Photo: Felix Carroll

Where Our Misery Meets God's Mercy

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In his new book 7 Secrets of Confession (MercySong), our dear friend and great Divine Mercy evangelizer Vinny Flynn rediscovers the beauty of the Church's most misunderstood sacrament.

We spoke with Vinny about the book — the distortions that have arisen around confession and the practicality of the sacrament that so many Catholics seek to steer away from.

You say that when it comes to confession, most of us were taught wrong. Explain.

Well, I was raised at a time when we were given a really misleading view of confession. My whole focus was on sin, which to me simply meant bad behavior. So as a boy I would keep a list in my mind, a "grocery list" of my bad thoughts, words, and actions. When there were too many items on my list, or when one of the items seemed too bad, I'd gather up my courage and force myself to enter the confessional, hoping the priest wouldn't know who I was.

In other words, you would go to confession when you "had" to. 

Yes, I wanted to receive Communion, so I "had" to go to confession. That's how I looked at it then. Confession was the thing I didn't want to do. I didn't value it for itself. It was just a means to an end, something I had to force myself to go through so I could go to Communion.

So it sounds like you went to confession because you wanted to be a "good Catholic."

Yeah. I was legitimately sorry for my sins, but, to be honest, there were times when I was more sorry that I had to go to confession. [Laughs.] The prospect of telling another human being things I didn't even want to admit to myself wasn't very exciting. So for me, instead of "Oh, no! I've offended God," it was "Oh, no! Now I have to go to confession." Confession was always awkward, often difficult, and sometimes downright humiliating, especially when the priest was less than patient and understanding.

You really give new meaning to the term "confessional writing." [Laughs.] Still, it all sounds painfully familiar to me. Thankfully, with 7 Secrets of Confession, you clear the air, to say the least. How did the book come about?

Well, during the last few years, as I've traveled around the country giving talks and missions, I've come to realize that many Catholics have this same limited understanding of confession, and that there's a great need for clear teaching about this great sacrament. To many Catholics, confession is just about "forgiveness" — just a way to get ourselves cleaned up from sin. But that's a distortion. As Pope Francis explains, confession is not a trip to the "dry cleaner." It's much more than that. It's a personal encounter with Christ! For whatever reasons, the real truths about this sacrament — its real purpose and value and beauty — have lain hidden in the heart of the Church. As Pope John Paul II explained, "Now, more than ever, the people of God must be helped to rediscover" these truths. He reminded us that these two sacraments — the Eucharist and Confession — were instituted by Christ in the same room! They are related, and it's not just cause and effect.

So then what specifically are these truths about confession that have largely been forgotten?

We look at confession as if it's all about "behavior." But it's not about "behavior." It's about "relationship," relationship with the God who fathered us into life and wants us to be with Him forever. That's why He created us in His own image and likeness — because we can't be with Him until we're like Him. The Catechism explains that sin "disfigures" our likeness to God; we don't look like Him anymore, we don't think like Him, and we don't act like Him. Confession and Eucharist are the primary ways God helps us become like Him again. So I go to confession not just so that I can get behavior forgiven. I go in order that my "likeness" to God, my right relationship with Him can be restored. When we focus too much on behavior, we don't focus enough on grace. We should be going to confession not just for forgiveness of our bad behaviors, our sins; but for the grace to overcome our sins and our sinfulness, the grace to help us be good and stay good.

I love how you put it in your book — that it's not that we have to go to confession, but rather we "get to" go to confession.

Yes, we "get to" — we get to encounter the Risen Christ.

So what happened? How did this beautiful, practical gift of confession become so misunderstood?

I know in my own lifetime we lost it at least partially because of a rules-centered reality. If you go back to the Scriptures, Christ wasn't focused on the "rules" and "behavior." He ate with the sinners. He focused on relationships. When the sinners responded to Him, those are the ones He stayed with. The Pharisees were into all the rules because they thought that was what God was all about. Look at the parable of the Prodigal Son. The father just loved his son, period. The son didn't have to earn it. The son thought, "Oh, I lost my father's love." You can't lose it. So after a time of sin and debauchery, the son comes back to his father, and the son has this memorized script, "Oh, Father, I have sinned against heaven and you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son ..." Before the son even finishes, the father forgives him, embraces him, calls for a feast, because his son, who was lost, is now found.

So, the father is more focused on His relationship with his son than on what the son has done.

