Last week I wrote on why teens don’t go to confession and what we can do about it. Several people mentioned that they thought I just touched the surface. They were right. I took their suggestions and a bit of my own inclinations to write this.
I think there are two distinct levels of explaining confession to teens: calming their fears, and teaching them to do it well so they grow spiritually. The first deals with getting them there, the second with getting them to return.
There is no way to be exhaustive but hopefully I share something that can help you.
Calming fears regarding confession
The priest will tell. This is one of the number one fears of everyone who avoids confession: from 7 to 107. How can I trust Father? Well, he has promised God not to tell. A good story to tell in this regard is St John of Nepomuk (or Nepomucene): a martyr of the seal. If the priest is holy (or even a decent man) there is zero chance of what you say getting out.
I’m ashamed of my sins. We all are. This can be shame or just discomfort revealing them. I think this is very different for guys and girls. We guys, don’t want to share our problems, period. Challenge guys to have the courage to go; it’s a manly thing you need to muscle up courage for.
Girls on the other hand will share their issues but have more difficulty with embarrassing sexual sins (for example: doing something with multiple guys while drunk). The first thing to deal with this is to make sure you offer confession with a screen; it’s easier if you can admit all this anonymously. Girls also need to know how much Jesus cares for them and wants to take the burden of this guilt off their shoulders. Also remind them that a good confession only requires kind (fornication) not details.
The priest hasn’t heard my sins. Unless you’re a serial axe murderer, he probably has. Sometimes I mention a bit of my past to take away this concern – one of my friends from elementary school became a drug dealer. My strategy is not free from danger; teens could suspect I have some of that past too. Older priests could point out the approximate number of confessions they’ve heard and that none of them has shocked them. If you aren’t a priest, ask one beforehand and mention that he was never shocked.
I’ll feel judged. This can happen. Priests who don’t know how to administer the sacrament well can create this feeling. However, usually this is an unnecessary fear. You need to explain that it is a relationship with Jesus not judgement. This reality also plays heavily in growing through confession.
Growing spiritually though confession
When kids first come to confession in third grade we teach them the value of making a list of sins: I hit my brother, disobeyed my mom, and lied to my teacher. This is always useful. However, as we grow up spiritually, it alone is not the best way to make confession fruitful.
If we have any mortal sins, we need to mention them in kind and number. Beyond that the Church doesn’t require you confess every sin. As we grow spiritually, we start to become aware of more sensitive failings. I find that usually focusing on a few key sins does more to advance my spiritual life than trying to ferret out every possible failing. It is not so much a list but bringing my true self before the Lord in all its nastiness. Confession is the one place we can be 100% true.
This needs to be explained. Then you can switch from good confessions to transforming confessions. Here are four reasons and one person’s experience.
One of the biggest temptations that the devil uses for those who are growing spiritually is discouragement. We should never be discouraged by our sins and focusing on the key ones for confession can help us avoid discouragement.
Another temptation that is overcome by focusing on a few sins and troubles is that of legalism. Legalism puts the focus on laws rather than Jesus. I think the reason is obvious.
We can’t focus on everything. To grow spiritually we need to divide and conquer different faults.
One clear sign that someone is growing is when they confess omissions as much as sinful acts. As we stop focusing on a list of everything wrong we may have done, we have more time to do positive acts.
I want to share part of one woman’s experience which she wrote me: “Then they gave absolution and I went on my merry way but not much was changing. I’d repeat the same thing the next week or month… Then one day I was frustrated with myself for committing the same sin again and again and again (and I could repeat that a 1000+ times over I am sure) and all I wanted to do was fall in to Christ’s arms and weep… [she describes an emotional confession] How many times had the same priest heard this girl come in with her list of ‘bad’ things just to have me come back the following week?… The next time I went to confession I went in with my list again, same, same and the pattern continued. Then I decided to seek out a priest for more spiritual direction… [He said:] ‘It’s not only where you bring all your sins in a big long list, you bring your deepest self and share with God.’… I can share my heart. I don’t need to worry so much about the big long list of wrongs I did but more to share my heart, my disappointments, my regrets, my failings, I can share anything I want to share with Christ.”
I’ve had a similar experience – I was a religious brother before I came over the tendency to focus on the list alone. One of the things that has helped me personally in the last few years is to restrict my list to the 3 or 4 most prevalent sins – that way I can focus on them.
Please share what’s helped you explain and encourage confession.