by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Jeff Clary learned about the power of confession when he was only seven years old.
“I lied to my mom about where I had been playing — somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be,” said Clary, now a member of Holy Spirit Parish in Overland Park. “By that time, I’d learned about Jesus. And I knew in my heart if I didn’t tell her, I wasn’t sorry or sincere.”
So that night, he woke her and dropped the dime. She was so groggy that she didn’t remember it — until he reminded her about it 30 years later.
He wasn’t Catholic at the time of his youthful infraction, nor was this a sacramental confession. Nevertheless, it taught him that there was something powerful about the act of confessing.
“The act of confessing to someone else made it real, like I had skin in the game, that I really meant it and wasn’t just saying it,” said Clary, who became a Catholic at Easter last year.
For those who were not raised Catholic, the sacrament of reconciliation can be a difficult and mysterious thing. Thanks to popular entertainment, they might have some idea of what the sacrament is, but they don’t truly know how wonderful it is until they experience the sacrament.
Shifting the paradigm
Like many people who came from a non-Catholic background, Kathleen Ramirez had only a vague understanding of the sacrament of reconciliation. As a Protestant, she didn’t believe it was necessary.
“I knew people went into a confessional and confessed their sins to a [priest], but I didn’t think very deeply about it,” said Ramirez, a member of Most Pure Heart of Mary Parish in Topeka, who became Catholic in 2011. “I thought, like a lot of non-Catholics, we could just pray to Jesus.”
The difference between Catholics and Protestants in regard to the sacrament of reconciliation comes from differences in biblical interpretation, theology and ecclesiology.
“It’s not the sacrament as we see it in the Catholic Church,” said Deacon Don Poole, a former Southern Baptist minister who became Catholic in 2000. He is a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Mound City.
In his former faith tradition, a person would make a confession by saying “the sinner’s prayer,” acknowledging their sinful nature and need for Jesus to forgive their sins so they could know salvation.
“That, with the doctrine of the ‘eternal security of the believer,’ pretty much takes care of you for the rest of your life,” said Deacon Poole.
When people lapse into serious sin, they are considered “backslidden,” and thus have damaged their Christian witness. In such a case, individuals might answer an invitation at the end of a service to recommit to their faith, or they might choose to unburden themselves to a minister during spiritual counseling.
“There’s a benefit to being able to [make a sacramental confession] and not worry that something you spoke would go somewhere else,” said Deacon Poole.
“As a Baptist, you couldn’t always be certain of that, if you shared your heart with another minister,” he continued. “There was not a level of trust there, so a lot of things were held back. It’s normal for a minister to suggest someone go to a Christian counselor, because they had more of an element of confidentiality.”
Baby steps and leaps of faith
Converts to the Catholic faith learn about the sacrament of reconciliation through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.
During RCIA classes, they learn about the process of making a confession, which includes preparation beforehand with an examination of conscience and praying an act of contrition.
“I went to A Touch of Heaven bookstore and got the children’s book about confession,” said Ramirez. “I learned you needed to prepare before you confess. You just don’t go into a confessional and think, ‘Gee, what sins did I commit?’ You’ve got to be [prepared] before you confess.”
Like many converts, Clary made a long list.
“I had to do a lot of summarizing,” he said. “It was [for] a lifetime of things I wish I hadn’t done. That one was pretty hard. I guess it was a review of my life up to then.”
First-time penitents are, understandably, nervous and a bit scared. They worry the priest will recognize them or they’ll be grilled on their past offenses. But they needn’t worry.
“There was no condemnation,” said Clary. “I was expecting more of a cross-examination. It didn’t happen.
“The priests are very loving, I would say — showing God’s mercy in the sacrament. It doesn’t mean it isn’t hard. That comes from my own embarrassment and shame that I’ve done something wrong.”
Go with the flow
Allison Morgan wasn’t raised Catholic, but her Grandma Mary used to take her to Mass when she was a little girl.
“I was curious [what the confessional boxes] were, so I asked,” she said.
Morgan will be entering the church this Easter at St. Joseph-Sacred Heart Parish in Topeka, along with her husband Travis and sons Dalton and Trenton.
“Yes, I’m very nervous, but Dalton told me not to be nervous,” said Morgan.
Dalton is the pro of the family, already having made his first confession.
He admitted the sacrament of reconciliation was “kind of strange” when he first learned about it, but the actual experience went smoothly once he got started.
“I just went with the flow,” he said. His advice is to be calm, think about what you’re going to say, and be honest.
When a Catholic goes to confession, they really are going to Jesus for forgiveness.
And that is tremendously liberating, said Ramirez.
“I still feel that — after every confession — that my burdens are lifted,” she said. “I lay my sins at the feet of Jesus and they are forgiven.”