1. “I have nothing to confess.”
Except for Jesus Christ and His Mother, no one—not even the saints—can truly make this claim. Scripture says that even the just person sins seven times a day (cf. Proverbs 24:16), and Jesus warns that we must not let ourselves become blinded to our own sinfulness (cf. John 9:41). Surely all of us have something to confess: impatience, anger, a lack of charity, distractions while praying, complacency regarding our religious duties, and so forth. If it’s hard to remember our precise sins, we can use an examination of conscience (available in various prayer books, or outside the confessional in church); if necessary, we can write out a list of our sins in advance and take the list into the confessional with us.
2. “My sins aren’t that big or important.”
St. Teresa of Avila (d. 1582) entered the Carmelites at a young age. She didn’t have any serious sins, but she wasn’t taking her religious duties seriously or trying to overcome her lesser, or venial, sins. In other words, she was guilty of tepidity (a luke-warm faith). God shook her up by giving her a vision of the place in hell reserved for her unless she repented. The point is that while she wouldn’t have been condemned for the sins she had committed up to that time, her diminishing love of God would have led to an eventual loss of faith—a sin deserving eternal damnation. (Teresa, of course, repented after this warning, and thereafter grew rapidly in holiness).
Tepidity has been defined as making a truce with venial sin—in other words, convincing ourselves that our little sins don’t really matter or aren’t going to change (telling ourselves “that’s just who I am”). If we’re to reach heaven, God expects us to make an honest effort to continue growing in His grace—and the accountability provided by the Sacrament of Reconciliation is an important step in this direction.
3. “I’m too uncomfortable or ashamed.”
Whether you’re embarrassed because of how long it’s been since your last confession, or because of the particular sins you have to confess, you can be sure that Father has heard it all before; he won’t be shocked or scandalized by anything you say. In fact, many priests would agree that one of their most satisfying experiences of ministry is serving as a minister of reconciliation to someone who’s been away from the sacrament for many years, or who’s truly repenting after being in a state of serious sin (though priests are also willing to be available for penitents who only have venial sins and/or who confess regularly).
4. “I’ve forgotten the procedure and prayers.”
It’s not necessary to follow an exact formula; if need be, Father can help you through the process step-by-step—just ask him to help you. Also, a copy of the Act of Contrition (a Prayer of Sorrow to say after confessing your sins and receiving your penance) will be available in the confessional for you to use, if needed.
5. “I’ll just be confessing the same sins over and over again.”
If your body were in chronic pain, would you stop using your medication simply because you were just taking the same pills over and over again? If you didn’t see any immediate and visible results from exercising, would that be reason to quit?
Sin can be addictive—but with God’s help, we can and will eventually overcome our faults. For this to happen, however, we must persevere—a theme often emphasized in Scripture (cf. Luke 8:15, 1 Corinthians 15:58). The Sacraments, especially Reconciliation and the Eucharist, give us grace to continue fighting against our faults—and none of us is so strong that we don’t need this divine assistance.
6. “I’m afraid Father will recognize my voice.”
Several points can be made in response to this fear. Firstly and most importantly, we must never let our own spiritual welfare be held hostage to other people’s opinions—and besides, even if a priest recognizes a penitent’s voice, he is bound by the seal of the confessional never to reveal what he’s heard. Moreover, priests are aware of their own sinfulness, so they’re not inclined to judge others. Secondly, if you whisper, chances are your voice won’t be recognized. Lastly, if this still doesn’t reassure you, you can always go to a neighboring parish where the priest doesn’t know you.
7. “I once had a bad experience in the confessional, and don’t want to repeat it.”
This is a valid concern; a sincere penitent has a right to be received with mercy and compassion (even if Father has a gruff personality, is having a bad day, etc.). Jesus was always very loving and merciful toward repentant sinners, and He expects His priests to follow this example (and those who fail to do so will be accountable to Him).
If you’ve been mistreated in the confessional, don’t let that bad experience deprive you of your sacramental rights. More practically, you may respectfully correct that priest (“Father, the last time I was here, I think you were unfair to me because…”), or go to a different priest and tell him your concern (“Father, I’m a little nervous because of a bad experience the last time I went to confession,”), allowing him to make an extra effort to be helpful and understanding.
8. “I don’t want to go because I dislike standing in long lines.”
If only this were a problem! As most priests will tell you, the number of weekly confessions has declined dramatically over the last few decades (even though sinning seems to be as popular as ever). Waiting a long time in line outside the confessional will rarely be a problem—unlike most doctors’ offices (and caring of our souls is at least as vital as caring for our bodies).
9. “The times scheduled for confession are inconvenient.”
First of all, it can be said that most priests would be quite willing to add or lengthen scheduled confession times if the need arose; moreover, most parishes have additional times for Reconciliation before Christmas and Easter (and often schedule communal penance services during Advent and Lent).
Above and beyond this, a priest has an actual obligation to respond to every reasonable request for the Sacrament. Naturally, common sense has to be used; if you ask Father to hear your confession two minutes before Sunday Mass, he’d understandably request that you see him once Mass is over.
If all the scheduled confession times are impossible for you (not merely inconvenient, but actually a case of genuine impossibility or hardship), call Father (or any other priest) and ask to arrange a different time—it’s his duty to make every effort to accommodate you.
10. “My life is difficult right now, so this isn’t a good time.”
One of Satan’s favorite tricks is to make us fearful of, or uncomfortable over, the very thing we need most to be at spiritual peace.
If our lives aren’t on track, or if we’re under a lot of emotional pressure, or if something seems vaguely wrong or unsatisfying, it could very well be that our sinfulness (whether serious or lesser) is alienating us from God, from other people, and even from ourselves—meaning this is precisely the right time to admit and confess our sins, allowing us to receive God’s mercy and peace. Making the effort to go to confession, and humbly admitting our sins to a priest, can indeed be challenging—but the feeling of liberation (not to mention the certainty of being fully restored to a state of grace) is unsurpassable. Jesus is the “Doctor” of souls—and sometimes the Sacrament of Reconciliation is just what the Doctor ordered.
It’s not so much that we “have” to go to confession, but that we sometimes need to—and responding to our deepest needs can be an important sign of holiness and spiritual maturity.