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About ConfessionLetters from Fr. Casey

Sunday 02/28/2024

But I do not have any sins!

In my years of study of Catholic theology, I learned that Our Lord and His Immaculate Mother are the only persons to have walked the face of the earth without committing sins. Indeed, even Sacred Scripture tells us “…the righteous falls seven times” (Proverbs 24:16). Yet upon ordination I immediately discovered a number of people who either avoid the sacrament of Penance or come to confession with nothing to confess. They insist that they cannot recall having committed any sins.

I suspect what is really needed is a proper understanding of sin and honest examination of conscience. Firstly. Being a Christian is not about being perfect. It is about being able to admit that I am not perfect and therefore, I need the sanctifying grace merited by the blood of Jesus Christ and poured into the life of His Church. Further, the term sin comes from a Hebrew archery term that just means to miss the mark. “But I am a good person!”, many exclaim. Having committed sin does not make me a bad person, it just means I have fallen short of God’s standard: Perfection.

I have not done anything that bad.

I hear this objection a lot as an excuse for infrequent confession, and then the person will proceed to list a litany of mortal sins. So, just to be clear, a mortal sin is one which cuts us off completely from God’s grace as the Catechism states: “It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell.” (CCC 161) For a sin to be mortal sin there are three conditions: (1) It has to be a grave matter, (2) You must know that it is a sin, and (3) You must freely choose to do it. (CCC 1859-60) The Church has identified the following as grave matters: intentionally missing Mass on a Sunday or a Holy Day of Obligation (which includes intentionally coming late or leaving early, and also, watching Mass online or on television does not fulfill the obligation), blasphemy, adultery, contraception, fornication (intimate relations apart from a marriage recognized by the Church), defrauding a worker of a just wage, endangerment of human life or safety, abandoning a spouse to divorce, self-gratification, idolatry (fortunetelling, use of psychics, practicing Santería, Voodoo, or any false religion), wishing or causing harm to another, extreme anger, assisted suicide, murder, being an accessory to an abortion, hatred, viewing pornography, lying under oath, and denying a teaching of Christ and His Church. So, to be clear, if I have committed any of these sins, I must go to confession before going to Holy Communion, or I have committed the additional sin of sacrilege. Also, if I intentionally omit a mortal sin in confession, the entire confession is invalid.

Ok, I don’t do those things…so I am good?

While the Church requires confession annually, she encourages us to make frequent and fervent confessions, even of venial sins to receive the graces of this sacrament which also helps us avoid sin. The Church also requires that Holy Communion be received once a year during Easter time yet encourages frequent Communions. Weekly Communion and annual confession shows a disconnect. Daily Communion and annual confession is absurd. Communion without confession apart from a state of grace is sacrilege. I know of no saint who only went to confession once a year. At Seton, we provide a sheet to help with the confession of sins.

There are some saints who, toward the end of their lives, were confessing things like not being fervent enough in their prayers, not taking every opportunity they possibly could have to pray, and things of this nature. Have I really been as charitable as I possibly could have in every human encounter? Have I taken every possible opportunity to pray, or study about my faith? Have I taken every opportunity to explicitly share my faith with others? These are good questions to ask if I believe I have nothing to confess.

But I never leave the house.

This is a common objection, so I close with some of the thoughts and the Examination of Conscience provided by Kathy Schiffer, herself a senior citizen. Schiffer says:

Too often for the chronically ill, the aged and the infirm, home or hospital seems a lonely prison. But while the younger generations are challenged by the sheer “busyness” of their lives to find time for God, those in their golden years—especially the homebound—have a unique opportunity to grow in prayer and in godliness, and to devote more time to that which is truly important, their relationship with their Creator. The failure to take advantage of this opportunity, focusing instead on one’s plight and personal problems, is, in itself, a sin against God.

We are only human—and that means that we face a constant battle against pride, against greed, against selfishness. If you find yourself forced by health or circumstances to remain indoors; if you are, or if someone you love is confined to a hospital or rehabilitation center or nursing home; even if the confinement is temporary—take time to grow in your faith. Choose your reading material carefully and be sure to include the Scriptures and some inspirational reading or music. Use this valuable time to reconnect with God in prayer—pray for your family, pray for the reparation of sins, pray for the conversion of a loved one, for our leaders, for world peace. Pray for the grace to acknowledge your shortcomings, and for the will to overcome them.

