’t worry that the Priest will judge you. All the Priests I’ve ever spoken to about Confession say that they don’t remember people’s sins afterwards, and having been through it I can well believe that’s true. For a start, they hear so many confessions, and I’m sure most of them are almost carbon copies, because there’s a limited number of sins in the world! The overwhelming likelihood is that the Priest will be very nice to you, because you are doing one of the hardest things and turning back to God. And when the Priest pronounces those words of absolution, no matter how hard it has been to walk into that Confessional, it will all become worth it when you walk out, forgiven and freed from your sins.