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How to be a great confessor

Extending God’s mercy in the confessional is one of the priest’s greatest responsibilities. Here’s how to do it better.

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I remember the first time I walked into a confessional. I was scared. I wasn’t sure that I would know the right words to say. I wasn’t sure if I would remember the prayers. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to answer questions if I got asked.

And this wasn’t when I was in second grade. I was 26 — the first year that I was ordained!

I was terrified to walk into the confessional and to hear confessions. Thirty-six years later, I would say there is less terror, but there always is a bit of anxiety entering the confessional. It’s not because I’m afraid I’ll forget the prayers anymore, but I worry if I will respond as best as possible to the penitent who enters. That anxiety, I think, can be healthy in a good confessor. How might we improve our ministry as confessors even if we cannot or should not rid ourselves of that healthy anxiety?

Offering tips to other confessors runs the risk of stating the obvious or missing the obvious. But I’ll plow ahead, trusting that something might ring true and either confirm or challenge practices already employed.

I will organize my thoughts and advice around three moments: before entering the confessional; in the confessional; after celebrating the sacrament.

The privilege of presiding at the Sacrament of Reconciliation is matched by the responsibility that accompanies it. Our exercise of this ministry is a moral act for which we are responsible. We have the awesome and humbling honor of standing in for God and the Church in some of the most personal, painful, yet liberating moments of people’s lives. Perhaps attending to these words of advice before, during, and after the celebration of the sacrament may equip us to be better ministers of the mercy of God through this life-saving Sacrament of Reconciliation.
 

BEFORE ENTERING THE CONFESSIONAL

It is easy to run from one commitment to another and have the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance become one more thing among many. If at all possible, we might take time before confession to raise our awareness of what we are about to do in this wonderful ministry.
 

Attend to the Grace of God

Father Anthony Ligato of
the Diocese of Albany, New York, prays at Immaculate Conception Seminary in
Huntington, N.Y. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

The Sacrament of Penance/Reconciliation can appear exclusively to be about what we do as confessor and/or penitent. Penitents have to examine their consciences, get into the confessional, confess their sins, express repentance, receive and do a penance, and resolve to do better. Confessors must listen to the penitent, offer brief words of counsel, catechesis and/or spiritual direction, give an effective penance and say the words of absolution.

Before any of this takes place, however, the grace of God already is at work in the life of the confessor through our own experiences of the mercy of God. It is also at work in the lives of the penitents who approach us in the sacrament. How often have we heard, “I’m not really sure why I’m here”? Yet, here they are, literally by the grace of God.

Ritually, the 1973 revised Rite of Penance draws attention to the grace of God at work by using sacred Scripture, which speaks to us first of what God has done. Also, the formula for absolution begins with what God, the Father of mercies, has done for us.

The sacrament particularly is about how we live our moral lives. Here, too, we are reminded that God’s grace is at work first. Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor: “Love and life according to the Gospel … are possible only as the result of a gift of God who heals, restores and transforms the human heart by his grace” (No. 23).
Attending to the grace of God may ease some anxiety as we realize that God’s grace is at work before, during and after our celebration of the sacrament.
 

Remember Who We Are

We are stewards, not masters, of the mercy of God, and nowhere more intentionally and deliberately than in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I remember a friend telling me that he was in a rectory when a priest came back from hearing confessions almost boasting that he had withheld absolution from four people that day. The first biographer of St. Alphonsus Liguori, patron saint of moral theologians and of confessors, said that, to his knowledge, Alphonsus never refused absolution in his nearly 61 years of priesthood. No matter what kind of day we are having and what is going on in our lives, we enter the confessional first and foremost as ministers of mercy. Should such an extreme case ever arise where we feel compelled to withhold absolution, follow the advice of Pope Francis: “Even in the extreme case in which I cannot give absolution, let him or her feel the warmth of a father! Let them be blessed and be called back. And also may you pray a little for him or for her. This is always the point: there’s a father there” (address to participants in the 27th Course on the Internal Forum, March 4, 2016).

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St. Alphonsus Liguori, Patron of Confessors

A statue adorns the exterior of the Church of St. Alphonsus Liguori in Rome.
Aleksandr Stepanov / Shutterstock

Born in 1696 near Naples, Italy, Alphonsus Liguori received his doctorate at the University of Naples at the age of 16, and by 19 was practicing law. After leaving the practice, he had a vision in 1723 and was told to consecrate his life to God. He was ordained in 1726 and founded the Redemptorist order in 1749. In 1763 he was named bishop of a territory near Naples. He suffered a debilitating form of rheumatism that caused him to drink out of tubes because his head was so bent forward. An attack of rheumatic fever left him paralyzed. He died in 1787, was canonized in 1839 and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1871.