I suggest a different focus for your Examination of Conscience. Set aside those familiar commandments, and instead dust off a list of the capital sins, and the cardinal virtues. Your personal reflection might look something like this:

  • Have I practiced the virtue of Chastity? Have I permitted myself to watch movies or daytime television shows which are not edifying, which depict sexual scenarios or which advocate for cohabitation or homosexual relationships?
  • Have I practiced the virtue of Temperance? Have I indulged my love of sweets or snack foods, to the detriment of my health? Have I continued to smoke heavily, or to consume alcoholic beverages excessively? Have I been immoderate in any activity, such as watching too much TV?
  • Have I practiced the virtue of Patience? Was I unkind (or downright rude) to a telephone caller, impatient with a visitor, crabby when things didn’t go just the way I wanted? Did I complain if someone took me to a restaurant or public place, because we had to wait for service? Did I criticize my doctor, my caretaker, my child, for not serving me better?
  • Have I practiced the virtue of Kindness? Was I jealous of the attention paid to someone else, wanting everyone to notice me instead? Did I feel angry because someone else had more money, or better health, or because my grown children did not have enough time to spend with me? Did I compliment someone who looked good, or did I only have harsh words to say?
  • Have I practiced the virtue of Humility? For example: Did I accept a compliment graciously but then move on, refusing to keep the attention turned toward myself? Was I willing to let someone else be the center of attention? Did I feel grateful for the kindness of my family and others, and appreciative of my caregiver’s efforts? Did I believe that I had no need of confession, because I never even leave the house?

Lord, help us to recognize the times that we have failed to live a virtuous life—and grant us the grace of true contrition and a resolve to do Your will. Amen.

-Fr. Casey

Sunday, February 25, 2024

I hope and pray that everyone is taking advantage of the great Sacrament of Penance, that is Confession, during the Lenten season. I pray even more earnestly for a return to the faithful frequenting of this sacrament, especially those who need to do so to make a fruitful Holy Communion. As the confession lines get longer this time of year, it would be good to point out some common behaviors to be avoided, not only to save time for the priest and the penitent, but also to make the confession more fruitful:

Approaching the Sacrament Unprepared

The first way to be prepared for a good confession is to truly be sorry for your sins. “Among the penitent’s acts,, contrition occupies first place. Contrition is ‘sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again’.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1451) If we do not have sorrow for our sins, and if we do not desire or intend to cease the sinful activity, then confession is pointless as contrition is required for the sacrament to be valid. Also, we should come to confession prepared to confess sins. Here at SES, there is an easy guide that provides a list of sins that should be confessed. This document or other tools are helpful to examine our conscience before confession so that we come into the sacrament prepared to confess our sins and receive God’s grace.

Confessing the sins of other people

I have sometimes sat in a confessional with a penitent for over ten minutes without them confessing a single, personal sin. However, I did learn about all the sins of their spouse, their children, the Pope, the President, the Pastor (including when the person is me), neighbors, celebrities, postal workers, children’s teachers, the IRS, and cashiers at Publix. Often this is a segway into confessing one’s own sins of lack of charity and/or patience. Trust me, it is OK to skip the intro and just say “I have been lacking in charity, and/or patience”. Also, it should be said that there are some exceptional circumstances when it would be appropriate to disclose to the priest that you have been a victim of abuse or some other kind of trauma, but in general, please just stick to your sins. Remember, unnecessary disclosure of another’s sins can be the sin of detraction, and this sacrament is about you receiving God’s healing grace and mercy.

Telling the Priest What a Good Person You Are

For some reason, more than a few people feel that they cannot get to the confessions of their sins without making sure the confessor is convinced that they are a good person and/or a good Catholic. The priest is not there to make judgments of your character. He is there to help you make a good confession and ultimately provide you with God’s mercy. Clearly, you care about your relationship with Christ and are trying to be a better person, otherwise you would not come to confession. It is certainly not necessary to recite a resume of your Catholic education. As an act of humility, remind yourself that all you must do is name your sins. Be vulnerable with the Lord, do not tip-toe around it. Bear your wounds to Christ who longs to heal you.

