Recently I stumbled upon a forum on a secular wedding website that was discussing preparations before marriage. The topic of confession came up, as did several candid opinions on the topic. There were a few people that mentioned being nervous, unsure how to confess, or embarrassed.
This made me ponder why many people don’t go to confession. I frequently assumed (probably incorrectly) that it was a defiant thing. I thought most people just didn’t agree with the practice. I decided to do a little unscientific research on the topic. I combed the Internet looking for the various emotional/non-defiant reasons people listed for not making use of the Sacrament of Penance. Here is the list in no particular order, with a few points to consider if this reason applies to you.
1. It has been too long (or never) since I have gone to confession, and I am afraid of that first part (It has been _______ since my last confession).
This was one of the reasons I saw over and over again. It seems many people are just plain afraid of telling someone that they haven’t been to confession in a long time (or never). If you have been struggling with this, know that the priest is acting in “In Persona Christi”, which means in the Person of Christ. Jesus wants you to come to Him no matter how long you have been away from Him.
Remember the story of the prodigal son? The son took all of his inheritance and left his father’s house to live a depraved life, wasting the inheritance. The son returned looking for a job from his father. The father welcomed him back home and treated him like a king, forgiving the son and rejoicing that he returned. Jesus is the same way. He will always accept you with open and welcoming arms. The priest will mirror this. While he might remind you that it is important to confess regularly, he will gladly hear your confession because he wants you to rebuild your relationship with Christ.
Be at peace, no matter how long you have been away, it is always better to return as soon as you can. The priest will not judge you for being away. There is nothing to be embarrassed about. You aren’t the only one with this dilemma, and you probably won’t be the person who has been away the longest that the priest has ever heard. Even if you are, that will most likely mean that the priest will give even more thanks to God for having the opportunity to welcome you back into the fold.
2. I know the priest and he knows me – I don’t want him to know my sins.
This is a common feeling, even for people that confess their sins monthly or more. We all have secrets, “skeletons in the closet”. It is reasonable for you to feel this way. After all, priests are people, just like you and me. It is embarrassing for someone you see on a regular basis to know your struggles and failings.
There is the option of going to a priest at a neighboring parish. This may not be the best choice in the long run, but there is nothing explicitly prohibiting you from choosing where you go to confession. There is a benefit to developing a relationship with your confessor so that he knows your struggles and can suggest ways for you to overcome them. Also, you may find that you have a “louder conscience” if you know that you will have to tell the priest about the sin later. This may help you avoid the sin in the first place.
3. I don’t know the “formula” to use when I go, and I don’t want to “mess anything up”.
I was a bit surprised when I saw this one. I didn’t realize people had this fear. I suppose it could be a bit awkward if you are not familiar with how confession works to just walk into the confessional and not know what to say. While there is a formula for people that frequent the sacrament, it is really just a guide to help the confession go smoothly. If you are totally clueless about what to say, have no anxiety about this one. Just let him know that you are not really sure how to proceed. The priest is ready and willing to guide you through the confession. You should at least have an idea of what your sins are before you go into the confessional. An examination of conscience will be a big help in getting you ready in that area.
4. I have done some really bad things and I am embarrassed.
Here’s the deal with this one: let’s use murder as an example, because that is one of the biggies. First of all, it is entirely possible that the priest has heard this sin before, but it is probably a safe bet that he doesn’t hear it every day. Rest assured that he will not freak out. Keep in mind that he is bound under a strict seal not to reveal your sins, no matter how terrible to another living soul ever. (See #10 for more on this point)
You should also keep in mind that the priest is not allowed to require you to turn yourself in. He may suggest it for the good of society or for your own good, but he cannot require it.
You have the right to anonymity in your confession. You can choose to go to a priest you have never met and sit behind a screen so he can’t see you. Given that you have so many safeguards to protect your anonymity and reputation, you shouldn’t worry about that.
Now, the embarrassment is a terrible feeling. Rather than being afraid of it, embrace it. The embarrassment is a good thing. It is guilt, and no matter how much the culture tries to get rid of it, guilt will never go away until you confess your sins. Your guilt is a gift from God; it is His grace working in you. It encourages you to change your life and come back to Him. Once you have confessed your sins, you will feel like a truckload of bricks has been lifted off of your back. It is liberating, refreshing, and you will probably walk out of the confessional with a smile on your face just from the feeling of relief.
