Self-examination, repentance and forgiveness of our sins is not just for Lent. It should be an ongoing spiritual discipline for all times of the year. Each of us deals with sin in our own way. Yes, I am a sinner, too, as we all are. I typically go to confession once a year, on Good Friday. For some, sin is a personal matter with God alone. For others, sin is a community matter. Many Christians, however, find private confession to a priest helpful in unburdening one’s conscience and renewing relationships between God and our fellow persons. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is not reserved only for those who commit serious sins, but for the remission of all sins. The grace that flows from confession possesses special powers of purification and support as we resolve to amend our lives to improve ourselves to better realize the potential with which God endowed us.
Although traditionally, confessions were heard in a confessional booth to provide anonymity and privacy, confessions can be heard anytime and anywhere. Often, confession is more beneficial when done face to face with the priest. Also, any person can here another’s confession, though a lay person or deacon traditionally cannot pronounce absolution.
The Roman Church mandates private confession as part of its spiritual discipline. Other churches however, encourage confession but does not mandate it. There is no requirement to go to private confession to receive communion, but any priest will hear your confession. All you need do is ask. Churches of the catholic tradition hold that declaring God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners is part of a priest’s job duties. The priest’s power to forgive sins derives from Jesus himself, who declared after His Resurrection, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (John 20:22-23)
The traditional Anglican rule regarding confession, shared by other churches, is: “all may; some should; none must.” So when “should” one go to confession, even if it isn’t required? When you want to unburden yourself of guilt. Many psychologists find confession a powerful tool to unburden the conscience. Confession has a psychological element because strong emotions can be expressed in a healthy way; if we repress them, we may develop a neurosis. Guilt can be a strong, and helpful emotion, if we allow it to move us to apologize. If we contain guilt within, it will explode like toothpaste coming out from the side of the tube when the tube is squeezed without removing the cap. Guilt will often come out as criticism, sometimes of people we love; or we may explode in anger over inconsequential things.
Confession is, legally speaking, absolutely confidential. In churches of the catholic tradition, a confessor must not under any circumstances reveal the content of a confession. California Law is in accord. Evidence Code §§1030-1034 states that both the penitent and the confessor have a privilege to refuse to the content of a confession. However, the Courts have interpreted that to mean that the communication must occur during a formal sacramental confession and not a mere consultation with a clergy member. “In order for a statement to be privileged, it must satisfy all of the conceptual requirements of a penitential communication: 1) it must be intended to be in confidence; 2) it must be made to a member of the clergy who in the course of his or her religious discipline or practice is authorized or accustomed to hear such communications; and 3) such member of the clergy has a duty under the discipline or tenets of the church, religious denomination or organization to keep such communications secret.“ People v. Edwards, 203 Cal.App. 3d 1358, 1362-63. The bottom line is only if it’s a formal sacramental confession is it absolutely confidential.
A beneficial confession requires preparation. A succinct summary of what is required to prepare for confession comes from Orthodox Bishop Alexander Elchaninov: “Preparation for confession consists not of attempting to remember one’s sins as fully as possible and even writing them down, but of trying to attain that state of concentration, seriousness and prayer, in which our sins will become clear as daylight. In other words, one should bring to one’s confessor not a list of sins, but a feeling of penitence, not a detailed dissertation, but a sorrowing heart.” You won’t remember all your sins, but reviewing the Ten Commandments and the Seven Deadly Sins (Greed, Lust, Anger, Envy, Gluttony, Sloth, and Pride) may jog your memory. After you confess, you will feel good about yourself. Nearly all of us have something that nags at our conscience. Confession is about unburdening yourself so you can get on with living the Gospel.