It’s well over thirty years since I left the active ministry of the Catholic priesthood, and if someone asked me what if anything I missed the most from that ministry I would have no hesitation to say: hearing confessions. I don’t regard myself as having been a great priest but I do think I had a certain gift when it came to the Sacrament of Reconciliation as confession is properly called in the Catholic Church.
The normative form of the sacrament is individual ‘auricular’ confession whereby a single penitent and a single priest celebrate the sacrament together in privacy and with confidentiality assured. This sacrament was always for me what I would call ‘holy ground’. By that I mean it was a sacred and precious event where penitent and priest were joined by the presence of Christ the Redeemer who manifested His wonderful forgiveness for sins committed and healing grace to do better for the future.
In particular, I had a technique, a simple question, which gently, without any probing or pressure, encouraged the penitent to do more than just ream off a list of sins which sadly was all too common. This rote listing of sins was often an ingrained habit of the penitent and effectively meant little to them and had precious little effect in the way of personal transformation – which is the real core purpose of the sacrament – indeed of every sacrament. This ‘going through the motions’ of confessing a virtually meaningless list of sins was not really the penitent’s fault – rather it was so often due to the pathetic lack of any proper instruction and encouragement to use the sacrament as it should be celebrated. I think for many priests celebrating confession was a case of “quick in, quick out”. Unfortunately this lack lustre attitude tended to be the norm in so much of the Church practice of my youth, and certainly before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
My approach to the sacrament gently encouraged the penitent to – only if they wanted to – open up about what was really bothering them. This could actually be anything but their sin – often more a case of where other people had wounded or were wounding them. As such it may have veered somewhat away from the central purpose but became for them and me a very special and intimate counselling session, often producing a healing moment. That encounter had tremendous value in itself.
But even when it was entirely to do with their sin – but again I would have to qualify that as saying ‘what they thought of as their sin’ – it was wonderfully special. I don’t mean that in any voyeuristic sense: most folks’ sins are fairly banal when all is said and done. Why do I say wonderful – after all, we’re talking about sin: doing bad things and failing to do good things?
The simple truth is that the very act of coming to confession implied that the individual was sincere in wanting forgiveness. At the very least they were well intentioned, and that is most acceptable to God. They may well have had a poor notion of what exactly was sin in their life: sometimes exaggerating and sometimes minimising, and often missing the real fault, but their desire for forgiveness was almost always sincere. Otherwise why were they doing something that was accepted as difficult: shedding light on their ‘soggy mess’ and the humiliation that came with it?
The incredible thing was – and this may be hard to properly explain if you haven’t experienced it – in opening their hearts and trying their best to articulate their failings, they were most lovable in their honesty and vulnerability. This honesty and vulnerability entailed a real humility on their part – again, so acceptable to God. And a vulnerability that also placed a very sacred trust on me, which I hope I never abused.
The sacrament of confession, meaningfully celebrated, is a wonderful thing, and I know that many people left my confessional with lighter hearts and that in itself was a moment of grace. I know that God may well hate the sin but without doubt He truly loves the sinner.
The sacrament was therefore often for me a graced moment and I’m not exaggerating when I call it holy ground: a precious and intimate meeting of two souls, both sinners, and a profound encounter with our merciful God. I pray that all priests realise the great duty and the great privilege they have in being able to offer people such a wonderful encounter.
Please pray for priests!