Providing Unnecessary Details

Honestly, just naming the sin in kind and approximate number is all that is necessary (even a term like “habitually” or “a lot” could suffice as an approximate number). If necessary, the confessor will ask for more information. “If necessary, the priest helps the penitent to make an integral confession.” (Rite of Penance).

Things that are good to disclose to the confessor: your state in life (married, single, religious, etc), approximate age (I’m a teenager, I am a senior, etc). In terms of your sins, it would be good to know if you were alone or with another (an “accomplice”), if there is a mitigating factor that caused you to sin, or if you were unsure whether the action was a sin. The priest does not need to know what you said to Sally, does not need the name you called your husband, does not need to know the time and date, does not need to know the intimate details, and the priest does not need to know the name of the romance novel you have been reading. Simply things like “I was unkind on over a dozen occasions”, “I have read (or viewed) unchaste material”, and “I have gossiped on several occasions” will do just fine.

Being Vague or Intentionally Omitting Mortal Sins

“I have made some bad choices.” “I could be a better person.” “Just put me down for all of them.” These are not statements that are going to lead to allowing God to heal and forgive. Neither is naming commandment numbers like we are ordering fast food combos. We make a general confession of our sins together at Mass during the penitential act. Confession is about bearing our wounds to Christ so that He might bring us healing. “All mortal sins of which penitents after a diligent self-examination are conscious must be recounted by them in confession…When Christ’s faithful strive to confess all the sins that they can remember, they undoubtedly place all of them before the divine mercy for pardon. But those who fail to do so and knowingly withhold some, place nothing before the divine goodness for remission through the mediation of the priest, for if the sick person is too ashamed to show his wound to the doctor, the medicine cannot heal what it does not know.’” (CCC 1456-57, quoting the Council of Trent and St. Jerome)

Using Confession Time for Spiritual Direction, Pastoral Counseling, or Advice

While the Rite of Penance does say that the priest can and should provide “suitable counsel” to the penitent, this would be mainly to help make a good confession and perhaps practical advice on resisting sin in the future. For counseling, spiritual direction, theological questions not pertinent to your confession, and other advice, it is better to make an appointment for a phone call or to meet. Confession is really for confessing your sins and receiving God’s mercy. At SES, we have a “host” helping with the confession line who would be happy to take your information for a later appointment.

While all these tips are here to help you get the most from your confession experience, the most important thing about confession is that we show up. We have guides to help and the priest himself should always be willing to help you make a good confession. Also, it should be said that “practice makes perfect” and frequenting the sacrament makes it much easier to go to confession. Above all, we want you to come and experience the great gift of God’s mercy. We care about your soul and help you to be in the right relationship with God. As I like to say, “Just get your soul in the box!” We look forward to seeing you there!

-Fr. Casey

Sunday 03/10/2024

Top Excuses for Not Going to Confession

The rose (NOT PINK…ok they’re pink) vestments of Laetare Sunday tell us that we have entered the homestretch of the Season of Lent. If you have not already, even (and especially) if it has been a long time, I invite you to please come and receive the graces of this sacrament. Many Catholics still deprive themselves of the benefits of this sacrament. I would like to share some answers to common objections to going confession:

I don’t have any sins.

This one still shocks me. But nonetheless, it is common. I treated this rather thoroughly in an article a couple of weeks ago and even included an examination of conscience for seniors. I will just mention here some questions to ask if you have difficulty recalling sins:

  • Have I spent every moment of the day that I possibly could in prayer?
  • Have I been as charitable as humanly possible in every single interaction?
  • Have I shared my faith with others explicitly?
  • Have I always been a perfect witness to Christian virtue in every circumstance?
  • Have I always fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and imprisoned with as much time or resources as I can spare?
  • Have I taken every opportunity possible to instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, admonish sinners, forgive offenses, comfort the afflicted, and pray for the living and the dead?
  • Have I endured trials, and hardships perfectly and patiently without even the slightest complaint?

