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Jul 16, 2019

Scrupulosity, Bad Confession Experiences, and Young People Leaving the Church

Fr. Josh Johnson

Fr. Josh answers questions about whether bad confession experiences are valid, how to avoid scrupulosity (obsession with avoiding sin), and how to invite people back to the Church.

Click on the player above to listen or scroll down for the shownotes!

If you have a question, comment, or response for Fr. Josh, email us at askfrjosh@ascensionpress.com. You may hear your question or comment in an upcoming podcast episode!

Snippet from the Show

“The second Peter took his eyes off of God, and fixed his eyes on the storm, he began to sink. The same thing happens to us.”


SHOWNOTES

Glory Story (1:11)

Fr. Josh shares a story about the lay vocation to become a saint!

Listener Feedback (6:15)

Bad Confession Experiences (7:47) 

Dear Father Josh, Thank you so much for your ministry. I have enjoyed listening to your podcast and I can tell that you truly take all of our listeners’ questions to prayer seriously and answer them thoughtfully and prayerfully. My question is about what to do when you have a bad confession experience. I’m a lifelong Catholic and I truly believe that the sacrament of reconciliation is a sacrament of healing. I have experienced this love and healing many times over the years, so I believe in its power. I try to attend regularly. My younger brother has autism and had a very negative confession experience many years ago when he was in high school. My dad took him to confession and suggested to my brother that he let the priest know in advance about his autism to help give the priest context. When my brother entered the confessional and started off his confession by saying, “I have autism,” the priest told him that autism is a sin. He didn’t tell our family this happened until much later and he hasn’t been to confession since. This truly hurt my brother’s faith, understandably.

I myself had a negative confession experience when I was in college. I was really struggling and hurting and was truly sorry for the sins I confessed and the priest told me, “I am absolutely appalled by what you have told me.” This had never ever happened to me and I was confused. When I asked for absolution, he scoffed and said, “I suppose!” I was worried that my confession wasn’t actually absolved, so I re-confessed everything to my regular priest and told him what happened. The difference between the two priests was like night and day even though the sins were the same. My regular priest told me that if I ever was made to feel uncomfortable like that again, I had permission to stand up and leave.

I’m sure that everyone has bad experiences like these… I know sometimes people won’t visit certain priests for confession. I understand that a priest during confession is in persona Christi, but how am I supposed to feel when my brother, or a friend, or myself, have a negative experience with a priest who truly isn’t acting as Christ during confession? I have had nothing but positive experiences with the sacrament since that one bad time during college, but it’s always in the back of my mind. All it takes for some people is one negative experience to make them doubt the Church and the healing power of reconciliation. How can a priest truly be in persona Christi if they’re saying hurtful things? Is it ever okay to leave a confessional in an instance like this and can a negative confession experience be invalid? 

-Amy

Scrupulosity (17:19)

Hello Father Josh, I would like to start this email by thanking you for your podcast. It has been extremely helpful to me in understanding the teachings of the Church and applying them to real situations that I face. Your friendly attitude and ability to explain doctrine in an accessible way is refreshing, and I thank God for the gift he has given the Church in you.

I am 25 years old and a cradle Catholic. I attended Catholic school up to 9th grade, although I fell away from practicing the faith in college. One of the main reasons for this was I didn’t understand the Church’s teachings on subjects like same-sex relationships and contraception, and saw them as out-of-touch and prejudiced. About two months ago I had an experience that brought me back to the Church, and I decided to start intentionally living my faith. This lead me to do research on the Church and its teachings, and I realized I was ignorant of many things, such as the precept of fasting from meat on all Fridays (I have never heard the precepts mentioned in school or church).

What I realized through my research is that my conception of the Church was very different from the reality of it, and the reality is scary. I used to think that Hell was reserved for the worst of humanity, but Jesus himself says in the Gospel of Matthew that “broad” is the road to destruction and “only a few” find the gate of life. This passage in particular absolutely destroyed me. It seems that most of the world is destined for Hell instead of Heaven. Most of this Gospel is Jesus talking about Hell and the many things you can do that will send you there. After finishing the Gospel of Matthew I have been too scared to read the rest of the New Testament.

I follow the Ten Commandments as best I can, and go to Confession regularly. I attend Mass on Sundays and try to go at least one other day a week. I cracked down on things in my life that were near occasions of sin. I pray daily, including a daily Rosary (praise the Lord for that prayer, and for the wonderful gift of our mother Mary). I fast once a week. I give money during the collection at Mass and donate to charitable organizations, and try to give money or buy food for the homeless when I encounter them.

