Confession Questions From the Pew

A Pastor Speaks About Promoting and Understanding the Sacrament

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By Genevieve Pollock

ANOKA, Minnesota, MAY 6, 2009 ( The sacrament of confession was meant to be a source of grace and joy, but many people do not know what it is all about, says a Minnesota pastor.

Father Michael Van Sloun, the pastor of St. Stephen’s Church in Anoka, authored a 10-part series on confession currently being published in the newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

In this interview with ZENIT, Father Van Sloun speaks about his pastoral experience, answering questions about promoting confession, how much is too often, and what to do when you do not get along with your confessor.

Q: What results are you hoping for from the confession series you are writing for the archdiocesan newspaper?

Father Van Sloun: The most important result that I am hoping for is better catechesis about the sacraments.

My experience, after being in the parish for a long time, is that many people, particularly adults, when they came through formation as children, had instruction about the sacraments that lacked content. Consequently parents who are trying to teach their children really do not even have all of the information that they need.

I do the sacramental preparation for first reconciliation in our parish. We have about 150 children that make their first confession every year.

Thus I have a large number of parents that I visit with on an annual basis about the sacrament. I can see that the lack of fundamental information that they have about the sacrament is a little appalling. They cannot teach what they don’t have. So I’m trying to fill in those gaps.

I am an old high school basketball coach, so I understand that if you want your team to do well, they have to have the fundamentals.

My impression is that our parents do not have the fundamentals about our sacramental theology; for them to practice confession themselves, and for them to teach their children well, they are missing these details.

It is my goal to try and provide them with the fundamentals so that they know their faith better and can communicate it better to their own children.

One of the problems when I was in graduate theology, was that I saw these things taught from such a theoretical and historical way, but not in the practical way that helps the person in the pew. That’s what I am trying to do, to explain it in more of a practical way that is accessible to the average Catholic.

Q: What do you think are some ways that priests can promote confession in their parishes? In other words, what is it that gets people back in the confessional?

Father Van Sloun: People have to hear about it. Otherwise we’re not going to make a shift toward it.

My associate pastors and I make a conscious effort. We try not to go overboard, but we do want to make sure that it is regularly mentioned in preaching, in homilies.

Another thing that I do to keep it before the people is that I write a bulletin article every Advent and every Lent, to again bring up the theology of the sacrament. Then we have a reconciliation day, where we have a priest available throughout the day, both in Advent and Lent.

In our announcements after Mass, we announce when confessions are and encourage people to come. In the announcements, the articles, the way we do the publicity, we try to keep it before them as valuable.

Q: How do you emphasize the value, the worth of the sacrament of confession? What is it that motivates people to get there? What focus do you take when you are talking about confession?

Father Van Sloun: One of the things I talk about is celebrating these major feasts, like Christmas and Easter, in the state of grace, and what a source of joy this can be.

One of my favorite parables is in Luke, Chapter 13: the parable of the bent-over woman. It appears when you look at it that she is like a hunchback, but Luke’s deeper theological meaning is that she is crippled by the guilt and shame of her sin, weighed down by all of the burden of her sins, that have been there for a very long time.

Jesus is preaching in the synagogue in Capernaum and he looks out over the assembly, and he basically stops what he is doing because he can see that she is so troubled. He reaches out and touches her and says, «You are healed of your affliction.» In saying this he says, «You are forgiven of your sin.»

She stands up straight and glorifies God. She is full of joy when she is restored.

Thus, when we speak to people, we say, look at what this offers you. You don’t have to carry this burden around anymore.

We explain that Jesus is willing to restore you, wanting to restore you, that your lost joy can be restored, and you can celebrate these great events in a wonderful way.

Q: In addition to the problem of going to confession too little, is it also possible to go to confession too much? To confess sins that are too small?

Father Van Sloun: It can be a beneficial spiritual practice to confess small or little sins. As a person grows in holiness, sensitivity to sin increases, and things that were not offensive before can become quite offensive. Things as «small» as a raised tone of voice, a dirty look, a comment or a mean thought are sinful and deserve attention.

What we are trying to avoid is scrupulosity. I’ve heard people complain about Catholic guilt, but guilt is the awareness that we have committed sin, and if we lose that we are in a terrible place.

We need to be able to have a sense of guilt, but it has to be a healthy rather than an overdone sense of guilt.

Q: What is a recommended frequency for confession? Should the faithful go on a regular basis, or only go if they are in mortal sin?

Father Van Sloun: The Church teaches that you are only obliged to approach the sacrament when you have committed a mortal sin, and if you have, please go as quickly as possible.

