Before I officially returned to the Catholic faith, I decided I should go to confession to see where the Spirit would lead me. I told an acquaintance who was also a fallen away Catholic of my desire to have my confession heard but that I was apprehensive because it had been at least 20 years. They recommended a Center City parish run by Franciscans because, as my friend put it, "they've heard it all, so nothing you will tell them can shock them." In fact, I was amused to learn later that among timid Catholics, this parish is a favorite for confession because of the gentle nature of the friars.
What I didn't know at the time is that the day I chose to make my first confession since approximately 1492 was St. Padre Pio's feast day. The Franciscan who heard my confession was overjoyed not only for my desire to seek forgiveness but that I had set out on the feast day of one of the church's best-known confessors. He felt it was providential that I had chosen that day.
A few weeks later, I felt like I should go again, only this time I chose to have an Augustinian hear my confession. All I can say is that I didn't know what hit me. I came closer than I think I ever have of being "ejected" from the box. I was humiliated and if I am totally honest with myself, I was also angry. I felt ambushed. This was nothing like the confession I had made a few weeks earlier.
"Prayer and fasting - that's what you need!" Father told me emphatically. He shoved a Divine Mercy chaplet card through the grill towards me and commanded me to pray it for the souls in Purgatory. I was about to tell him I had already prayed it before making my confession, but I decided to lessen the blow by just shutting up and getting out.
For months, I did everything humanly possible to avoid ever getting that priest again for confession.
I got over the experience but I also took what that priest told me to heart. A few months later, I had a stupid argument with my husband. By then I had decided whole-heartedly to return to the Church, but I was still having issues. I don't even remember what the argument was about, but I took a plastic spoon that I was using and slammed it on the table, causing it to splinter into a million pieces. The kids were terrified, and I was once again humiliated. To make matters worse, this happened on a Sunday. I wanted to go to confession, but the only priest who heard confessions on Sundays was the Augustinian who had given me my come-upance some months back. Sheepishly, I entered the confessional and began my confession.
Father listened and there was a long period of silence. Finally, he asked me how many years I'd been married. "Twenty, Father".
He chuckled softly, and then went on to talk to me about how to avoid losing my temper like that again. He asked me a few questions about how many children I had, what their names were and whether or not we prayed together. He lamented that not many Catholics remain faithfully married these days, and he commended me for "doing something right." After about 15 minutes, he gave me my penance and my absolution and I was on my way.
I tried to figure out what was so different that day from my first encounter with this priest and I later realized what it was - I was not properly disposed. I was nonchalant in confessing my sins. I had not been properly recollected or repentant. That particular Sunday, I was so ashamed of what I had done that I felt like if I got him in confession and got humiliated again, it was what I needed. From the day onward, that priest became my very favorite confessor. I was heartbroken when he had to retire.
There is nothing terribly uncomfortable about going to confession. I'm always grateful for a gentle priest, but that's not always what I get. I take the attitude that it's ok, so long as in the end, I am truly sorry and receive absolution. It's a small mortification because while it can sometimes be momentarily painful, it's also anonymous, secret and mercifully brief. The priest is not going to leave the box and discuss what I did with the rest of the congregation. I do not have to stand up in front of the congregation and share my sinfulness. The only discomfort, when you look at it, is minor, especially when compared to being singled out by your boss in a meeting full of your peers for something you failed to do.
If truth be told, I'd rather not have to discuss my sins with a priest in order to receive absolution. But that's the way Christ intended it, so I accept that my confession may not always go as planned. If you are struggling with returning to the sacrament, I hope you will take heart and ask the Holy Spirit for the courage you need to make a sincere and thorough confession. If Christ could allow Himself to be accused of crimes He did not commit, surely we can manage to accuse ourselves of those we have, of our own accord.
I also look at it this way. I would rather confess to the priest, who is acting in the person of Christ, than have to stand before the Lord face to face and be judged for something I was too proud to confess.
I had an amusing thought about Heaven. Have you ever taken an exam and then consorted with your friends afterward to see how they answered certain questions, etc.? Isn't it shocking sometimes when you discover who did well and who didn't? Sometimes, I amuse myself by thinking about Heaven that way. If I get there directly, will I discuss God's generosity toward me with the other souls I meet? Will we discuss those we thought would be joining us, but didn't? Or will I be one of those who thought they studied and did everything right, only to fall short? Somehow I doubt these thoughts will occur to me once I have slipped from this life, but being a weak human being, I admit to occasionally entertaining them.