Father Mike Schmitz is the director of youth and young-adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth, Minn., the chaplain for Newman Catholic campus ministry at the University of Minnesota at Duluth and a popular speaker. As the chaplain, he makes the sacrament of reconciliation available every day and has written about this sacrament from his priestly perspective.
Why do you think people are afraid of the confessional or neglect it today?
First, it means admitting to someone that you’ve messed up. We live in a world afraid of showing weakness, a world where we’re afraid admitting we failed. Living in such a culture makes it hard and scary, admitting my performance didn’t measure up.
We have a tendency to really doubt our worth. But I have to admit my worth isn’t dependent upon my performance.
Then there’s a lot of suspicion and these fears — will the priest get mad at me or think poorly of me later on?
This is not about making you feel as bad as you can feel; it’s about helping you be healed as much as you can be healed. The priest is there showing how. The Catechism shows the priest is the servant of the sacrament and meant to be a minister of healing.
Once people get that, then confession takes on a whole new dimension.
What do you say about those who think, “I don’t have to go to confession because I haven’t done anything really bad”?
There’s a misunderstanding of what sin is and who God is. Sin is a certain kind of decision, but most have a second-grade understanding of that, like “Did you pull your sister’s hair?” Then the teenager thinks, “Hitler was bad, and I’m not as bad as that.”
When it comes to relationship, you can describe sin as this: You’re saying to God, “God, I know what you want me to do, but I don’t care: I want to do what I want to do.” There’s a certain sense of rebellion. It’s saying, “I will not serve — I have other things I want to do.”
Even if I put the word “rebellion” to that, people say, “No, I just don’t care.” The problem becomes not only you don’t know what sin is, but you don’t understand who God is. God is not just “some people” or “other people.” He’s not just some guy who I can or cannot obey.
If people understand that, they have a more mature understanding of what sin is.
Do most Catholics have this understanding?
Most Catholics in our culture have about a second-grade level of their faith. I mean that not as an insult — that’s a description. Ask them: “What are the Ten Commandments?” The vast majority can’t name the Ten Commandments.
So the examination of conscience is still a second-grade exam — “Did I pull my sister’s hair or disobey my parents?” It should be: “How am I treating my co-workers? Do I tell white lies on a daily basis? Have I harbored grudges or forgiven people? How do I treat my wife?”
What is it like to sit in the confessional?
It’s one of the best places in the world. Even if someone comes in with that second-grade level and doesn’t know what to do, that’s never a problem. A lot stay away because they say they forgot how to go to confession. Or the fact they don’t know the Act of Contrition is going to keep them away. I say, “Go in and tell the priest. He’s going to help you out and not say you’re an idiot.”
It’s a joy not only because of the power of the sacrament, but the ability to meet people looking for grace. And God speaks to us. In a really unique way, confession is one of those places where God speaks to us. Not always through the priest, but through the words of absolution.
Are there any other misconceptions people have about the confessional that they need to correct?
We have it backward. So many people see the confessional as a place of defeat, but confession is a place of victory every single time.
It’s a place where I acknowledge sin has beaten me, but I’m letting Jesus win. A lot of times we go to confession to convince God to give us one more chance: “I’m sorry; I promise I won’t do it again.” But what’s actually happening in confession? Every person who prays only prays in response to God’s invitation. It’s God who moves first. He always calls first. That means every time you and I go to confession it’s a response to God inviting us to confession.
In confession you say, “God, I give you permission to give me your mercy, to love me and to forgive me.” He’s the one saying, “Give me a chance.”
What is your greatest sorrow in the confessional?
One of the really hard things is when someone is in an irregular situation. Someone finally gets the courage, the motivation to come to the Lord in confession, but he or she is cohabiting or married outside the Church and has no plans of changing that … saying, “There’s part of me that wants God, but I’m not interested in changing my life or obeying what God wants. We’re living together, but we’re not getting married.”
