Pastoral care (11): Confession and the quest for relief from guilt

Confession is a touchy subject. It is a highly sensitive and personal matter and often involves unresolved guilt. It is a difficult subject for all concerned.

ego te absolve: I absolve you! Ah, if only things were that simple. Let there be no mistake: confession belongs in the world of church and faith. The believers turn to a merciful and gracious God, tell Him about their sins and the guilt they feel and petition Him for mercy. A confession therefore relieves a person of the mental pressure, but it does not automatically absolve one from the sin. After all, it is not man who does the absolving but God, in whose name man acts. This is an important difference.

Tips for the well-being of the soul

Imagine the following scenario: an unresolved feeling of guilt has been lingering on, maybe even for a long time. It may not have an impact on those around us but it does cause us considerable emotional distress. All well-meaning conversations, all pastoral counselling and even prayers do not bring the desired relief: the soul feels burdened and is deeply saddened. Maybe someone else is also affected. This makes the search for a solution even more difficult. What can be done at such times?

Confession could be one way out. This does not only mean turning to the merciful God liturgically, from whom the believing Christian can assume to receive grace, for God will grant grace to whomever He wills. This is only part of the miracle of confession, and not a small one either. In the New Apostolic liturgy, this sacred act of pardon takes place at the moment of repentance with the absolution that follows: “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, your sins are forgiven.” These glad tidings, pronounced by the authorised servant of God, are quickly said, but it is clearly more than a mere automatism. It is a truth of faith in the gospel.

In order to allow the gospel to have the proper effect, an important pastoral care tip must be: take time for repentance.

Repentance needs time

It is very beneficial to occupy oneself intensively with oneself, one’s thoughts, one’s past, one’s momentary feelings during the penitential part of the service. This is also the reason for the existence of this liturgical part and its position before the celebration of Holy Communion. In order to come to an attitude of repentance, a person needs sufficient time. This is not something that happens by itself and it must be well prepared.

Maybe we do not even want to examine ourselves more closely, that is possible. On the other hand, appropriate self-reflection leads to spiritual answers: these are called repentance and remorse and lead us back to the path of God. The Catechism says that repentance “results from recognition of one’s own shortcomings or misconduct. It incorporates remorse–the feeling of suffering caused by wrongs committed in deed or omission–and the earnest endeavour to change one’s attitude and improve”. And to avoid the impression that repentance might be insufficient, it goes on to say: “Just how concrete one’s repentance must be as a prerequisite for forgiveness may depend on the awareness that one is a sinner and on remorse for sins committed. In addition, there is a significant difference between conscious and unconscious sin” ( It is not man who determines the degree of repentance, but God alone: “If remorse is genuine and deeply felt, and if the willingness to repent expresses itself in the willingness to change one’s attitude and conduct, the believer may genuinely hope in God’s grace.” This is an important statement because it makes clear: the assumption that there is a way out, a solution, is justified.

Confession is possible

If there are still uncertainties or if previous actions continue to weigh heavily on the person and one is unable to find peace, there is the possibility of confession, the Catechism says in chapter 12.4.4. Here too one must acknowledge one’s sin(s) and recognise that the Apostle to whom one turns to confess is Christ’s messenger. He proclaims forgiveness of sins in the name of the Lord.

In Questions and Answers, No. 691, the question: “Do we have confession in pastoral care?” is answered as follows: “Yes, we have confession. By this we mean a person’s admission of sins and acknowledgement of guilt before a church minister. Although no confession is needed for the forgiveness of sins, there is still an opportunity for confession in the event a person still feels burdened by guilt and is unable to come to peace despite the forgiveness of sins. Confession can be made before an Apostle. In urgent cases, when no Apostle can be reached, any priestly minister can, as an exception, take confession and proclaim absolution in the commission of the Apostle and in the name of Jesus Christ.”

Don’t forget to make reparation

Sin does not remain without consequences. Wrongs should be set right. Not only does the law require this, but also our conscience. Even if repentance and remorse can take the pressure off the soul, and even if faith in the justification before God is in accordance with the gospel, humans must pay for the wrongs they commit. Although confession allows us to be reconciled with God, with the Church, and with our fellow human beings, we must take responsibility for the wrongs committed. “The material, moral, and legal consequences and responsibilities arising from sinful conduct remain unaffected by the forgiveness of sins” (CNAC

Thus, in the cascade of repentance and forgiveness, the final step is reparation. How beneficial and precious it is when old wrongs can be repaired!

The right to confidentiality of confession

And last but not least, one last point for the ministers: they act by mission of their sender and in the name of the Lord. Only through this are they legitimate servants of God in their congregation. From this follows the members’ justified claim that the minister does not disclose anything he learns during a confession. The penitent must be able to rely on this! The seal of confession is a fundamental right of all pastoral activity.

Photo: Katja Xenikis -

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Peter Johanning
Congregational life