If you haven’t committed a mortal sin, the Church says that going to reconciliation for venial sins or less serious sins is still a good avenue to God’s healing grace. So we invite people to come even if they haven’t committed mortal sins.

I’ve heard a lot of different approaches to this. One approach is to go a couple times every year during each of the major seasons: Advent and Christmas, and then also during Lent and Easter.

Another approach is to go with the changing of the seasons, every Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall, in other words, quarterly. When I was a youngster I was taught to go monthly. There are some who suggest weekly, but we do not recommend that often to our parishioners.

I try to talk about the positives rather than the negatives. What I am trying to frame up is the beauty and the grace of what the sacrament provides.

Q: How would you encourage people to look at confession positively, rather than looking at their sinfulness? What would you encourage them to see in confession?

Father Van Sloun: In the first article for the archdiocesan paper, I wrote about how Jesus instituted the sacrament. He was very concerned with the reality of sin and the forgiveness of sins, and he commissioned his disciples to forgive peoples’ sins.

Forgiveness is the flip side of the law of the love, and he speaks to it greatly. Occasionally we are going to fail, and so for us to get back on the right road, Jesus gives us a wonderful avenue to be able to get restored, cleaned up and moving ahead.

Q: What would you tell someone who avoids confession because he thinks it is mentally unhealthy to focus on guilt, sinfulness or shame?

Father Van Sloun: I think it is mentally extremely healthy to focus on guilt and shame.

If you look at, for example, Alcoholics Anonymous, the 12-step program, the fourth and fifth steps are: I’m going to make a fearless moral inventory and tell someone about what I’ve done.

It’s very clear when you look at these rehabilitation programs that owning up to your sins and telling someone else unburdens you.

When people go to their therapist, one of the things that they do is, in an honest and safe situation, look at the troubles of their life, the problems that they’ve caused, and try to grow beyond them. There is a kind of inborn need to own up and move on.

We as Catholics have in our sacramental system a way not only to own up and move on, but to invite God’s healing grace into the process.

Sociopaths do not pay attention to their evil and are not bothered by it. It’s living in a world of denial, an unreal world to not be able to pay attention to your sin and deal with it.

It’s unhealthy to not pay attention to our sins. It is healthy to realize our sins, admit them, quit them and move on.

The psychologist might ask, «What will make you happy?» We say, however: «What would make God happy? What would be pleasing to God?» Thus the fundamental spiritual question ends up being different.

It is unfortunate if sin was hammered really hard in yesteryear and it led to scrupulosity. But to say that we overdid it one way in the past and that we cannot talk about it anymore would be to swing the pendulum too far the other way.

Q: How would a person know if they are falling into scrupulosity?

Father Van Sloun: A really good confessor will probably give you some honest feedback about it.

I have a number of people that approach me with the sacrament, and they may have a question like, «Am I going a little overboard with this?» It would be the confessor’s job to help lighten that burden and to help them grow a little beyond it.

Q: If a personality conflict exists with one’s parish priest, or if one disagrees with what is said in the confessional, what can a parishioner do without falling into being a «cafeteria Catholic?»

Father Van Sloun: This question comes up a fair amount. When I was a young person, one of the priests that I went to when I was in high school did not handle me well in the sacrament.

I’ve spoken to many other people that have also had troubles. I explain it to them this way: «So you had a bad experience with reconciliation. Let’s compare this to going out to eat. You go to a restaurant, and the food is overcooked, undercooked, or there is bad service.

«You have a bad experience at the restaurant so you decide that you’re not going to go back there. Right?» They agree, «yes.»

I then ask them, «So does that mean you’re going to decide to quit eating?» They respond, «No, we decided to go somewhere else.»

I conclude: «So that means that eating is not bad; actually it’s essential. But that particular place is not good. Thus you find another place to go.»

If you’ve had a bad experience with a confessor, it doesn’t mean the sacrament is bad. It means it was badly administered by that priest. Therefore you don’t quit going to the sacrament, because the sacrament is good and worthwhile. You go find someone else who can help you better.

Now in a metro area like here, there are eight priests within a 10-minute drive. The problem, the place where my heart aches, is if you’re living out in a rural area. You have one priest, and the next town is 25 minutes away and is twinned with the same priest.

People out in rural areas don’t have the kind of options that people in metro areas do. I tell them, if they want to re-approach that priest sometime later they can. But sometimes if you’re hurt you just really don’t want to go back there.

Perhaps on the day that you go into town for shopping, you can do «two for one.» In rural America, people often go into their regional center to go to the doctor or go shopping. I would invite them if they cannot get what they’re hoping for in their local parish, to find it somewhere else.

The sacrament is too important to say «I’m not going to do it.»

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