The Bible does not say I have to confess my sins to a priest.

It is interesting how quickly Catholics become both Bible experts and take a protestant position when faced with confronting their own sins. This is human nature. When something causes us to face our own inadequacies, we tend to find any excuse we can. But, yes, yes, yes, there is scriptural foundation and evidence to support the Sacrament of Penance! We can certainly see in the Bible that confessing sins aloud to others is “good for the soul” as the adage goes: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.” (James 5:17)

And scripture does go deeper than that by showing that those who participate in the Apostolic ministry have the authority to forgive sins, in the name of Jesus as they minister in His person. Jesus Himself breathes on the Apostles and tells them: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23) This gives the apostles (and logically their successors) the ability to forgive sins, as through the Holy Spirt, they participate in the ministry of Jesus. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 2:10: “If I forgave anything, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the person of Christ.” St. Paul is acknowledging his authority as an apostle to forgive.

Indeed, the early Christian writers whom all serious theologians call the “Early Church Fathers” or “Patristics,” also write about the necessity of confessing to the bishop and receiving absolution. St. Paul, again in scripture, tells us that he participates in the ministry of Jesus: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Cor. 5:18)

Now, full circle, if we return to the passage from James about confessing to one another, we can see its context: “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders (Presbyteroi in Greek, from which we get the English word, ‘priest’) of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another…” (James 5:14-17)

From this evidence we can see that confession in the Church, beyond being a “good thing” is a mandate from the Lord, and was taken seriously by the Spirit-inspired authors of Sacred Scripture, such as Paul and James, and was continued by their successors, the Early Church Fathers as has been sustained by the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians (and therefore the majority of Christians in the world) today. Why? Firstly, for accountability. It is easy to confess our sins to God in an empty room at night with no corporeal accountability. It is another act of humility to confess to another person. Also, no matter how personal my sin may be, all my sins affect the Body of Christ. As we see reiterated throughout Sacred Scripture, we are the body of Christ, integrally connected, when one suffers all suffer. Christianity is never just about “me and Jesus,” it is always about my place in His mystical Body, the Church, the Bride for whom He died and who He champions.

So, sacramental confession is biblical, and logical and has been intrinsic to the lives of the majority of Christians for 2000 years.

I have had a bad experience with a priest in the past (during confession or otherwise), besides, have you read the stories about some of these guys? How can I possibly confess to them?

Firstly, I am sorry that you had a bad experience with a priest. I am doubly sorry if that priest was me. I have had my moments of less-than-perfect charity. I have it daily. If you have been severely wounded by the gross misconduct of abuse committed by a priest, words cannot express my sorrow and empathy. And if you have not experienced priestly “misconduct” (simple mistakes to outright abuse), you have certainly read about it. There is no excuse for it. None. I am not here to excuse or dismiss it.

But I will say this: last year in the state of Florida, there were over 4,000 reports of medical malpractice. According to Forbes, medical errors cause 251,000 fatalities annually, and medical errors account for 9.5% of all deaths in the USA each year, making medical malpractice the third most common cause of death in our country. Despite all of this, I still see doctors. Not only because the majority of physicians I know are competent, hard-working, compassionate people who generally desire what is best for their patients, but because if I need medical help, that is my only option. Even if I had to go to a less-than-perfect doctor, I would, if the other option was to let myself die. God operates through broken vessels. Please do not allow the faults of sinful men, like me, keep you from experiencing God’s mercy in its fullness. Get the grace you need.

I am too ashamed…God will not forgive me.

I think this is more common than we realize. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost,” says St. Paul (1 Timothy 1:15) and he was not far off. Paul had literally helped to murder Christians (Acts 7:58), and he is now one of the greatest Saints in the history of the Church. Jesus tells us, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7) Nothing is too big. Nothing is beyond mercy. And if you are concerned about how the priest may react, I can tell you after having heard 11 years’ worth of confessions (some of them at prisons, at college campuses, and at death beds), I assure you, you will not shock us. Every saint has a past. Every sinner has a future.

Please, please, please, come and receive God’s grace. Not only will you feel better, but more importantly, your soul WILL BE better.

-Fr. Casey