A lot of millennial Catholics do not go to confession regularly. I am one of them. We are far more likely to make confessions on the internet than to a priest (see: previous sentence). Overall, around 75% of Catholics never go to confession or go less than once a year, according to a study from 2008.
Can Pope Francis change this? Can he inspire us to return to the confessional? Will the “Francis Effect” change the behavior of young Catholics in such a concrete way and integrate us more deeply into the sacramental life of the Church?
Catholics stop attending confession for many reasons. Some have had bad experiences with priests, perhaps with the “little monsters” that Pope Francis has called out. Instead of experiencing the joy of forgiveness and reconciliation, they may have felt increased shame and alienation. Just this week I heard about a Catholic returning to the confessional only to have such an experience.
For others, it may simply be that they stopped going after someone stopped making them go, and they continue to stay away out of habit or because they would rather not openly state how many years it’s been since their last confession. They might see this admission as a source of embarrassment.
Another reason is that the sacrament of reconciliation may feel redundant when someone has already confessed their sins to God, asked for forgiveness, and felt their relationship with God reconciled and renewed by this. When I realize or admit to myself that I have done something wrong, I will typically ask God for forgiveness immediately and commit to turning away from this sin in the future, as I’m sure many others do. To ask for forgiveness again for the same sins may seem like doubting the authenticity of these experiences and one’s relationship with God.
Of course, sin does not simply damage our relationship with God, but our relationships with others as well. When I realize I have hurt others in some way, I will apologize, make amends, and attempt to restore my relationship with them, though admittedly less frequently than I do in my relationship with God. It can be harder with friends, family members, and colleagues. There is the possibility of rejection, embarrassment, awkwardness, and other negative social experiences that might deter one from asking for forgiveness and seeking reconciliation. There is a certain intimacy in asking for forgiveness, as it involves trust and reflects a desire for greater communion. If the relationship has recently been damaged, that trust may not be there.
This communal dimension, the social impact of our sins, is perhaps something that more of us who do not celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation regularly (or ever) should really consider. And Pope Francis spoke about this yesterday:
Someone may say: ‘I confess only to God.’ Yes, you can tell God: ‘Forgive me’, and say your sins. But our sins are also against the brothers, against the Church, and for this it is necessary to ask forgiveness to the Church and to the brothers, in the person of the priest.
In the Sacrament, the priest represents not only God, but also the whole Church, “which recognizes the fragility of its members, listens to their heartfelt repentance, is reconciled with them, and heartens them and accompanies them along the path of conversion and human and Christian maturity.”
We live in a hyper-individualistic society. Many define their dignity not by their innate worth but by their lack of dependency on others. We like to have everything personalized to reflect our preferences, unbound by the desires of others. Private, unmediated confession may seem more appropriate for our time and culture. The pope acknowledged that the sacrament was once a more public affair.
But this is precisely why we should listen to what the pope is saying and think about it deeply. Living in this individualistic culture, we should be cautious of practices that may discreetly pull us from our faith, which is rooted in a personalist, communitarianism mentality that directly conflicts with the values of individualism. The Church is premised on the belief that we do not reach our full potential as human persons in isolation but in community. Our relationships to God matter, but so too do our relationships with others, and Pope Francis is explaining why the sacrament of reconciliation can help to restore these relationships and help us to live a better life than we would if we tried to do it all on our own.
In stepping outside of ourselves, we may be more likely to drop the walls we put up to separate ourselves from others, to keep them at a comfortable distance. We may finally confront the mistakes and misdeeds we have simply let slide and that have disappeared from our thoughts. We may see the flimsiness of our justifications and rationalizations for sin when forced to say them out loud.
Pope Francis acknowledged that there can be a certain unpleasantness in confessing our sins, but explained why that might not be all bad and how the process can ultimately liberate us:
Don’t be afraid of Confession. When someone is in line for Confession, he might feel all sorts of things, even fear and shame. “But then, when you have finished your confession, you go out free, great, beautiful, forgiven, white, happy. And that’s the beauty of Confession.”
Much is made of the Catholic perspective on shame and guilt. These feature in a number of my favorite self-deprecating jokes. For those that believe life has no transcendent meaning and that pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain are the ultimate goals that should shape our behavior, shame and guilt can seem silly and neurotic. Why inflict additional pain on ourselves for past behavior?
But shame reflects something fundamentally good in the nature of the human person: our capacity to recognize right and wrong, and our desire to embrace love and justice. Imagine treating a human person—someone with emotions, hopes, a spiritual nature, relationships with others—as an object, used instrumentally for one’s own selfish desires and not caring at all that one is dehumanizing them. Imagine feeling no remorse, no regret. It’s a horrifying picture of an emotionally stunted, spiritually vacuous individual, alienated and isolated from all others, living without any meaning or purpose. For atheistic nihilists, this might be a conscious choice. But for many others, this nihilism may creep into their lives unintentionally, keeping them from being the type of person they wish to be. They might concede the legitimacy of shame, but only for the most vile crimes that play no role in their everyday lives, a mentality that leads to greater complacency and diminished humility.
Shame or guilt can help us to be better human beings, to reach our full potential as persons. It can inspire us to restore relationships and remedy injustice. Certainly one can experience excessive and unnecessary shame, but to perpetually flee from shame is also perilous. We risk dehumanizing and depersonalizing ourselves. By opening ourselves up to these feelings and responding to them by seeking reconciliation, we can in turn experience the joy and freedom Pope Francis described.
And Pope Francis knows it may have been awhile, but he says that just means there is no time to waste:
When was the last time you went to confession?… Two days? Two weeks? Two years? Twenty years? Forty years?… And if a lot of time has passed, don’t lose a day!…Be courageous, and go to Confession!
Are we brave enough to follow his advice?