Catholic teens and sacramental reconciliation in U.S. Catholic

Robert Nugent has an interesting article in U.S. Catholic discussing the reasons teens gave for not going to private confession while at reconciliation services. He argues that for teens to appreciate the value of sacramental confession, we need to clearly ritualize its connection to the larger community and engage their sense of sin as injuring relationships, rather than disobeying individual (often half-understood) laws. He speaks eloquently of his own experience as confessor to these youth:

For all of them, at least for a few minutes, it is dialogue with a concerned adult who seems to understand and empathize. For this alone, the time, the energy, the prayer, and the occasional heartache involved on the part of the minister in sharing their pain, confusion, and fears is what the sacramentality is all about.

It seems to me that not only Catholic teens but also Catholic adults often struggle in the ways described in this article. What is your experience in ministry?


  1. Providing young Catholic students with a more realistic understanding of sin is a crucial part of the solution.

    I think I would use a word like “relatable” rather than “realistic”. That seems to say that understanding “sin” in relation to God’s law is not understanding sin as it really is, unless the author meant something else by “realistic”. Maybe discussing the four ways we sin (thought, word, commission, omission — from the Confiteor) might help teens identify instances and occasions of sin in their lives.

    Here’s one way I explain sin. It’s not thorough, of course.

    The Hebrew word for “sin” is chet, a term used in archery, meaning “to miss the mark,” to fall short of the target. St. Paul, in a well-known verse from his letter to the Romans, defines sin in exactly this way: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23) God’s glory, His perfect goodness and love, is our target, and when we fail to hit that target, we sin. Another way to describe sin is as an act of separating God from a part of your life. For example, if you sin by mistreating your brother, not loving him as you should, you are in effect saying to God, “I am separating my relationship with my brother from You; my rules, not Yours, govern this part of my life.”

    The Catechism provides a very succinct definition of sin: “an abuse of the freedom that God gives to created persons so that they are capable of loving him and loving one another.” (Catechism 387) Sin is a corruption of our freedom: God gives us the freedom to choose the good, but we misuse that freedom to choose evil. It may sound silly at first that God gives us freedom so that we can choose to do good, but if you have ever been pressured into doing wrong, it should be clear to you how hard it can be sometimes to do the right thing. Sin is slavery; virtue is freedom.

  2. It would help for ministers not to treat penitents as parasites on their time by:

    1. Telling them they can confess only one sin during the private confession portion of the service;

    2. Requiring them to only answer a general interrogatory (E.g., Have you sinned and are you truly sorry?”)

    3. Otherwise narrowing the options for private confession to a narrow time window or by appointment only. (A dear friend of a few decades told me of how awkward it was for her to make an appointment, after realizing how much she wanted the sacrament but that her parish did not offer it except by appointment, which kept her from trying for a couple of years there.)

    4. Making anonymous confession difficult or awkward; it’s the canonical norm, and people can have good reason for it. (I’ll offer of mine: I find that, when I am face-to-face, I end up ministering to the priest (it’s just my nature to try to subconsciously tend to other people’s needs in a one-on-one context) and lose my train of thought. It’s just spiritually distracting in this context.)

    Et cet. Our sacramental praxis should reflect a sense of generosity and abundance, not stinginess. Too often, I have encountered priests who, mostly unintentionally but nevertheless palpably, treat penitents with a stinginess and condescension that is appalling, and just as bad as the yelling-at-you kind of confessor many of us used to encounter in the past (and, sometimes, even the present). Offer confessions when people are in the church, for example, and be really open to spontaneous needs in this regard, and, most importantly, let yourself be known as a person who is that open. Priests, ask yourself this question: How well do people know how I overjoyed I would be to offer them the graces of Reconciliation?

    While we’re at it, please use the given forms of absolution, not your own: if you really detest the cultivation of scrupulosity, don’t feed it yourself by screwing around with the ritual – there’s no reason that’s important enough to do so.

    I will add that, for young people inclined towards depression and dysthymia, sacramental confession offers an opportunity for an objective experience that can get them out of the feedback loop than can arise from excessive subjectivity (for all those folks out there who feel forgiven by direct prayer to God, there’s at least as many people out there who wonder if they can ever be forgiven). Ministers should be psychologically astute about this dynamic.

  3. I liked the article very much, and I think Fr. Robert brings up some very good points. A survey like this can be immensely helpful in discerning how to make the sacrament of reconciliation more palatable and inviting to teenagers (and anyone, really).

    Twenty students said they felt “more comfortable” speaking anonymously to a priest, rather than face-to-face. […] Some of the practical obstacles are easily remedied: provide the option for anonymous or screened confessionals that the church allows and ensure privacy—both visual and audible—for all the confessional stations, even those face-to-face.

    The screened or “anonymous” confessional is supposed to be the default, and face-to-face the option. This particular obstacle is one that needn’t have existed at all.

