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Why religious confession is good for the mind and soul
Faith leaders said the goal of religious confession is to affirm that the confessor is unconditionally loved, rather than to shame or scold. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
Janet Perry has been a Catholic for more than 30 years, yet going to confession still makes her sweat.

"Confession is something that I struggle with," said Perry, 58, who teaches and writes about needlepoint. "It's hard because it means coming to an understanding of your sins" and wanting to change, and then admitting these moral slip-ups before God and a priest.

Many Catholics will be doing just that as they enter the home stretch of the season of Lent, which lasts from Ash Wednesday, celebrated this year on Feb. 18, to Easter weekend. Religious confession is an important part of the period of reflection and repentance that precedes the joy of Easter, the day on which Christians remember Christ's resurrection.

According to faith leaders, encouragement to confess is often met with anxiety because people forget the practice is meant to mirror the season of Lent. The confessor should leave the conversation feeling relieved, refreshed and loved.

But it's not just Catholics who benefit from practices like confession, they said.

Research into the science of offering apologies has shown that taking responsibility for missteps boosts self-respect, improves future behavior and strengthens relationships. Both Catholic and other religious leaders noted that discussing difficult moments with someone face-to-face is more empowering and meaningful than the easier route of sharing sins or shame on social media or through anonymous apps like Yik Yak or PostSecret.

Father Robert Beloin, a chaplain at Saint Thomas More, the Catholic center at Yale University, said he regularly extols the benefits of confession to his parishioners, reminding them that his goal as a priest is to help them right past wrongs, not to pass judgment or scold.

"The advantage of a sacramental experience is that you're interacting with a human being," he said. "This other person can articulate words of forgiveness and prayers of absolution. You're not going to get that on Facebook."

Catholic confession

For hundreds of years, confession in the Catholic Church looked quite similar to how it's portrayed in popular culture, said Father Beloin. A parishioner would sit across from a priest in the confessional about once a week, starting each session with the familiar words, "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned."

"It became so rote" and many people were just going through the motions, Father Beloin said. But then the ritual was rebranded, in a sense, during Vatican II, the council held by the church in the 1960s to address the faith's place in the modern world.

As a result of Vatican II, confession became less frequent. Father Beloin said many members of his church only go twice a year, during Advent and Lent.

Additionally, the practice was given a new name. It's now known as "the sacrament of penance and reconciliation." Both names do a better job capturing the spirit of the practice, Father Beloin said.

"Reconciliation implies you were separate from God and want to become one with God again. Penance is like saying, 'I'm going in the wrong direction and I want to turn around,'" he said. "It's not just about the confession," which was the emphasis before Vatican II.

His thoughts echoed a recent statement from Pope Francis, described by Catholic News Service. "When people come to confession, it should be an experience of peace and understanding and never one of torture," he told a group of priests.

Father Beloin said many Catholics continue to get nervous about confession because old-fashioned understandings of the practice still operate in the church. On the Yale campus, he works to correct students' perceptions of confession.

"You can't just offer pious old answers," he said. "I try to make it relevant to them."

The outcome

Perry said her ongoing anxiety about confession likely stems from her Methodist upbringing and the years she spent attending Episcopal churches. Neither tradition emphasizes confessing individual sins to a religious leader; instead, they focus on confessing as a congregation during worship services.

Other religious traditions teach confession as less of a ritual and more of a private conversation with an ecclesiastical leader or a sincere apology to someone who has been hurt or offended.

Perry was hard-pressed to name any fellow Catholic who actually looks forward to confession. She said stress and discomfort were par for the course.

"I think that's maybe what people don't understand about confession. It's always an act of will," Perry said. "It's natural to be reluctant, but you have to screw up your courage" and head into the confessional.

If stress characterizes Perry's emotions before confession, relief describes them afterward. It's cathartic to discuss difficult moments with a priest, she said, working with him to refocus herself on being a good mother, wife and Catholic.

"Your sins are not forgiven unless you repent and don't want to repeat them," she said.

Father Beloin also emphasized confession's goal of changing people's behavior, not just their beliefs.

"You don't go to confession to contract amnesia. You acknowledge a mistake and then try" to do better next time, he said.

Decreasing the frequency of confession throughout the year has made the practice less automatic, he said. It's now focused on self-reflection and a commitment to self-care. He wants people to leave the confessional feeling healed themselves and also prepared to heal broken relationships with friends or family members.

When confession is reinterpreted as a mindfulness practice, or a means of being honest about the emotional struggles that accompany a life of faith, it becomes more valuable to people both within and outside of the Catholic Church, said Christian Piatt, a Christian author and blogger who belongs to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

"To really spend time within our own bodies, hearts, minds and souls, getting connected with ourself and our faith, that's an important wake-up call," he said.

Confession for anyone

While traveling to promote his books or speak in front of religious communities, Piatt said he regularly encounters Christians who reject the whole season of Lent and the formal practice of repentance, preferring to view it as "a Catholic thing."

These conversations inspired a recent blog post for Patheos, "Repenting Doesn't Mean Feeling Like Crap About Yourself." In it, he highlighted how even non-Catholics should embrace confessionlike experiences, finding ways to open up to others and share the intimate details of their faith and life.

In the modern world, "we're forgetting how to interact face-to-face, to take the real risk of true vulnerability," he said. People instead describe bad days or missteps on social media, collecting some likes and comments and failing to reflect on how to move forward from a difficult situation.

Unlike writing about struggles online, speaking with a religious leader or a friend can be a powerful reminder of the power of community, Piatt said. Practices like confession help believers bring their failings into an empowering new light.

"You learn to say, 'Today, I am a complete screw-up. I can be a real jerk. But I am still worthy of unconditional love,'" he said.

In spite of her perennial reservations, Perry said she tries to go to confession once every few months.

"I think going regularly helps me to get in the habit of examining my own life," she said.

The habit also brings healing, Father Beloin said. "People should walk out (of confession) and say, 'I brought my brokenness to the Lord in prayer and I was loved unconditionally no matter what I said.'"
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