I knew I had to go to confession at St. Peter’s Basilica. But I never guessed my confession there would change the direction of my life.
While growing up in a Catholic family and attending Catholic school, I went to confession twice each year—once in Advent and once in Lent. When I studied abroad during college in 2006, I spent a week in Rome, and something in me urged me to step outside of my biannual tradition and go to confession at St. Peter’s.
This urge was unusual because for me, every instance of confession prior to that day in Rome (especially after I hit puberty), had been preceded by a deep feeling of dread. On the one hand, I believed in God’s mercy and was glad to receive it. On the other hand, I did not enjoy speaking face-to-face with a priest I did not know about the most intimate details of my life. My goal each time was simple: Get in and get out as quickly as possible.
I did not enjoy speaking face-to-face with a priest I did not know about the most intimate details of my life.
But upon arriving at the confessional in Rome, I was stunned. I was used to the more modern set up of two chairs facing each other in a dimly lit room, one for the priest and one for the penitent. Instead, there was a wooden cubicle of sorts with a kneeler facing a translucent screen with tiny holes through which I could speak with a priest, who sat unseen in his own cubicle on the other side. Gone was my usual worry about meeting the priest with an awkward smile and nervous gaze; instead I knelt behind the screen and made my first anonymous confession.
My first confession with a screen was something beautiful. For the first time, it was not awkward to share my most intimate and deepest struggles, pains and burdens. From behind the screen, I could really talk to Jesus without the awkwardness of talking to a stranger.
Additionally, I no longer felt the pressure to get out as soon as possible. I wanted to listen to the priest’s spiritual counsel. I asked questions. I asked for advice. And, thanks be to God, that priest loved me with the heart of a father. He encouraged me to grow in holiness and he challenged me to change my life.
From behind the screen, I could really talk to Jesus without the awkwardness of talking to a stranger.
All too often we are tempted to view the confessional as a place of defeat. Someone once told me the confessional was like a torture chamber. But as Catholics, we believe the confessional is truly a place of joy, the place where we celebrate the victory of Jesus over sin. It is the place where we are set free from the burdens of life, where we are made new through the graces of absolution and where we are restored to the fullness of life in Jesus and in the church.
I do not say any of this to denigrate face-to-face confession. Many people enjoy the opportunity to sit with a priest, especially their own pastor, and confess their sins face-to-face. The love and warmth of the priest’s eyes can help a person to reflect upon how lovingly God looks upon them and desires to show them his face.
However, for some, the realities of face-to-face confession deter more than they attract. Still others, like me before my trip to Rome, are not even aware they have the option of anonymously making their confession through a screen.
All too often we are tempted to view the confessional as a place of defeat.
I have served my entire priestly ministry at the Newman Center of Indiana University. At the center, we make the sacrament of confession available before every weekend liturgy and for at least 90 minutes a day during the week. We hear a lot of confessions.
Curiously, I have noticed how the majority of our college students go to confession behind the screen. Like me, these young people were taught to go to confession face-to-face when they were children. Still, they now choose to go behind the screen, and most of these confessions are deeply thoughtful and moving.
Part of the great beauty of our Catholic faith is that our church makes available to us the sacrament of mercy and healing in multiple ways. But whatever a person’s experiences and fears of confession have been, going to confession behind a partition has a tremendous amount to offer us. If you have not yet tried it, here are a few reasons why it might be worth a shot:
1) Going to confession behind a screen can help us focus more on Jesus and on the sacramental graces. The sacrament of reconciliation is a bearing of one’s soul to God. Because of our sin and the sin in the world, this is often a messy and difficult undertaking. The insecurities and failings that mark our human relationships can then spill over into our encounter with the priest in the confessional.
Going to confession behind a screen can help us focus more on Jesus and on the sacramental graces.
For those who struggle with anxiety, self-doubt and low self-worth, the screen can help the penitent to have a deep, intimate encounter with the love and mercy of God, mediated through the priest, while removing some of the social awkwardness. This can, therefore, lead to a much richer experience of the perfect mercy of Jesus and the sacramental graces available in the confessional.
Additionally, the barrier can enhance the freedom of both penitent and confessor to be totally honest. If a face-to-face confession leads a penitent to be anything other than frank and forthright about the realities and specifics of sin, an anonymous confession enhances the graces derived from being completely (even brutally) honest.
2) The partition can lead to a deeper quality of confession. Have you ever had a difficult but meaningful conversation with someone while going for a walk or while driving in the car? Sometimes, we are able to have better conversations in situations like that because we are focused more on what we are saying and listening to the other than we are on body language or the emotions. We know it is hard to hear or say, but we also know we can speak freely because we are in it together.
For those who struggle with anxiety, self-doubt and low self-worth, the screen can help the penitent to have a deep encounter with the love and mercy of God.
Going to confession anonymously helps us to go for a spiritual walk with the Lord. We can say and hear very difficult truths with a more open heart because the Lord is walking alongside us. Jesus is not simply looking down on me to make condemnations; Jesus is my brother, my friend, my Lord and redeemer who is perfectly invested in being at the center of my life, even my brokenness.
3) Going to confession behind the screen is one of the few truly private experiences we have available to us. Many of the thousands of college students I serve as pastor live in a state of almost perpetual fear, in part because almost nothing they do is private. One moment of indiscretion in a text or caught on video can lead to a great deal of suffering and even lifelong repercussions. Additionally, so much of our lives is easily accessible to anyone at any time. Privacy is now a luxury.
Ours is also a culture of distrust. For young people, it is a common occurrence to have friends bail on them at the last minute for something better. There is also the social pressure all of us seem to face in the social media age to prove to others we think and act the same way they do. The lack of privacy and our inability to trust one another can wear on us.
Behind that partition, it can be easier to forget about the world’s judgment, easier to believe I am God’s beloved child.
To step into a confessional, to kneel down and to confess the most intimate and vulnerable parts of my life with the absolute confidence what I share will stay private and will not be used against me is a profound experience of liberation and joy. The seal of the confessional exists in face-to-face confession, too, of course, but the setting may evoke different emotions.
Behind that partition, it can be easier to forget about the world’s judgment, easier to believe I am God’s beloved child, made in his image and likeness. I am a sinner, for sure, but a sinner who is perfectly loved and who is being loved into freedom. Behind the screen, it can be easier to feel my heart and soul are perfectly loved. It can be easier to confess without fear, only complete trust and intimacy with the Lord.
In the confessional, I often speak with penitents about how they will activate the graces they have received from the sacrament in their lives and relationships. Oftentimes, this takes the form of goal-setting for their spiritual and moral lives.
Whether face-to-face or with a screen, the sacrament of confession is a special channel of the grace of mercy.
The power of God’s grace in the celebration of the sacraments is how every aspect of the celebration is filled with power and potential. Whether face-to-face or with a screen, the sacrament of confession is a special channel of the grace of mercy.
Even something as simple as our posture can open our hearts to grace in new ways. Kneeling behind a screen for confession may be new or different, but such an experience can affect our entire lives. Even just one confession behind the screen might help us to focus more deeply on Jesus, strengthen our ability to talk with others about difficult things and help us to build relationships of greater intimacy and trust.
Jesus tells us in St. John’s Gospel, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
I was not prepared for the depth of what I would feel the first time I knelt behind a screen at St. Peter’s Basilica, but God allowed that experience to prepare me for the rest of my life.