    Some moral and pastoral theologians call for a re-thinking of the sacrament to de-emphasize the confession of “number and kinds” of sins, and to focus more on the attitudes, values, beliefs, and underlying motivating factors of the individual.

    I would say both are very necessary, and if the latter has been neglected recently, it should be re-emphasized, but not at the expense of the former. From a practical standpoint, knowing (and admitting to… and having the courage to NAME) the “kinds” of sins we’re committing helps us to examine our attitudes, values, beliefs, and motives; knowing the frequency or number of the type of sin forces us to confront what may be a growing negative influence.

  4. I would be pretty suspicious of any priest who desires more “alone time” with kids and teens. Creepy. Maybe it is time that we the catholic People of God call this “sacrament” out for what it really is: emotional abuse at best, child abuse at worst. Just another tool of the sick, predatory hierarchs. 🙂

  5. I’ve only been to confession once, at the end of my RCIA classes. The only option offered was face to face over a tiny table. It was really awkward and unpleasant. The facilitators of my RCIA group regularly went to another church for their confessions.

  6. It might be a good time to restore the fixed grill to the confessional – it would preserve anonymity and also protect both priest and penitent from accusations and potential abuse. I hate the open ‘reconciliation room’ format, even with the free standing wooden screen – it’s not anonymous!

  7. My understanding is that the practice of personal confession evolved from the Irish custom of having a personal counselor to guide people to a better life. It makes sense to me to offer the communal rite of penance on a regular basis and to have personal confession on hand for those who need it. Some would use it for a one time confession of a particular sin and maybe that would be all they need. Others might develop an on-going relationship with the priest as a guide – something that wouldn’t come from behind an anonymous screen and something not all priests would be capable of.
    We need to remember that all the sacraments evolved, and perhaps are still evolving.

    1. Well, what it evolved from was a system that would probably make you blanche: first, no absolution for sins committed after baptism, then this was made more lenient and you had public confession and quarantining as a public penitent (sometimes for the rest of your life), et cet. The current system is particularly mild by comparison.

      1. I think the current system began as a merger of the continental and Irish systems and evolved from there.

        A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t address different needs nor does it allow us to take full advantage of this sacrament. To lament the fall-off in weekly confession is to forget that many used to believe that a Saturday night confession was necessary to take communion at Sunday Mass. I think most people these days have a sounder understanding of both sacraments.

  8. The practice of confession needs to be rethought.

    1. There may be some value to the early discipline of the Church in some cases. The young man’s “participation” in murder may be a good example. I think he may need something more than the ability to get it off his chest. The early church had a strong ethic about killing. I read somewhere that even in cases where it might have been justified people often abstained from Eucharist for years. Maybe in some cases people need to be public penitents in a way that identifies their sin, maybe in others they need to be private penitents (abstain but not in a way that identifies their sin), maybe in some cases they can be admitted to communion while undergoing something like community service. All of this needs to take into account the social nature of sin, and things like victims of sin.

    2. Spiritual direction was originally a lay monastic practice and a lot has been done in recent years to restore it as a lay spiritual practice. What should be its relationship to confession? This raises a lot of questions for me.

    The restoration of spiritual direction has been heavily influenced by psychotherapy. I guess I prefer educational models (building upon one’s strenghts) rather than therapeutic models (focusing on one’s problems) when it comes to mental health. Sometimes a disability can become a strenght just as an ability can become a weakness.

    Therapeutic models offer major opportunities for abuse. Beyond that is the problem that a clinician friend calls the “silting effect.” Some people just keep coming back rather than progressing into healing and adult maturity. An expert on Ignatian spiritual direction told me the same thing happens there.

    There is a potential for attracting many people with good skills to spiritual direction; priests are getting scarcer and their time more limited. There are ways to keep spiritual directors accountable; the seal of the confessional makes regulation of priest spiritual directors difficult.

    1. Could we have something analogous to the RCIA, where spiritual directors work with people both individually and some case in groups on specific time limited problems, followed by reconciliation of a priest. For example people might enter the process in early January and complete it prior to Holy Week.

      3. For a while it seemed we were headed in the direction of group confession with general absolution. I think this needs to be reconsidered, especially in cases of common sins which do not merit either of the above treatments (neither grave, nor something that a person could work on and improve with some support). The Orthodox have a ceremony of mutual forgiveness at the beginning of Lent. Maybe a similar ceremony that would give the community ways of expressing their mutual forgiveness could be followed by absolution for those types of sins. (e.g. you are still obliged to confess sins like murder at your next confession or before receiving communion).

      4. The Sacrament of the Sick. There are many illnesses and physical conditions that have a personal responsibility dimension, e.g. addiction, being overweight. Again perhaps we could relate participation in self help groups, etc. to the reception of this sacrament.

  9. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says in paragraph 1446 that, “Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion. It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification. The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as “the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace.””

    According to Pope John Paul II the Catechism of the Catholic Church “is given as a sure and authentic reference text for teaching Catholic doctrine.”

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