Despite doing these things I am still scared of God’s wrath and going to Hell. I feel like almost everything I do is a sin, even down to buying non-essential items like a roll of film for my camera. This fear is affecting my ability to get through the day and enjoy life, even good things like spending time with my friends. I also work in an industry that is very anti-Christian, and my coworkers are all pro-abortion, pro gay-marriage, etc. I have one friend that is a practicing Catholic, but he lives far away and I only see him in person every couple months.

Returning to my faith helped me with some of the struggles I was facing, but it has also brought a host of new struggles I was not ready for. I desperately want to live a good Catholic life and be with our Lord in heaven, but I feel lost and am scared of ending up in Hell. I have been stuck in this mindset for weeks and don’t know how to get out of it. Any advice or words of encouragement you can give would be greatly appreciated. 

-Steven

Young People Leaving the Church (27:09) 

Hello Father! My name is Liam and I have been listening to your podcasts for a while now and they are GREAT! I wanted to start off with a thank you because you have truly changed my life and, from what I can tell, you’ve done the same from many others. My question is about the future of Catholicism. Catholics I know, my friends, even my brothers seem to be slowly departing from the church. I understand that not everyone stays Catholic when they’re older because they somehow don’t believe in God or don’t care enough to go to Mass, pray, or even acknowledge God. But, my generation seems to have fully departed from the faith for some reason. I don’t know if it’s just me that’s seeing this issue but only very few people I know plan on staying members of the church after we graduate high school. This worries me for the future. What will the Church look like if this continues and how can I help bring these people back into the church without pushing them even farther away?  

-Liam

Resources

Want to browse the previous resources Fr. Josh has recommended? Click here to select an episode and view the shownotes.


Meet Your Host

While Fr. Josh was raised Catholic, he didn’t like the Church growing up. Then, one day in adoration, he fell in love with Jesus and received the call to become a priest.

Now, Fr. Josh is the pastor for Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Louisiana, and he is a presenter in three of Ascension’s programs: Altaration, YOU: Life, Love, and the Theology of the Body, and The 99 as well as the author of Broken and Blessed: An Invitation to My Generation.

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  • To Steven, a great book for you might be The Way of Trust and Love by Jacque Philippe. 🙏
    Father Josh, I love your kind heart and words. Thank God for technology that can reach out and bless us all.

  • Fr. Josh, I thank you for your commitment to help us live our Catholic Faith better. That said, I was hoping for more in depth presentation on how to deal with scrupulosity—true scrupulosity, not the temporary scrupulosity that sometimes accompanies growing in our faith. Any presentations that I have heard from religious speakers on scrupulosity have always addressed this temporary type.
    I have been plagued with scrupulosity since second grade when I was being formed for my First Confession–pre Vatican II in about 1958 when the Church was teaching mortal sin too diligently, especially for 8 year old kids. My scrupulosity is a type of OCD apparently. This is true lifetime scrupulosity, not that experienced for a short time by some of the saints who were traveling the path toward sainthood. Very personal info, but I had been confessing sins that my conscience told me were mortal sins that were no sins at all. I could not gain peace unless I confessed it. But I was not counseled by any priest to help me. This was a major spiritual problem from second grade to my late twenties when I spent four years in counseling for it. I am still occasionally troubled by it and have to turn off any homilies that focus on mortal sin. Yet I know that this needs to be addressed for the general laity.
    This all said, what advice do you have for someone with authentic, lifetime scrupulosity like I have so that we can truly grow in our spirituality toward sainthood–as is my goal. Not sure I will achieve it. Scrupulosity is a hindrance toward true growth and true love for God, our infinitely merciful Father.
    One final bit of information. Due to the shortage of priests and the tremendous load that you and your fellow priests shoulder, it is hard to find a priest who can be my regular confessor or spiritual director.
    Thank you again.
    God bless and stay healthy

  • To Steven,
    I much like yourself, went to Catholic school, was an alter boy, and was very committed in my heart to the church, in fact, more than anyone really knew. I used to go to church when no one was there, to pray the stations of the cross, or ask for special favors for other people, like I did before my younger brother was born. God was my confidant, and I felt totally at peace when I visited him alone in the church.. I had thought about becoming a priest, but my life was interrupted when I was 12 years old, moving away from my Parish.

