[Fr. Garry Cappleman, O.P. entered the Dominican Order in the Western Dominican Province in 1995. He was ordained a priest in 2003. He is currently chaplain and campus minister at the University of Oregon, and serves as parochial vicar at St. Thomas More University Parish, Eugene, Oregon.]
One of the great blessings for me as a priest is hearing the confessions of the people of God. I have found that experience so deeply humbling, challenging, and spiritually enriching. Besides hearing “first time” confessions of many children and RCIA adults entering the Church, and the confessions of estranged Catholics whose last confession was over 50–70 years ago, I have also heard the confessions of those who have suffered abuse, abortion, and abandonment. As you might expect, these confessions can be very painful and traumatic.
As I encountered them over a period of time in the confessional, and when they are open to it in later spiritual direction, they gradually begin to acknowledge how much they presently suffer from toxic messages playing in their heads. Often with great difficulty, they begin to acknowledge the shaming messages they automatically repeat to themselves in their personal encounters, in their relationships with others, especially in their intimate relationships, but also in their interactions with peers in the work settings. These tapes “play” when they experience great anxiety over worrying about “what” they did “wrong” to cause adverse reactions from peers, just like they did perhaps as children when their abusive parents blamed and shamed them for real and imaginary mistakes.
As a confessor and spiritual director, it takes time, lots of patience and kindness for the penitents to begin to acknowledge these hidden messages. The messages become a deep shameful secret; a secret that they have kept even from themselves —a secret that though it feels unbearable—is even worse to possibly acknowledge to themselves much less to another adult. Like they did as
children, they fear an angry rebuke from a priest, or another person.
Speaking personally, growing up I heard my parents give me this piece of advice: “Garry, remember, if you can’t love yourself—you will never be able to love anyone else.” Those words felt like a sword piercing my heart. I knew I did not love myself; in fact, I was so used to being abused by my parents, I hated myself. I loathed myself. I had nothing but contempt for myself. How was I ever going to be able to love myself? I felt doomed. I made no connection with my self-hate and the toxic messages I received. I thought I was a bad child.
Adult children from toxic families feel like this. Confession can become a place where they can experience a momentary cathartic relief from the guilt and shame they carry —the effect of the sacrament is healing— but unless the underlying toxic message they have internalized is identified and addressed, the relief is temporary.
In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I remind all penitents that they are unconditionally and unreservedly loved by Christ. I show them that Jesus delights in them, cherishes them, and that their present struggles with sin and self-esteem are not in the least off-putting to God. And, most importantly, that they do not have to ever earn God’s love or forgiveness.
These vital messages about the unconditional love of God, that God cherishes them and delights in them have to be mirrored by the priest confessor. This requires a lot of prayer as well as consistent healthy personal boundaries. At first, these individuals may not believe that I am real, and if I am real, that I am some kind of amazing exception that unfortunately does not see them as they see themselves. But, as I continue to see them with the eyes of Christ and share this unconditional love of God, they begin to take in that “maybe” it is possible!
Slowly, with support they begin to share the ugly and shameful messages that have haunted them and then finally begin to feel their grief and pain as they finally see that these messages were truly toxic and false. This is a huge step. It takes time. The next big step is to ask God to help them forgive themselves for believing those toxic messages. This is a necessary step because they have ruthlessly judged and condemned themselves based on these internalized messages. This is where the very deepest healing begins.
Finally, when they are ready, they begin to pray for forgiveness of the individuals who abused them. This is itself a healing process. It takes time and it requires the grace of the sacrament. It takes a long time for the grace of these prayers to sink in; the individuals begin to grow in their ability to see themselves as lovable, as deserving of being treated with dignity and respect. The full process of this healing often takes several years of graced-filled healing.
That is the power of confession and our Lord’s healing presence.
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Fr. Peter Do, O.P.