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Spiritual Direction and Confession

September 19, 2016 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Penance/Confession, Spiritual Direction

Spiritual Direction and Confession


Dear Father John, While I agree in consistency in spiritual direction, I would like to hear your “take” on spiritual direction and its connections to Confession. I do have a spiritual director I see once a month, but a confessor I see weekly. There are aspects of reconciliation that are spiritual direction, and I've shared some of those with my SD, who is also a priest, but since I strongly desire Reconciliation weekly and my confessor is diocesan, local, and extremely busy, I do not feel comfortable asking for more than 10 min. of his time per week, while my SD can usually give me an hour, but is too far away to meet weekly. Your thoughts?


What you describe sounds like an excellent combination: A short confession weekly, and a long spiritual direction monthly. As you mention, the exchange between priest and penitent that happens during lourdessignforconfessionconfession can sometimes overlap, as regards specific spiritual issues/questions, with the content of the conversation that occurs in spiritual direction. This depends on the confessor, and how much spiritual advice he feels comfortable giving during confession. In fact, in past centuries it was common practice, especially for members of religious congregations, to have one priest to go to for confession on a regular basis. This person was your “confessor.” And this relationship, though it unfolded within the sacrament, took on many characteristics of what we now describe as spiritual direction. In some places and contexts, I am sure this is still the case.

On the other hand, the nature of the exchange that happens in confession is not intrinsically the same as what happens in spiritual direction. Confession is primarily about our sins, faults, and imperfections. confession2bernardinecathedralinlvivchurchofsaintandrewartistvodnik for post on spiritual direction and confessionWe bring those to the Lord in a spirit of contrition and repentance, in order to receive his forgiveness and renewed spiritual strength to continue our journey of faith. Confession has a sacramental grace (the forgiveness and the strength) that spiritual direction doesn’t have. Spiritual direction, in contrast, is primarily a conversation about what God is doing in my life – what he is asking of me, what he is giving me – and how I am responding. Much of the conversation that occurs in spiritual direction is focused around discerning God’s will, as well as discerning what factors are affecting my response to God’s will. A wise confessor can often detect and comment on those types of issues in the context of a confession. And when that happens, it can be very useful to do what you describe: mention in your next spiritual direction the advice or comments from confession that really resonated with you.

So, to sum up, the nature of confession differs from the nature of spiritual direction in their essential characteristics, but they can and often do overlap. In fact, sometimes finding a good confessor can be a way to identify a good spiritual director. I hope this helps.

God bless you! Fr. John


Art for this post on Spiritual Direction and Confession: Signaletics for Confession [Lourdes Sign for Confession], photographer Jean-noël Lafargue, August 9th, 2005, Free Art License; Confession of Bern Cathedral, Bernardine Cathedral In Lviv Church Of Saint Andrew, Vodnik, January 2007, CCA-SA 3.0 Unported; both Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at

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  • Karen Howard

    I did not want to post this with my real name . . see user name, please.

    Thank you, Father John. I do agree that Confession and Spiritual Direction are similar, but intrinsically different, and that tremendous amounts of sacramental grace are there just for the asking. The most beautiful words of the sacrament for me are often simply the words: “Your sins are forgiven.” There is so much deep JOY afterwards, I am surprised people are not flocking to this sacrament.

    • LizEst

      We didn’t see another name but this one published … so we hope this is not your real name! If it is, you need to change your name in DISQUS or start a new DISQUS account and then use that.

  • LizEst

    Well, Clare, he does have a point…but he could have phrased it a little differently…and maybe he did (I just can’t tell by your words).

    Yes, everyone is different. But, if a person goes to confession at the regularly scheduled confession time, at most parishes, this regularly scheduled confession time is usually about an hour or so. If everyone were to take 15 minutes to confess, only four people in the whole parish would be able to avail themselves of the sacrament. And, that would tend to drive away people who may be in mortal sin, or committing habitual sin, and others who need the grace of the sacrament to help overcome addictions, etc.

    Ideally, in confession, one need only state how long it has been since the last confession, one’s sins in kind and number, listen to the priest’s words, his penance prescribed, say an act of contrition expressing sorrow for one’s sins and resolve not to sin again, receive absolution, thank Father, and then, get out of the confessional so the next person can confess, and, oh yes, complete the penance that Father gave. And then, one is done! We are not there to confess someone else’s sins or to excuse ourselves for what we have done, though providing a little background can help the priest who is hearing the confession because the confession of a parent is necessarily different from the confession of a child, the confession of a religious is different from the lay person’s, etc.

    If one’s confession is going to take longer than about five to ten minutes, one should, ideally, make an appointment with the priest for a longer confession. If one is coming back to the Church after an absence, it would be good to make an appointment with the priest because one will probably have much to talk about and confess.

    I’ve had the experience of waiting to confess for about 45 minutes or more, because one single person before me has used it for 45 minutes or more as a vehicle for spiritual direction and/or psychological counseling. I’ve had the experience of waiting a long time to confess while hearing much mirth and great laughter (not words) coming from the confessional. I’ve had the experience of having to add impatience to my list of sins because of this same person’s lack of consideration for those who were waiting. And, I’ve experienced the confessional time being cut short because Mass needed to start, with lots of folks not being able to celebrate the sacrament because someone took too long to confess.

    Since your priest made the announcement, be assured it was definitely called for because it is not just one person that has been using the sacrament for spiritual direction and/or psychological counseling, and not just confession.

    One other thing, if one is receiving spiritual direction from a priest, a person could ask the priest to celebrate the sacrament during the time of the scheduled spiritual direction. It can be an ideal situation.

    Anyway, I hope this helps get more perspective on it. God bless you, Clare.

    • marybernadette

      Thank you Liz for this, as it is helpful to me. I would just like to ask one thing. I believed it was only necessary to confess ‘mortal sins’ by number and tell ‘venial sins’ in a ‘general’ way e.g. I did ‘something’ on several occasions or ‘at times?’

      • LizEst

        marybernadette – It’s always best to confess by kind and number no matter what type of sin. In the case of venial sins, if you can’t remember the number, then it’s OK to confess in the manner you say. Getting an accounting on the number of times venial sins are committed can help a person get a grasp of the seriousness of their venial sins because human nature has a tendency to be easy on oneself and tougher on others (though it should be just the opposite). Venial sins that are committed once in a while are not as serious as venial sins committed every day or several times a day, or many times during the period between one confession and the next. The latter would indicate a problem that could lead to more serious sin, or could expose an issue preventing a person’s growth in holiness. Daily examination of conscience is helpful in keeping track of venial sins. When a confessor hears a number, he gets a better idea of what is going on because “on several occasions” or “at times” can mean different things to different people.

        • marybernadette

          ‘Thank you, Liz, this is definitely helpful.’

          • LizEst

            Glad it helps. God bless you!

  • marybernadette

    Thank you Father John for this much needed teaching on Spiritual direction and Confession. I have been pondering this for awhile, myself. By the way, my last Confession was at a Retreat House (Canada ) that was appointed as one of the ‘Holy Doors’ for the ‘Year of Mercy.’ I went to Confession and although the Priest was very nice, it was a little strange because I had prepared beforehand but only got to confess ‘three of my sins.’ I was looking for help so that I could overcome the tendency to these rather ‘habitual’ sins. The Priest started to talk about situations in his own life, which didn’t exactly relate to my situation and gave me Absolution before I could tell the other sins. Also, the ‘retreatants’ were scheduled to go through the ‘Holy Door’ and I said some of the ‘penance’ in the Church and the rest on the way to the ‘Holy Door.’ I hope this was okay.

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