    The times were free flowing.. the structure of family life soon evaporated into everyone getting familiar with new surroundings, and making new friends. I will never forget the guilt I felt when my brother, who I really looked up to, convinced me to cut mass with him one Sunday. We simply took the bulletins home to appease my Mom. It was my very first mortal sin. That became a habit every Sunday, till one Sunday, my Mom placed me on the spot asking me about going to church, and I told her the truth. I will never forget how my Mom cried that day when she found out, it still hurts me to this very day.

    In my late teens, I tried returning to the church, but finding a traditional Mass was not easy at the time, as what I saw as pagan ritual and showmanship overrode my traditional beliefs of the sanctity of Mass as I had always known it.. it didnt help that the two different times I went to church at two different churches the sermon mostly centered around giving money to the church. So, I went inward with my spirituality, keeping my love of God alive in my occasional prayers, and privatizing it in my own little world of what I considered to be right from wrong. Little did I realize that what I considered to be ok, is in reality, not ok with the church.. fornication, living in sin outside of marriage (commonplace today), casually swearing using the Lord’s name, not going to church, not fasting… etc etc, I could go on and on.. In fact, my list of sins, both mortal and venial number over 40 in different categories.. and have for many years.. So, like you, my fear of absolution became a reality, for I had a dream not so long ago, that hell is not necessarily fire, but rather isolation, which can be even worse. It was the most revealing and scariest dream I ever had in my life.

    That all said.. years and years of sinning… and now I have to tell you a story..

    I was invited to a party at a large apartment complex… The apartment was way in the back.. I had brought my acoustic guitar with me.. I was the first to arrive as I was beginning to date the person who was having the party. Being liberal, she handed me a pipe to smoke which I thought to be pot, but she called pot substitute, which in essence turn out to be spice. I had taken two puffs off the pipes, and only a few minutes elapsed when I began to sweat, and feel stranger than I ever was in my life. Right away, I knew I was in trouble, and without saying a word, grabbed my guitar and bolted out the door.. I wasnt able to drive… fear and paranoia swept over me.. I felt like I was loosing my mind, and quite honestly like I was going to die as my heart was pounding through my chest. I had a thirst that was unquenchable, and i stopped to drink from sprinklers from the ground, thinking I should knock on someones door for help.. but I was too messed up to even speak.. My thoughts turned to all the people in my life that I would never see again, and I lamented that loss as I struggled with the possibility of dying. Finally after some time, I managed to find the front office which had a pond and fountain in front of it.. I bent over and drank from the waters of the pond, filled with chlorine, and begged God to let me live. I said an Our Father… Then, still reeling from the affects of the drug, I walked a mile to a convenience store, where, so happy that i was able to get a bottle of water, I proceeded to place the last $20 i had to my name into the childrens relief fund by the register… Outside, next to the store, were 3 olive trees, and I proceeded to sit under the trees my back against a short masonry wall. I could recover here, and go back and get my vehicle after the affects wore off (which would take hours).

    While sitting next to the wall, I thanked God silently, and prayed, when suddenly a man approached me, completely dressed in white. He sat down and talked with me, picked up my guitar, and began playing songs that I played with my band.. Being so many years ago I, dont remember exactly what we talked about, I did however feel very at ease with him there. After some time, he mentioned that he needed a ride, to which, I asked him where… He mentioned he needed a ride to almost the exact place where I lived, and it was at least 8 miles away. I exclaimed my amazement to the fact that that is where I would be going after I reclaimed my vehicle. I told him I would pick him up at this spot. It wasnt but a few minutes that i was alright to walk back to the apartment complex and claim my vehicle. It was almost dawn by then, and as promised, I went back to pick up the gentleman in white, but he was nowhere to be found. The whole incident left me wondering.

    Now you could say that there is nothing to this story.. because nothing really profound actually occured, except that a strange man completely dressed in white showed up and tendered to me in my time of need, this after baring my complete soul to God in outright repentance, thinking I was going to die… Coincidence? maybe… but I dont think so.. God loves us more than you know, and has empathy for the human condition.. Have faith, and stay calm.. you are good man… God will not abandon you.. He didn’t me, because of my Faith in Him, even with all my sins.. He doesn’t expect perfection, but He does expect a true and loving heart… so spread the word to have Faith, devotion, and a true repenting heart, then let Him do the rest.

    I hope this eases your conscience.. as it did mine.

    Michael

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