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The love of a big hug

Pope Francis explained last January that “going to confession is not like going to the dry cleaners to get a stain removed. No! It’s about going to meet with our Father who pardons us, who forgives us and who rejoices”. He even linked this encounter to being like a hug from God!

As a catholic, I have sought out the sacrament of confession for a number of years. As a child, I remember confessing to sins which hurt my family. On one occasion, I was verbally scolded by a priest who didn’t think my efforts were good enough. Probably as a result of this negative experience, I avoided confession for most of my teenage and college years. Through my friendship with a Jesuit, I realised that perhaps my sinfulness continued but that I found it tough to admit. I stirred away from the church but eventually returned and encountered the sacrament again.

I felt guilt, shame and remorse for my sins as well as the consequence of being a prison within myself. I was as honest as I could be with another Jesuit priest but truth be told, I did not confess to everything. I was afraid of being judged harshly and I felt a certain pride in being a good enough person. I didn’t really want to admit to my human weakness so I rationalised my behaviour according to my psychological knowledge.

Later on, I turned to God with greater commitment by joining the Jesuit novitiate, an initial two year testing process for the Jesuit priesthood. This training required me to consult with a spiritual director (novice master) and a confessor at the same time. I opened up to this person in many ways regarding my spiritual growth but I was distrustful of the confession process. I didn’t want to be forced to do so and there was some expectation. In the end, I broke down in a state of weakness and made a confession of my general sins.

I decided to leave the novitiate after 18 months and I came to live in Ireland again. My sinful pattern continued despite my best efforts to turn to God. I fought mental illness and terrible temptations. I showed up to the confessional of a capuchin friary nearby – I was more honest with the priest and he advised me in the best way he could. Eventually, I found help in practical ways and connected with my world in greater, more ordinary ways. I made efforts to work on my friendships, developed a healthy lifestyle and I started to write.

I saw a Jesuit priest for spiritual direction once a month and this helped turn my heart towards beauty and light. I prayed with scripture and developed an interior life, increasingly filled with depth. I also did weekly therapy which tackled my sinfulness and empowered me to stand on my own two feet. It dawned on me that I was experiencing unhealthy levels of guilt – even though my life was filled with 95% of goodness, I was allowing the sinful 5% to take over. I slowly shifted to a more realistic, greater perspective.

I am a sinner and I still fail but I am turning to God more and more. I went to confession recently and I felt renewed strength again. I am still accountable to my actions. The priests are loving and challenging at the same time. Ordinary love is tough in itself and I strive to be the best version of myself in this world. I rejoice with God in this holy encounter and I certainly feel the love of his big hug!