January 21, 2010

Non-Catholics in Confession

There are lots of things in the work of the parish priest that still throw me. One of them is non-Catholics who come to confession. This happens more often than you might think. It seems to me that there are three fairly distinct types, which I present in ascending order of difficulty:

There are the catechumens or (more likely) pre-catechumens, who have a desire to seek God's mercy and forgiveness, or at least experience sacramental absolution. Either they just can't wait, or are confused or uncatechized about how the sacramental economy works. These aren't too hard to deal with, because they desire the sacraments at some level--and sometimes very intensely. I pray with them, give them some spiritual counsel, and try to explain to them that they should desire baptism all the more because of the forgiveness of sins it will bring. Then, if they should--God forbid--sin after their baptism, confession is there for them.

Then there are souls who seek God's forgiveness, or at least the therapeutic act of confession on the natural level, but who just aren't Catholics or a member of any of the apostolic churches that retain the sacrament of penance. It's easy to tell them apart from the Catholics; confession is a private and individual thing, but it's also a fairly scripted encounter. There are many versions of the script, but chances are that you tend to begin your confessions with one formula or another, have a favorite version of the Act of Contrition, etc. When someone comes in with no script or even 'confesses' not knowing how to 'do it,' I know it's time to see if the 'penitent' is even a Catholic (It is necessary to check, as he might be a baptized but totally uncatechized Catholic.)

If the person is an adult I usually ask him directly if he is a Catholic. If not, I try to find out if he is at least validly baptized, which people rarely seem to know. With kids the question is more delicate. My experience with Catholic children and teenagers is that they often don't know how to go to confession (I think that some religious education programs teach it in such a way that 'first reconciliation' is a nice celebration, but doesn't leave behind a portable skill), so if I suspect that a young person is not a Catholic, I ask them if they have received the sacrament of Confirmation. If the answer comes back, "Huh?," or "What's that?" I'm pretty sure that I have a non-Catholic. Having found out what I can, I let the 'penitent' confess as she or he needs to, explain to them why we are either not celebrating a sacrament or doing so in a very occult way, pray with them in thanksgiving for God's mercy, and send them on their way.

The final category is the hardest. These are the non-Catholics who are sent into confession by someone else. It might be a devout, well-meaning, but ultimately controlling and misguided spouse or significant other who thinks the person needs confession, penance, and absolution. Many times it is an aunt, uncle, or grandparent sending in non-Catholic child or teenager in an effort to make up for a lack of or incorrect (in their estimation) religious upbringing. In these cases I hear whatever 'confession' someone wants to make, but I also explain to them that this not a good use of the "sacrament," that they really should neither be there nor let anyone send them back. If it's a child, I tell them to send anyone who tries to make them "go to confession" to me, and I promise to deal with them.

All of these procedures are subject to abbreviation and/or the request to move the conversation to another time and setting if the line for confession is long or if I have to get to something else right after the end of scheduled confession time. Baptized Catholic Christians have a right to the sacraments that other baptized or unbaptized people do not enjoy in the same way.


Jeanne said...

Wow. It's hard enough to get Catholics to go to confession! Non Catholics actually go too? I get so much insight from you, Brother Charles. I had no idea.

Brother Vito, OFMCap said...

Interesting and thoughtful post! Definitely not something I thought happened, but I'm glad to hear the story from your experience.


-Br. Vito

P.S. When are you coming to Allison Park to see the Novices? =)

ben in denver said...

What a beautiful thing to hear that non-catholics sometimes go to confession. Clearly the Spirit is active in at least some of these cases.

It sounds like you have some very good strategies for cooperating with whatever graces might have brought the person to "the box".

I would imagine that as a convert, you are very attuned as to what to look for.

Today I will offer a sacrifice for all of the gaurdian angels ofthe non-catholics who go to confession.

josephcantone said...

my pastor would not agree with you on wanting to turn away non-catholics from confession. neither would i. these people are searching and being drawn to our faith and they should be loved and encouraged and spoken to until the great day when they can approach the altar as catholics and receive the life of the body and blood of Jesus.

JanineD said...

My daughter had a friend that was not Catholic, but she explained to him her faith and impressed with something he heard, he went to confession on his own. The priest listened to him as he confessed and something in this encounter wrought wonders.

This young man was abused as a child and had attempted suicide. But the time the priest took to listen, helped this man through a difficult period, and he told my daughter that he felt 'healed' after.

I am so glad that you consider all of these things while being in the confessional. It matters. Even if you cannot give absolution but simply pray with those who are called/moved to come in works wonders.

God Bless.

Brother Charles said...

Dear Joseph,

I think you misunderstand me; I would be only want to "turn away" non-Catholics in three cases:

1. When doing so would help them in a desire for proper sacramental initiation already having begun.

2. When it seems to be a case of coercion.

3. When time constraints mean that baptized Catholics could be denied the sacrament to which they have a right.

pennyante said...

I am really surprised that there are a number of non-Catholics who are coming to Confession. I had never thought of that this would be so.

Sounds like you have found ways of helping these people, whether adult or child.

Thanks for sharing your experiences with us... Especially important is that you were a convert and can thus understand. Gives me added insight also.

FrankCaiati said...

On a totally unrealated topic, I'd love to know what you think about what Pat Robertson said about the earthquake...

NC Sue said...

Unfortunately, fewer and fewer Catholics are availing themselves of this Sacrament. Our priest actually seems to downplay the importance of individual Confession. He encourages folks to go to the communal services that generally take place in Lent and Advent.

So I'm a bit surprised to hear that non-Catholics are coming to Reconciliation.

Perhaps they're on to something.


GrandmaK said...

I had no idea...It is good to know that there are those, though not baptized, who might understand the value of confession even though they really do not understand it's true significance. God Bless you for your council! Cathy

Qualis Rex said...

Father Charles, VERY interesting. I can tell you that for my genration in most parts of the US the act of reconciliation is more of a sit-down rap-session with Fr. Feelgood (the sacramental Dr Phil if you will). There is no formula taught. It wasn't until I went back home and went to confession there that I learned the act of contrition (to the utter dismay of the priest conducting confession). For anyone under say 35, it really is hard to know if they are or are not Catholic during confession just by hearing it, unless you know them personally.

Joseph - I think you missed Fr Charles' point completely. I cannot speak or vouche for you or your "pastor". But I can say wholeheartedly that Fr Charles is an extremely GOOD priest and knows what he's doing. You would do well to take notes, and encourage your "pastor" to do the same.