Frightened by Confession: Overcoming Shame

On a bench besides John‚ Mary is also deep in thought. “Hmm… I think I start understanding why I should go to Confession. But what do I say when I get there? I know I’ve done some things that I am not proud of‚ but here is a scary thought: how can I tell all this to another person‚ especially a man? He’s going to judge me and probably will never look at me with the same eyes again. Plus‚ how do I know he’s not going to tell anyone? I don’t think I could overcome this shame.”

Shame is a common feeling for anyone that prepares for Confession‚ especially at the beginning. It is important however that we overcome it as St. John Chrysostom advises: “Do not be ashamed to enter the Church (to confess). Be ashamed when you sin but not when you repent.” Sin is a disease of the soul that needs to be cured like any malady of the body.  As the doctor asks questions and details about the state of the body so the priest inquires about the state of the soul. Both are trying to achieve the same goal: to find the disease and cure it.

To help surmount our guilt‚ in the Greek tradition‚ the role of the priest shifts during the Sacrament of Confession. At the beginning he is a brother in pain that can relate to the reality of sin through personal experience. Before listening the confession he says: My brother/sister do not be ashamed to relate to God before me all that you came to tell because you are not telling this things to me but to God before Whom you stand. ” He starts as a next of kin‚ as one that is stung by the same pain‚ making it so much easier for the penitent to open its soul to him. After hearing the Confession however he changes from Brother to loving Father giving us the forgiveness we seek through the power of Christ. ” My spiritual child who made you Confession to my humble person I have no power to forgive sins‚ only God can do that”.

This is again nothing new. Christ did it first. He came in the world as one of us‚ stripped voluntarily of His heavenly glory and went through the same tribulations of life as any human being. But when the time was ripe He revealed His true divine nature by relieving the whole world from the bond of sin. The same thing happens during Confession at a personal level mediated by the Priest.

Most of the people are ashamed because they regard the Sacrament of Confession as an imperfect interaction with another human being. In this case shame‚ suspicion and mistrust are easily added to the issue.  Truth is that the Priest doesn’t do anything by his own authority and in his own name‚ but he cures in the name of Christ he represents during the Sacrament. This is very clearly stated throughout the prayers of the Sacrament:”I am only a witness‚ bearing testimony before Him of all things you have to say to me.” The priest is not there to judge but to create a link between the penitent and Christ through the Mystery of Repentance. Confession transcends human interactions and becomes an act of  synergy between God and man.

Ultimately Confession needs to be understood as the work of God‚ not the work of the Father Confessor‚ no matter how skilled he might be. The Priest even recognizes his humble role in the prayer of forgiveness “I have no power to forgive sins‚ only God can do that.” The Priest‚ as Bishop Kallistos Ware observes‚ “is no more than God’s usher‚ introducing us to the divine presence.” All the other physical signs that surround us: the icon of Christ‚ the Cross‚ the Epitrachelion are all underlining for us the same presence of Christ in the Sacrament.

The fear of Confession starts fading only when we are past the point of understanding Confession as a human interaction and we acknowledge it as an act of Christ. We can still feel remorse and shed tears of repentance for our sins but we also know now that the encounter is not just with an imperfect human being‚ but we primarily come to meet a loving God that waits for us like the Father of the prodigal Son‚ knowing not just the external appearance but the intimate core of our problems. There is no shame in that‚ only love everlasting.

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