I can imagine all the fears they had coming here, but I can’t give them absolution. There’s even no intention to remedy that situation. That’s the absolutely hardest part.
What is your greatest joy?
The best is when the opposite happens — when someone says, “What do I need to do to reconcile with God?” and there’s a fear but an openness. They’re doing it in the way that they’re giving God their hearts. When we can see that happening, that is the best.
One priest told me he walks out of the confessional and doesn’t remember any sins he has heard. It was a grace of God for him. Do you remember individual confessions?
I don’t remember. I would call it “divine amnesia.” There is a certain grace. To be completely honest, there are rare times I would remember one of three things. Either I remember: Jack went to confession, but I don’t remember what he said; or someone confessed this, but I don’t remember who it was; or Jack confessed this, and I remember, but it happens so very, very rarely that I take it as a sign God wants me to pray for Jack — the only reason God left it [on my mind] is because of that. It is always in relation to God’s love.
I honestly, never in all my time — 12 years as a priest — met a worse sinner than myself: You are the worst sinner you know because you are the only sinner you know from the inside out.
Were you ever shocked by a penance a priest gave you personally?
At the time after college, in my heart I had been away from the Church and finally went to confession. It was a missionary priest. He gave me a penance of one Hail Mary. I said, “Isn’t there more than that?!”
He said to me, “There is, but I’m going to be fasting for you for the next month.” It was incredible to realize that’s what he did. It was a really powerful reality for me to know that. I didn’t realize that priests are required to do penance for the people who go to confession to them. It was striking.
How does pride hinder people?
As a young man, I didn’t understand the power of pride, the awfulness of pride, the power pride has to convince people they don’t need God. It has that power.
But among believers it has the incredible ability to get them to disqualify themselves. I mean things like, “I need God’s mercy so much, but I don’t deserve it, so I’m not going to claim it. If I was better, I would be more deserving of God’s mercy.” Pride tries to convince people they should be better and therefore are not worthy.
It’s a backwards thing. Some people have goals in their spiritual lives that they want to become so holy they no longer have to rely on God’s mercy so much.
But it should be: “I need you so much because I’m weak, because I sin.” This is a “good” because it’s making me humble, killing my pride. If I was humble, I would be there [in the confessional].
This is a great example of the kind of lie that Satan would tell us to get us to stay away from confession. Or someone asking, “Will people see me as a good person?” Or, so many say, “I’m so embarrassed to say this — so embarrassed by my anger, lust, gluttony.”
But we ought to be embarrassed by our pride more than anything else. If we show up, we’re in the process of killing that pride.
God gives us a gift and hope. Therefore, use it.
Even saints like John Paul II and Mother Teresa went to confession weekly.
People forget that confession doesn’t just forgive sin. Confession heals wounds, strengthens us and purifies us. What does grace do? It elevates and perfects. Confession is a sacrament, and the sacraments are signs to give grace. Even if you don’t have to go [due to mortal sin], you’ve got grace that’s elevating and protecting your nature. Say, “I want that grace and power to do good and follow God.”
What influenced your thoughts on confession?
A mix of reading about the saints on confession and the priests who have been in my life: that kind of ease they had, their willingness to hear confessions. God used these men to touch my heart in a way that changed my life because God works through the priesthood. God has the ability through him to change your life and bring you closer to Jesus in a way you don’t expect.
Why do you have confession on campus every day?
Because sin doesn’t wait till Friday night. It could be a Tuesday, and I need God’s grace … needing confession in the middle of the week. We have the antidote to what’s going in your life, here in the confessional.
So why not make confession a regular part of parish life? A hospital is not open only one day a week; it’s open every day.
Any final advice for people?
It sounds really simple, but find a good examination of conscience appropriate to your age. They have them for the elderly, for children, for single people and for married people. Then just go, walk in and say, “Father, I don’t know what I’m doing,” and let him guide you through.
Joseph Pronechen is the Register’s staff writer.