As a child I always disliked going to the dentist. As an adult, I can’t say I’m excited to go to the dentist, but I still make time to go. Even though it’s not our favorite, we still go.
Now contrast that with going to confession. If we don’t see the value in going to confession, or we don’t like it, then most adults just stop going. So what has to change? Perhaps we need to all grow in our understanding of the sacrament of reconciliation. Can going to the dentist can give us a clue?
One of the first questions people ask is, “Why do I have to go to a priest?” We are confessing our sins not so much to the priest, but rather to God. The priest acts in the person of Christ, and furthermore represents the church, so that the penitent may be reconciled to both God and the church.
If one has a toothache, one goes to the dentist, not a car salesmen. Why? Because the dentist is trained and prepared to cure you. God desires to heal you from your sins, and the priest has been entrusted by the church to carry out that ministry.
I’ve had a lot of dentists. Some I liked more than others. That’s natural, but regardless of whether I liked the dentist or not, when I needed their care, I went. One of the things that can hold us back from the sacrament of reconciliation is our relationship with the priest.
Sometimes, if we’ve had a bad experience with a priest, unlike the dentist, we just stop going. If there is more than one priest in your parish or area, it’s OK to prefer one over another, but it’s not OK to not go at all because you don’t like one. It’s not about you and the priest — it’s about you and your relationship with God.
When asked why people don’t go to confession anymore, I respond, “Because people don’t sin anymore.” One of the realities of a society that follows the dictatorship of relativism and denies both sin and its consequences, is that there is no longer the “need” to go to confession.
If you haven’t done anything wrong, then why do you need to go to confession? “You do you,” current slang for “just be yourself,” is seen as a sufficient moral criterion. Yet we cry out that something is wrong if it hurts or offends someone. If no one is hurt or offended, then it must be OK for me to do.
We forget that sin always offends God, and it damages the communion of the church. Denying the existence of sin, and the need for confession, is like saying we don’t need to go to the dentist because we don’t have teeth.
The connection with the dentist is nothing new. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, St. Jerome once quipped over 1,600 years ago, “if the sick person is too ashamed to show his wound to the doctor, the medicine cannot heal what it does not know” (No. 1456).
This is why when confessing our sins to the priest, we must tell him all of them. God wants to heal you from your sins, completely. It’s important to state the type of the sin, and how many times. Be specific, but not too detailed.
Don’t just say that you sinned by having “bad thoughts.” Those could be so varied, from someone struggling with depression, to lustful thoughts, to anger or something else. Mentioning the number not only keeps nothing hidden, but helps you to see the difference between a bad habit and a one-time mistake.
Dentists recommend a regular cleaning every six months. The church places the obligation of going to confession at least once a year, or before receiving Communion anytime we’ve committed a mortal sin. Even if you aren’t having any pain, you still go see the dentist every six months to clean away the gradual buildup of tartar and plaque. If you are having a toothache, you go right away.
The same is true with our sins; we go anytime we’ve committed a mortal sin, but we can also go to be cleansed of the slow accumulation of venial sins.
Dentists encourage daily brushing and flossing. To be better prepared to make a good confession, make an examination of conscience; do so daily, not just as you’re rushing from your car to the confessional. Additionally, go to confession not once a year, but once a month, to be cleansed of the sins that are building up and bearing you down.
The sacrament of reconciliation isn’t about God condemning us for our sins, nor is it about the priest. Rather, it’s an invitation to be healed by God’s mercy. When we hold nothing back and regularly seek out the love of God that is waiting for us, it will not seem so scary at all.
You might just walk out of the confessional happy, and dare I say, smiling. Just make sure you see your dentist too, so that smile is nice and bright.