In his “Dignity and Duties of the Priest,” St. Alphonsus, patron of confessors, offered the following advice to priests in their participation of the Sacrament of Penance:

• “He who wishes to be a good confessor must … consider that the office of confessor is very difficult and dangerous. … It is certain that if a soul be lost through the fault of her confessor, God will demand of him an account of that soul.”

• “We must … be persuaded that to hear confessions great science and also great prudence are required; for with knowledge without prudence a confessor shall do but little good, and to some his ministry will be more injurious than beneficial.”

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Pray

Pray — for ourselves and for our penitents — to put ourselves in touch with the grace and mercy of God in our own lives, that we might better re-present that mercy and grace as ministers of the sacrament.

Pope Francis said: “A confessor who prays knows well that he himself is the first sinner and the first one forgiven. One cannot forgive in the sacrament without an awareness of having been forgiven first. So, prayer is the first guarantee to avoid any attitude of harshness that uselessly judges the sinner and not the sin” (address to participants in the 28th Course on the Internal Forum, March 17, 2017).
 

IN THE CONFESSIONAL

We all have heard horror stories of ways that they have been treated in the confessional. Perhaps we have our own to tell. What might help to make the sacramental celebration a true place of encounter with the mercy of God?
 

Welcome the Penitent

It may be difficult if we are in a confessional box and the words “Bless me, Father” are out of the penitent’s mouth immediately. A warm welcome can come, however, in a tone of voice, if not with the words specifically. A word of caution about introducing ourselves in a face-to-face situation: Penitents may wish to retain their anonymity, but they may feel pressured to say their name if we present ours.
 

Use Scripture When Possible

The only form of reconciliation that does not require the use of Scripture is that of confession of individual penitents. However, using the Scriptures, either directly or indirectly (Jesus says, “Come to me …”) allows the Spirit of God to work through that word and touch people in ways that our words cannot or may not.
 

Catechize on the Nature of God’s Love

Emphasize that living good moral lives is not to win the love of God, but to respond to the love of God whose love is offered to us whether we sin or not. We often work out of a mindset, however unconscious, of trying to become worthy of God’s love by our good behavior. Rather than trying to earn it, invite people to reflect on how they may respond best to the gratuitous initiatives of love taken by God on their behalf (see Veritatis Splendor, No. 10).
 

Keep Clear the Role of Confessor

Sin affects the whole of people’s lives, and we may find in the confessional that responses to the penitent may call on other areas of expertise. It is important to keep clear the role of the confessor as that of listening to the sins of the penitent and offering counsel and absolution. No doubt that our words may be associated, at times, more with that of a counselor or spiritual director or even a catechist, but we must be careful to keep the central role of confessor foremost in our minds.
 

Let the Penitent Set the Agenda

It is the penitent’s confession, not ours. A friend of mine examined her conscience for a considerable amount of time before going to confession, her first in four years. After she confessed her sins, the priest said nothing of any of her sins but asked, “Are you chaste?” Our probing should help them with their confession, not reflect any curiosity of ours. Further, the vademecum from 1997 states simply: “Whenever the confessor considers it necessary to question the penitent, he should do so with discretion and respect” (Section 3, No. 7).
 

Catechize on the Nature of Sin

Sometimes I’m asked, “Father, is it a sin to …?” The question might suggest an arbitrariness to sin, as if we have a book somewhere indexed with all sins. However, the questions might indicate a lack of deep understanding about why something is sinful or not.

Pope Francis on how to be a great confessor
Pope Francis hears confession during his annual Lenten meeting with the pastors of Rome parishes (CNS photo/Vatican Media)
• “A humble man, one who feels he is a sinner, is a great forgiver
in the confessional.”
• “If you are not able to give absolution
… please, do not lambaste.”
• “The person who comes … in search of
comfort, forgiveness,
peace of soul; let that person find a father who embraces them
and says,  ‘God loves you.’”
• “Be great forgivers, because those who do
not know how to
forgive … become great condemners.”

— Homily, Feb. 9, 2016

• Emphasize the intrinsically relational nature of human living and that sin involves a strain or rupture to a fourfold relationship with God, others, oneself and creation. Concentration on acts alone, divorced from their relational context, may dull sensitivity to the harm done to these relationships.

