“Ask a Priest: Is a Confessor the Same as a Spiritual Director?”

Q: I’m pretty sure that I am converting to Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, which both mention the idea of a confessor or, as I’ve also heard it put, spiritual mother/father. This is something that I really feel I need, but I’m not sure precisely how that relationship is supposed to be established/maintained. I’ve wondered if one’s confessor is synonymous with the priest who hears one’s confession, but I’ve also heard the confessor role discussed in the context of a more complex, mentor-like relationship (such as checking in regularly in regard to sins or problems that might be impacting a person’s spiritual life or reading a challenging text such as “Dark Night of the Soul”). So, could you clarify precisely what the role of confessor entails and how that connection is established? – M.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It is good to hear that you feel drawn to Churches that have the full range of sacraments that Our Lord instituted in order to help us reach heaven.

Let me start with the Catholic perspective. A confessor, in this context, is a priest or bishop who hears confessions. Some Catholics have regular confessors, while others prefer to go to various confessors. The decision would be yours.

A spiritual director is someone you meet occasionally for in-depth discussions about your spiritual life. These discussions could cover your prayer life, the inspirations you are receiving from the Holy Spirit, the difficulties you are facing, the books you are reading, etc. The director could be a priest or deacon or consecrated person or a layperson.

Sometimes a person might have a regular confessor who also functions as a spiritual director.

Eastern Orthodoxy has a figure known as a starets (pronounced STAHR-its). A starets is a spiritual director or religious teacher, specifically a spiritual adviser, known for his piety, to whom monks or laymen turn for spiritual guidance. The starets need not be a priest.

In the Catholic realm, a layperson can be a spiritual director. In fact, it might be easier to find a layperson rather than a priest for spiritual direction, since it can be a time-consuming task and many priests are already swamped with work.

Sometimes a regular confessor can function as a spiritual director of sorts. If he gets to know you well, he could give advice within the sacrament of confession. This can be especially helpful since it is not always easy to find a good spiritual director.

For more reading, you might look at some articles by my colleague Father John Bartunek and his associate Dan Burke, such as this one on the difference between confession and spiritual direction (http://www.spiritualdirection.com/2014/03/10/what-is-the-difference-between-confession-and-spiritual-direction), or this one on how to find a spiritual director (http://www.spiritualdirection.com/topics/spiritual-direction/finding-a-director).

Even if you can’t find a director, it will help to have a good reading list of spiritual books. A diet of solid spiritual reading can be the next best thing to having a director.

Count on my prayers as you continue your spiritual journey.

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