Browsing The Northern Cross

Father Richard Kunst: Are you afraid of going to confession? Fear not

Alfred Hitchcock is awesome. I have seen several of his movies and have always found myself wanting the story to keep going even after it is over. He is a master storyteller who weaves webs of great suspense and thrills.

Father Richard Kunst
Father Richard Kunst

One of his great movies is called “I Confess.” It stars Montgomery Clift as a young priest who is framed for murder, only to have the murderer come to him and confess the sin in the context of a sacramental confession. The movie ends in classic Hitchcock style with great drama and a better plot.

What I really like about this movie is how it represents one of the most sacred aspects of the Catholic faith, and that is the Seal of Confession.

Confession is the most exhausting part of my ministry as a priest. One half hour in the confessional can wear me out.

The reason it zaps my energy is that I truly give my whole self to the process. I know people are coming into confession in the most vulnerable way. They expose the darkest and weakest parts of themselves, so I do everything I can to be fully present to them, and that is tiring.

But the priests certainly are not the only ones who approach this beautiful sacrament with trepidation.

People have all sorts of reasons they fear going to confession. The number one reason, of course, is telling someone all the bad things you have done or said. Who likes to do that?

Confession is great because it keeps us humble; it forces us to take responsibility for our stupidity and weaknesses.

Confidentiality preserved

Another reason some people may be afraid is that they think the priest might tell others about their sins. Let me categorically say: That will never happen. Ever!

For a priest to break the Seal of Confession would amount to the greatest of sins. In fact, if a priest does break the seal, even at the risk of his own life, or as Hitchcock portrayed, even while being framed, then there is a very special penalty. It’s called “latae sententiae” (automatic) excommunication.

The priest is not only no longer a priest, but also he automatically gets kicked out of the Catholic Church. The only way the excommunication can be lifted is by the pope himself. Needless to say, this is serious stuff.

Let’s look at this in a very practical way. To become a priest takes years of education and years of schooling and discernment. Seminarians are vigorously screened and evaluated every year.

Priests give up the potential for a lucrative career and, even more, give up the possibility of having their own wife and family. Why in the world would a priest exchange all that he has sacrificed to become a priest just to tell someone the sin you confessed to him? On the face of it, it is ridiculous.

The philosophy of confession that we are taught in the seminary is to treat what happens in the confessional as if it didn’t happen. We are to think of what has been said as not having been said at all.

So if Joe Sixpack confesses that he has a problem with shoplifting and I see him later that week, I can’t even ask him, “How’s that shoplifting going? Doing any better?” As a priest, I cannot even bring up the sins confessed to the person who confessed them.

You aren’t the only sinner

On a very personal note, and I don’t mean to sound scandalous, but as exhausting as hearing confessions is to the priest, I also find them to be boring. That might surprise you, but the only reason why I say that is because we all sin, and depending on our state in life, we all sin the same way.

I have been doing this long enough that if you are a young mom, I can pretty much tell what your sins are before you go to confession.

If you are a senior citizen or a college student or almost anything else, I can come pretty close to guessing what you are going to confess. Human nature in a very real way is predictable, and we all struggle with the same things. So why would a priest break the seal of confession, just to tell of a sin that so many others also struggle with?

One of my favorite authors once wrote that “the confessional is not a living room, it’s a war room.” It is indeed a war room, but a war room of God’s mercy, not of judgment.

We come to confession baring our souls to the priest. All the things we don’t want anyone else to know we tell the priest.

And in turn, he tells no one.


Father Richard Kunst is pastor of St. John the Evangelist in Duluth and St. Joseph in Gnesen.