View all Ask a Priest | February 19, 2016
“Ask a Priest: What If I’m Told to Stop Confessing the Same Sins?”
Q: I’m wondering about something that has been said to me several times during confession. After I have finished confessing my sins (I generally go to the same priest), the priest tells me to stop saying the same sins. This is incredibly disheartening as I am repeating the same sins, and because it is the same confessor it is most embarrassing to go and say the same thing. I usually consider that it is part of going to say sorry, and I am trying to improve. Is this comment something I should just bear with? I want to be completely honest, and when I go to confession, I pray before and after, very much searching my conscience. I think the priest is trying to help me, but isn’t God and his grace going to perfect me? Can I tell my priest this comment hurts me, or should I just take it as respectfully as I can? -K.S.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: I’m assuming that these “same sins” are venial sins, since to withhold mortal sins would make the sacrament invalid.
It is possible that the confessor thinks your constant repeating of the same sins might be counterproductive. I imagine he is trying to help you, though his advice needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
First, it isn’t unusual that we confess that same sins. We are creatures of habit, and some habits become deeply ingrained. They are hard to change. We might have developed habits of anger or vanity or laziness or whatever — these take time and prayer and work and the grace of God to overcome. Besides, struggling with our faults and weaknesses and day-to-day venial sins can help us stay humble.
Second, the Church encourages us to confess venial sins. The Catechism in No. 1458 says:
“Without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church. Indeed the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit. By receiving more frequently through this sacrament the gift of the Father’s mercy, we are spurred to be merciful as he is merciful.”
So, you aren’t wrong to confess venial sins, even the same ones over and over.
Now, let’s step back a moment. There might be various factors that prompted the confessor’s advice.
First, he might detect some scrupulosity and is trying to help you focus on other issues. If scrupulosity is indeed a problem, then he as a regular confessor would be in a better situation to help you.
Second, he might detect that you are in a rut, in the sense that he isn’t perceiving more progress in your spiritual life. Maybe he is trying to get you to look at bigger issues or approach things in a different way.
For instance, instead of your saying, “I was angry with my boss” for the umpteenth time, perhaps he is hoping that you say something like, “I failed to see Christ in my boss, I failed to see him as a brother whom I need to be more patient with.” (This is a speculative point, but I offer it anyway.)
Third, some clergy and spiritual directors over the years have suggested that it is better to focus on one or two of the most common sins, and just mention them, but to do so in depth. The example above would apply here too. The idea is to do more introspection in order to understand the roots of a particular sin. For example, why don’t you get along with your boss? Perhaps the boss reminds you of someone from the past. Or perhaps you have a problem with authority. Or perhaps you have doubts about whether you should be working where you are working.
Ideally a regular confessor could help a penitent go deeper in order to understand the basis for patterns of sin and to help combat these sins systematically.
If you feel as if you have hit a limit with your confessor, then perhaps it is a moment to look for another one, or at least to go to another confessor occasionally.
It might be helpful to see the RC Spirituality Retreat Guide on confession, “From Sorrow to Joy,” especially the conference (which is the final video or the last part of the PDF document).
Whatever you do, continue to take advantage of the sacrament. It is a great source of grace. And don’t despair if you find it hard to shake certain sins. This is part of the human condition. We wrestle with problems all the days of our lives, but with a spirit of hope in God’s providence.