“Ask a Priest: How About Getting Spiritual Direction Within Confession?”

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Q: My question concerns having a regular confessor as a spiritual director. I’m not sure that is even possible today. We get in the confessional line and approach the priest who becomes available. And if there is only one priest that day, he might not have the time for personal direction given the volume of parishioners in need of reconciliation. St. Alphonsus Ligouri says to choose a good confessor and obey him without worry as his direction is from God. Should the direction be in error, then the consequences fall on the confessor not the obedient person. I won’t be accountable. Now, it occurs to me that no matter which priest is in the confessional, the same Jesus will be there guiding him and therefore me. So, how does a Catholic go about choosing/finding a confessor in the modern Church? – S.K.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It’s good that you are taking advantage of the sacrament of reconciliation and that you are seeking solid guidance in the spiritual life.

In the light of your questions, it might be good to make a few distinctions.

The sacrament of reconciliation (or confession) and spiritual direction are generally distinct realms. They both help with the spiritual life, but at different levels.

The sacrament is where we confess our sins and receive absolution. The spiritual advice that a priest gives in the confessional will, by nature, be addressed to the sins and temptations that the penitent reveals.

Spiritual direction, on the other hand, is understood as a regular accompaniment on the spiritual journey. It involves a deeper and broader approach than the advice offered in the confessional.

The person being directed has more time to talk about the range of experiences in the spiritual life, such as prayer, inspirations, graces received and responded to, and vocational aspirations – as well as, perhaps, general categories of sins and temptations.

We could say that confession is more about “putting out fires,” while spiritual direction aims at helping a person to be attuned to the workings of the Holy Spirit and to live a life of faith and prayer and charitable works more fully.

Now, in former times it was common for women religious to receive spiritual direction within the confessional. This system was appropriate for the religious who didn’t go out in the world much and who otherwise wouldn’t have much opportunity to meet with a priest in a discreet setting.

Nowadays priests, who are often overworked and in short supply, might be able to give advice in the confessional but not spiritual direction. The time for direction is simply too tight.

Moreover, judging by the counsel of St. Teresa of Avila and other great spiritual writers, finding a good spiritual director has never been an easy task. So, it’s not just a 21st-century problem.

You mention St. Alphonsus’ advice about obeying a good confessor without worry. It’s worth noting that word good – for the quality of confessors can vary greatly.

You mention that Jesus works through the priest in confession. That is certainly true in the sense that absolution comes ultimately from Christ. If a priest has the right intention and follows the proper formula, and the penitent is rightly disposed, there will be a grace imparted.

However, it is possible for priests to give objectively bad advice in the confessional. Here, the faithful need to use their wits.

If a priest has faulty ideas — for instance, he tells a married person that contraception is OK — then that penitent should seek out another confessor. A person wouldn’t be off the hook if he knowingly stayed with a priest who deviated from Church teachings.

Turning to your last question: My hunch is that you are really asking about how to find a good spiritual director.

At a minimum, finding a competent confessor is relatively straightforward: look for someone who follows Church teachings and who follows the formula for the sacrament.

One suggestion would be to look for parishes that schedule a fair number of hours for confession each week. That might be a sign that penitents are happy with the guidance they receive there.

Still, if you find a good confessor, it’s probably better not to ask him for spiritual direction in the confessional.

For ideas on finding a spiritual director see this post. Worth noting is its recommendation to consider a well-trained layperson as a director.

If you can’t find a spiritual director, at least stick with a good confessor who can give solid advice.

And remember, it’s ultimately the Holy Spirit who brings about our growth in the spiritual life. Do your best, and the Spirit can fill in the gaps.

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  1. ALL GOOD ADVICE… and Father M summed it up well “ultimately it is the HOLY SPIRIT who brings growth in the spiritual life (on earth).

    The Holy Spirit who ‘overshadowed Mary.’ So…to get the counsel of the Holy Spirit, attend to THE ONE HOLY SACRIFICE OF THE MASS… uniting the GOOD we are about with THANKSGIVING for God’s merciful forgiveness 7x 70x . . . as THE SPIRIT so shows what should be confessed. (Mortal ‘break the bond’ stuff ALWAYS NEEDS the Sacrament of Reconciliation but confessing those ‘venial sins’ behind screen brings the strength ‘in the world’ also. Remember the objective of confessing is FIRM PURPOSE to amend one’s former action (against God aka LOVE) Anger isn’t necessarily a sin… but confessing it for reason of ‘lack of patience’ with another… may be / so confess briefly why the anger happened and the HOLY SPIRIT will assist in those gifts He provided at Confirmation… Knowledge, Understanding Counsel and Wisdom OF ‘THE GOD’ along with the Piety (prayerfulness), Fortitude, and ‘fear’ RESPECT for ‘THE GOD.’

    With better attention to God’s Gifts … THE FRUIT of THE HOLY SPIRIT (one being patience will grow)
    (but ‘perfect love’ doth take a lifetime… of SANCTIFYING GRACES of the REAL PRESENCE OF CHRIST) Yes, HOLINESS is a ‘process’ not a ONCE SAVED ALWAYS SAVED idea. The process of ACTS OF FAITH aka religion.

    Spiritual Direction can occur at EVERY Mass attended to with all seriousness… including the penitential rite of general confessing with ALL (the Confiteor). For other ‘what to do now’ questions… As Father spoke, a lay director IN TUNE TO THE FAITH AND FAITH IN PRACTICE is GRACE from God. (one’s good faithful parents who said NO NO when just a child… is a good example of Spiritual Direction IN TUNE TO CHURCH TEACHING, or maybe grandparent, or Godparent, or A VERY GOD FEARING NEIGHBOR ‘in same spirit’ as those good parents (all ALL OF THE ABOVE, depending on the question and yes, FOR THE DEEPER MORAL QUESTIONS (sins) and GOD RESPECTFUL ACTIONS… an experienced priest of the parish one belongs to. Make an appointment to ask ‘a question’ (it won’t take long if one is already getting UP there by one’s OBEDIENCE to THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST) Yes, as Father M said… if a priest gives any answer that goes against basic FAITH and MORALs, find another priest. BUT MOST CLERGY are ‘in the truth.’ )

    Spiritual Direction is there in those Sunday School years, the TAKING AND EATING of Real Presence of the blessed bread (with purity of soul…aka no known big sins) the venial asked forgiveness for at every Mass in the Penitential Confiteor…asking for greater strength. THEN… GO OUT TO LOVE AND SERVE GOD AND THE WORLD: butcher, baker, candlestick maker (or any assembler of material) or any ‘job’ the Holy Spirit directs one’s steps to do… WITH GOD. (mommy and daddy Sanctified by HOLY matrimony) Volunteer, and ‘whatever one’s blessed job’ (profession or Vocation)

  2. I think that what is needed in this day and under the conditons that we have and are developing we need better Catechises. The llevel of ignorance in the church going parishioners is abismal. It used to be that ignorance was due to illiteracy. It is still due to illitreracy because people do not read Holy Scripture, the Catechism, etc. It is not possible to learn our Faith from Hollywood, or the current rock star, or Facebook and other social platforms.

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