Yes. The father is faithful to his fatherhood, even though his son has not been faithful. As Pope John Paul II expressed it, "after all, it was his own son who was involved, and such a relationship could never be altered or destroyed by any sort of behavior." So if I mess up, and if I understand that it's about relationship, I can go into the confessional knowing that God loves me and just wants to help me to get better. The Catechism uses medical imagery all throughout the chapter on confession. It refers to the Holy Spirit, for example, as a physician who probes the wound in order to heal it. And it explains that the forgiveness we receive "initiates the healing" that God wants to give us. Christ didn't come just to forgive our sins; he came to heal the whole person — soul and body. 

So, again from a practical standpoint, what does that mean?

It means we can take our woundedness into the confessional, not just "behaviors," not just the things we did wrong. We need to ask ourselves, "Where in my life am I not at peace? Where am I upset? Where am I angry, depressed?" These are all signs of our woundedness. And when we look at our woundedness, we meet our sin there, and not just our sin, but the root causes of our sin, the areas in our life where we need healing.

The writer Germaine Greer famously said, "Psychoanalysis is the confession without absolution." On that note, the confessional really could put a lot of therapists out of business.

Absolutely. That's the way it always was. I remember that, when I started taking psychology classes, a psychologist said to me, "I wish I could believe in the Sacrament of Confession because that's such good psychology." It used to be pretty common, before people got into this modern context of going into therapy, that if you had a problem, you'd go talk to your confessor. 

Because in most cases, sin is the root cause of our unhappiness.

Absolutely. And the reality is that we all need healing. If we go into the confessional only to get behaviors forgiven (and if we're sincere), then yes they are forgiven. But the problem is that we don't grow. We stay where we are, basically, because we're seeing it as a one-time fix. We think, "This is a fix for this behavior. Now I can start again." But confession is not a one-time fix; it's a process, a gradual, cumulative process of healing and guidance.

So how do you get more?

You expect it, long for it, ask for it. Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches that the grace of every sacrament is totally contingent upon the disposition of the person. So the more I'm tuned in, longing to receive what God wants to give, the more I get. If I go into confession and only want forgiveness, that's what I get. If I go in and say, "God, here's my misery. I need Your mercy. Here's where I'm not at peace. Here's the problem I'm having. I can't overcome this kind of behavior. I need Your grace." Now you're asking for healing. You're expecting it. You're longing for it. So you get it. 

The revelations of St. Faustina figure pretty prominently in your book. What does she teach us about confession?

A lot of things. One of her most important teachings, I think, is that we go to confession for two purposes: to be healed, and to be educated. She doesn't even mention forgiveness! Why? Because she knows that forgiveness is just part of the healing. Meanwhile, here we are, millions of Catholics, just going for forgiveness.

Or not going at all.

Right — because we think He's out to get us, because we're afraid. You know, we've lost a sense of sin. If we rediscovered that this is about drawing closer to God, it's about letting Him help me in my life, letting Him fix me, fix my life, not just my behavior, then suddenly confession is a joyous thing. We can learn a lot about confession from the Diary of St. Faustina: that it's Christ Himself who hears our confession, and that the priest is just a screen for Him; that before we go to confession we should pray for our confessor, because we'll have a better experience if we do; that the confessional is not a place of judgment, but a "Tribunal of Mercy." (The Catechism uses the same phrase.)

So explain "Tribunal of Mercy"?

The Tribunal of Mercy is the Holy Trinity — the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Not three judges, but rather three tribunes, which harkens to the Roman tribunes, whose role was to serve as advocates for the people. We go into confession to encounter the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, and they're on our side. And so we have this wonderful thing in the Absolution Rite in which the Trinity is invoked twice to emphasize that this sacrament is a personal encounter with the Trinity, to help me one day enter into the Trinity, to help me grow enough so that I can live the way God lives in the Holy Trinity. It's amazing stuff!

Is there one particular confession you made that you will always remember?

I remember one confession where I was so upset that I was in tears. I was going to confession to my spiritual director, Father George Kosicki, and I was a mess. I was completely down on myself, overwhelmed by life and by my own weakness and helplessness. I felt confused, frustrated, and angry, convinced of my own worthlessness and feeling like a total failure. In a word, I was miserable! I sat there in front of Fr. George, trying to share what I was feeling, and just started to cry. I'll never forget his reaction. He just looked at me and laughed! Then he slammed his hand down on the table and said, "Well, congratulations! Hallelujah! You're in the perfect disposition to receive God's mercy."

