“Ask a Priest: Is It OK If Confession Follows Spiritual Direction?”

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Q: I have been going to a priest for spiritual direction for about five years now. After direction, he usually hears my confession. Recently I mentioned this in a chat with a Catholic study group, and one of the participants, who claims she is a trained spiritual director, stated that the two things, direction and the sacrament of reconciliation, should never occur at the same time because they involve two different charisms. I’m a bit confused and wondering if this might be true. Coincidently, I’ve been wondering and praying whether I should seek someone new anyway. This priest was my former pastor. Although he is learned, kind, a good listener and a pleasure to talk to, he never actually offers me any direction or even any suggestions about what I should or shouldn’t do in my prayer life or anything else in my life. I know you can’t tell me what to do, but do you agree with not mixing direction with confession, and could you give me any guidelines of what I should expect from a director and lastly, do you think my doubts about my director and this woman’s comments could be God trying to tell me something? – H.M.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: In principle a person can certainly go to confession right after spiritual direction. There is nothing that bans this.

So long as the person spontaneously asks for confession from the director, that is fine. Many people are comfortable going to confession at that point, with a priest they trust. Confession can be for them a way of rounding off the experience of spiritual direction. One shouldn’t feel obliged, however, to go to confession with a director.

To say that confession and spiritual direction “involve two different charisms” has some truth to it. The former is a sacrament whose efficacy is not as dependent on the personal holiness or perspicacity of the minister. Even a mediocre priest can validly absolve sins.

Spiritual direction involves a somewhat different set of skills, and of course it can be carried out by qualified laypeople.

Still, there is overlap between the skills of a confessor and a spiritual director. The best confessors will often impart a bit of spiritual direction within the sacrament itself.

A separate issue is your current spiritual director. You mention that he is a pleasure to talk to, but that he never offers you any direction or even any suggestions about your prayer life.

From what you describe, that doesn’t sound like spiritual direction at all. It sounds like chit-chat.

Spiritual directors shouldn’t tell people what to do, of course. But spiritual direction, as its name implies, does involve direction. It should be leading you somewhere. It shouldn’t be just an opportunity for nice conversation and little else (even if the session does end with confession).

On the other hand, perhaps you should look at how you are living out your own role in spiritual direction.

First of all, have you expressed to your director the concern you expressed in your question? If not, you might want to do so. That could be fruitful, and it could open up another whole chapter in your spiritual journey.

Then, what about your own preparation for spiritual direction? How responsibly do you prepare? How intentionally are you discerning God’s work in your life and seeking holiness? Do you bring particular questions and challenges that can spark the kind of spiritual direction you really need?

There are always three poles in spiritual direction: the Holy Spirit, the director and the directee. The Holy Spirit will always do his job fully. So even if the director isn’t doing his job fully, as long as you do yours, two-thirds of the participants will be fully engaged. And God will make it fruitful.

Nevertheless, your instinct is right: Ideally you should have a director who challenges you occasionally and suggests definite ways to move forward in the spiritual life.

Perhaps you might want to consider seeking out a new director. If your current sessions seem rudderless, that could a sign that it is time to move on. For spiritual direction that lacks direction can be costing you a chance to grow in the spiritual life.

For more reading, you might check out Navigating the Interior Life.

I hope some of this helps. Count on my prayers.

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