5. I feel awkward telling my sins to someone else.
This is also a very typical and normal feeling. As with the embarrassment mentioned in the previous item, embrace the uncomfortable feeling. If confession was an easy thing to do, we would be more likely to sin. It is too easy to tell your sins to Jesus and not have true sorrow for them. Telling your sins to the priest ensures that you think twice about your sins.
The feeling of dread in telling your sins to someone else is a powerful motivator to avoid sinning in the future so that you don’t have to mention those bad things you have done any more. Rest assured that the priest is not there to judge, condemn, or belittle you, though you should be open to taking constructive criticism or correction – it will help you.
He can’t tell your sins to anyone else, and he genuinely wants to help you. This is the way Jesus wanted confession. Telling your sins directly to Jesus is a good thing to do on a daily basis. It shows that you are sorry for them, but the way God established this sacrament is confession to a priest. That is the only way we know of to be assured that your sins will be forgiven.
6. I’m afraid someone outside the confessional will hear me.
Some confessionals are more secluded and private than others. In general, it is best to speak in a gentle and soft, but still audible voice. Something you may not know is that people who overhear something from somebody else’s confession are bound under the same seal of secrecy as the priest. They are not allowed to divulge anything they overhear from a confession.
That being said, it is best to take some precautions if you think that sound may travel far enough to be heard. First, if you can hear someone else’s confession, it is generally expected that you will move out of hearing range or in the worst case scenario, just cover your ears and hum a tune. If you think someone may overhear you, you can always ask them to take a few steps back so as to protect your anonymity. Any reasonable person would agree to this. If not, you can always offer to trade places with them in line and just let them go first, backing off yourself so that people behind you get the clue.
7. I don’t want to go face-to-face and my church doesn’t have a screen.
You have the right to a screen between you and the priest to protect your anonymity. If your church does not offer one, bring it up with the pastor. If he still refuses, then you can certainly look for another parish that respects this mandate and offers a screen.
There can be some benefits to going face-to-face, if you are open to it. You may find that it helps to have a good relationship with your confessor. He can help you through your struggles and identify weaknesses you didn’t realize you had. 
8. A priest was angry/judgmental/rude to me last time.
This is inexcusable and just plain wrong. A priest should be gentle yet firm with a penitent. He has no right to be angry or rude (at least outwardly) with you. If you feel that the priest was out of line, you can mention it to the pastor of the parish (if the priest is not the pastor), or you can bring it up with the bishop’s office, which might have received other similar complaints and can correct him if necessary.
You should keep in mind, however that correction is not necessarily anger, judgment, or rudeness. Consider if you perceive honest and firm correction as something more than it is simply because it implicates you or you disagree with it. Sometimes we have a tendency to take things the wrong way. This is not always the case, but it does happen.
9. I’m not really sorry for my sins, and/or I don’t intent on changing, so what’s the point?
The point is that you are taking a step in the right direction. It is legitimate to stay away from confession if you feel that you have no intention of changing. Perhaps you should take a step back from yourself and think about what this type of a statement means. By saying this, you acknowledge that you are sinning, so that is a good first step.
What does it say though if you really don’t want to change? Well, to be honest, it says that you are rejecting God’s love and grace. God has given you the grace to accuse yourself of your sins. Why reject his grace, which might help you overcome them and be a better person? Your life will be better if you make the active and sometimes difficult decision to try to follow Him.
Sometimes the fear of doing something difficult or uncomfortable keeps us from making the right choice. We all make mistakes and most of the time we make those mistakes repeatedly. We all struggle with sins – each and every day. That is why confession is available to us in the first place.
There is no requirement that you expect to be perfect after confession. There is only the expectation that you will try. Let’s be realistic, we already know that you and everyone else in this world will fail at some point. The important thing is to get back up, dust yourself off, get to confession, and try again.
10. I know the priest is supposed to keep my confession a secret, but I think he might tell someone my sins.
The priest is forbidden from revealing your sins to anyone ever. He is not even allowed to reveal that he heard your confession at all. He is not allowed to record it or to let the police listen in. There are laws that protect the priest-penitent privilege. In the US, and most other countries, anything said in confession is not admissible evidence in a trial.
The church would treat a breach of this seal more harshly than your worst sin. The priest would be immediately excommunicated by breaking the seal. The penitent is placing incredible trust in the priest to keep this secret. Priests have given their life to protect this trust. I would go so far as to guess that more priests have been martyred protecting the seal of confession than have broken it. That is how serious this is. God gives the priests special graces to be able to forget confessions and helps them in this sacred duty of secrecy.