I ended up laughing, too. He knocked me right out of the self-accusation and self-pity I had been wallowing in and reminded me what confession is all about. It's when my misery meets God's mercy. My weakness, my unworthiness, my sin can bring me to realize that I need God. When I'm feeling miserable, guilty, and ashamed, knowing that I'm not who I ought to be, and I bring all that into the confessional, God fills me with His healing love and gives me the grace I need to begin again. That's what Faustina teaches — confession is when our misery meets His mercy. We can't emphasize that too much: God in the confessional is Mercy itself, and His love restores us to new life.

Listening to you and reading your book, I come away with, "What are we afraid of?"

That's what I hope and pray everyone comes away with. Our sin hasn't made God mad at us. He hasn't rejected us. He never rejects us. He's always faithful to His fatherhood, even when we're not faithful. All He wants to do is restore what's been lost. One of the other distortions that people have about confession is the belief that our sin changes Him — that if I do something wrong, it can change how God views me. But God is loving me just as much while I'm sinning as when I'm doing something good. I can't change Him. Love is what He does. It's who He is. We think that our sins change Him. The reality is that our sins change us. I can't experience the love He is still pouring down on me because I've turned my face away, I've pulled away from Him. 

You're a father of seven. Has fatherhood helped you come to a deeper understanding of God the Father?

Yes, because I have come to understand and appreciate how God the Father is upset about our behavior only because it hurts us. He's hurting for us. He wants to restore us, to make us happy, to bring joy to us. It's not like, "You broke the rules, kid. I'll smack ya." He's not vindictive. He's not mad. Those again are distortions. As a father, I have to set some rules. I have to be the authority figure. But the most important thing I have to do is love them and keep loving them. There comes a point, different with each kid, when I have to let go. If they start to pull away — from me, from God, from what's right — and I harp on it and keep at them about it, I'm going to push them further away. I have to make sure they know that no matter what they do, I still love them, even if they turn away from God, even if they turn away from me. They need to know that nothing they could ever do could make me stop loving them. That sets them up to understand who God the Father is and makes it possible for them to come back.

Since priests play an irreplaceable role in confession, what is your advice to them?

That they make confession one of their main priorities. Saint John Vianney is a perfect example of that. He was willing to sit in the confessional for hours. He knew that if he sat there, eventually people would come, and he would sit there everyday until the people started to come. My advice to priests is: Sit in the confessional. People will come. Also, Pope John Paul II, in 2001 and 2002, in his Holy Thursday letter to priests, emphasized that priests need regular confession for themselves, that they need to personally experience in the confessional the tenderness of God the Father so that they can reflect that same fatherly tenderness to their penitents.

And, at the risk of seeming arrogant, I would also suggest that they read this book. I didn't write it specifically for priests, but I have had an overwhelming response from priests and seminarians who have read it and told me how much it has helped them.

To order 7 Secrets of Confession, visit our online catalog.

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Be a part of the discussion. Add a comment now!

ml - Oct 17, 2013

I am a therapist, and sometimes it isn't even the person's "sin" that is the problem but someone else's. I treated women abused as children, sometimes in satanic cults. We had to retrain their memories etc - which most priests are not trained to do. What you have written otherwise about confession is very true - relationship. I had to be out of the church and a Methodist for over 20 years to really appreciate the sacrament. My mother used to say that more protestants should learn to go to confession and more catholics should go to therapists. Truer words were never spoken.

Deacon Bob - Oct 17, 2013

Another great article by a great writer, Felix. Many Thanks to another good writer, Vinny Flynn and for your book on the 7 Secrets of Confession that we all need to read and apply in our own life be it priest or confessor.
Speaking about another super author Fr. George Kosicki, CSB who as a PhD, professor and Priest he heard our special needs son's first confession at The National Shrine of Divine Mercy on Mercy Sunday eve. many years ago. Fr. George was sweeting from how could he relate in his brilance to a developmentaly delayed child. When Bobby emerged from this confession with Fr. George, Father was obviously relieved it was over however, Bobby put one hand on his hip and said Mom I feel awsome! Everyone in the Shrine wanted to go to confession to this miracle worker and Fr. George wanted to just go to bed! Please keep this great living saint in your prayers as he now faces his own health challanges. Thank you all for being there for us and know that we appreciate sharing your gifts with us.