• Understand the Catholic moral tradition on the criterion for right and wrong. Pope St. John Paul II made clear in Veritatis Splendor the criterion for judging right and wrong action and, thus, the grounding for judgments of sin, taking into account freedom and knowledge. “Acting is morally good when the choices of freedom are in conformity with man’s true good and thus express the voluntary ordering of the person toward his ultimate end: God himself, the supreme good in whom man finds his full and perfect happiness” (No. 72).
• Connect sin to authentic human good in advice to penitents. Rather than thinking of lying as a list of wrongdoings somewhere that I must avoid, let people understand that the wrongness of lying rests in the harm it does to trust in human relationships and how it renders the liar untrustworthy. A confession of sins of masturbation or pornography could call attention to the relational nature of sexuality and that we ought to reach out for chaste human connections at these times. In doing so, we might encourage people to go deeper in their own examinations of conscience and confession of sin.

• Encourage penitents to look forward, not backward. “See, I am doing something new!” (Is 43:19). While the sacrament requires penitents to look back at their lives, it discourages them from staying there. Psalm 51:5 reads, “My sin is always before me.” Sometimes we keep sin before us to shame us and to keep us stuck. A healthy remembrance of sin may lead to humility, compassion and understanding for fellow sinners. When penitents seem stuck on sins from the past already forgiven, I sometimes offer them an image of being in a rowboat. If we’re rowing, we cannot see where we’re going, but we can see clearly where we have been. Let that image help to understand a proper attitude toward the sin that is before our eyes. Let it guide us into the future, but let us avoid being mired in that memory or much less rowing back toward that sin.

• Raise awareness of habitual sin, “the same old sins.” Sometimes penitents speak of habits of sin and confessing the same sin over and over again. Habits, by their nature, make doing things easier and require less thought. As an antidote, I encourage penitents to make an examen of consciousness twice a week. Of course it may be done more often, but I recommend Wednesdays and Saturdays. Besides asking themselves for what they are grateful and for what are they sorry, they are to ask themselves: “How am I doing with [the particular habitual or frequently confessed sin]?” By bringing this sin to their awareness more frequently, there is a chance they will slip into it a bit less often. If they do sin, I suspect their awareness of it is greater, because they intentionally have tried to be rid of this sin.
 

Encourage Resolutions and Patience

The sacrament is part of ongoing conversion. Encourage penitents to make resolutions in light of their confession, but also to be patient with themselves and the working of grace in their lives. We are limited in our understanding of what love requires and limited in our ability to follow through on the demands of love. Some practical points come to mind with regard to the sacrament and conversion.

A priest hears confession on Holy Thursday 2018 at the
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing. CNS photo/Damir Sagolj, Reuters

• Keep in mind the distinction between sinful acts and sinful attitudes, biases and vices. When we were growing up, we learned that penance wipes our souls clean. Well, yes and no. We truly are forgiven of our sinful acts, but what lies in our hearts that gave birth to those acts often remains. Sinful acts spring up like plants from the sinful soil of prejudice, vengeance, resentment and so many other vices. This underscores the importance of connecting our sinful acts with a larger context of relationships and the thoughts and attitudes that rest in our hearts.

• Offer a penance that will move the penitent toward deeper conversion. Sometimes penitents look on the penance as one might with the phrase, “Let the punishment fit the crime.” I remember a penitent asking, “That’s all?” when I gave a penance. I said, “If that helps turn things around from what you’ve confessed to more love for others, it’s going to be more than enough!” The penance is not a punishment but, rather, a way in which the rower in this particular rowboat may set out on a new or right path in light of what was confessed.

 

AFTER CELEBRATING THE SACRAMENT

Although the tendency might be to rush to the next responsibility, consider two final points that bring us full circle.
 

Pray

Whereas our prayer before celebrating the sacrament was for unknown penitents and for wisdom, now we can pray for those specifically who came to Jesus for mercy through us. We raise them in prayer for healing and for courage as they go forward.
 

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Attend to the Grace of God

Sometimes after confessions I wonder if I said or did the right thing. A prudent consultation with another priest might be helpful for future reference as well as further study on some particular sticking point. More importantly, however, entrust the penitents and ourselves to the grace of God that is always at work. We may fool ourselves at times in the confessional, thinking that more is in our control than truly is. We will serve best as confessors when we communicate as faithfully as we can the mercy of God and then allow the grace of God to work through our sacramental encounter.

FATHER KEVIN O’NEIL, CSSR, is on staff at San Alfonso Retreat House in Long Branch, New Jersey, and co-author of “Life, Death, and Catholic Medical Choices” (Liguori, $8.99).