Father Ryan P. Lewis, a parish priest at Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Omaha, Nebraska, demonstrates how he hears confession. CNS photo/Chaz Muth

Widening the Road to Peace

Some thoughts on becoming a better confessor

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We know a lot about hearing confessions, of course. We began learning while we were in the seminary, and we continue to learn every time we sit down with a penitent.

I’ve always thought it unfortunate that, while most of us rank our ministry as confessor as one of the most important aspects of our priesthood, it is probably the area in which we receive the least feedback. Unfortunate, but understandable. After all, we can’t “review the video” or arrange for someone to sit in, observe and then offer comments.

Workshops abound on sharpening skills for preaching, presiding, counseling and even administration. But it seems there are far fewer opportunities and resources designed to sharpen our skills as confessors.

Yes, we know how to hear confessions. But what can we do to become a better confessor? What can we learn from other confessors? Here I respectfully offer my brother priests a few thoughts and ideas.

What a Confessor Does?

As we take the chair and put on the stole, what do we want to happen? Equally important, what do we want not to happen? Remember that our primary service as confessor is not to solve our parishioner’s problems. While it is nice to offer solutions, the definitive answer to our penitent’s “problems” is usually unavailable. What is available, always, is our proclamation of Christ’s forgiveness and the encouragement we can offer through our words and manners of acceptance, patience and peace.

Ministering this sacrament of peace, we are sacraments ourselves. We are the visible signs of Christ and his Church. Yes, we “take the place” of Christ. We communicate — we show, we make tangible — Christ’s peace to the penitent through our person. As a prayer attributed to St. Teresa of Ávila expresses it: “Christ has no body now but yours. … Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion must look out on the world. … Yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.”

All that is required from us for a valid confession is that we listen, assign a penance and absolve. But many times we can offer much more. And isn’t more what we want to offer? Isn’t more than the bare minimum what our parishioners need? The sacrament ordinarily is not a time for intensive, lengthy spiritual direction or counseling, but for many of our people confession is the only counseling or direction they will seek or receive.

About Asking Questions

Parishioners are understandably anxious about questions we might ask. Because of this, I know some of us have a policy of asking no questions whatsoever: “God knows the whole story, the whole truth, I don’t need to hear it,” we might think.

I applaud the sensitivity toward a penitent’s privacy shown here and I agree that, yes, God does know the whole story. Moreover, God’s forgiveness certainly is not dependent upon our knowledge, intelligence, skill or other mastery of the situation. But, again, Christ has no body at the moment but ours. Christ speaks through the sacraments of our Church and her sacramental ministers.

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Greatest Service

Speaking to confessors at an event sponsored by the Apostolic Penitentiary on March 9, 2018, Pope Francis encouraged confessors to be good listeners, and by listening to the penitent, he said, “we listen to Jesus himself, poor and humble; by listening to the Holy Spirit, we put ourselves in attentive obedience, becoming listeners of the Word” to know what God wants to be done.

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We don’t ask questions merely to satisfy our curiosity. We ask them because we believe we need to know something more about what the penitent is saying — either to clarify what has been said or to better determine what part what they have confessed has in their lives. When we hear, “I spend too much time on the internet,” it might be worth our while — and theirs — for us to ask what that time is involved with. If we want to respond directly to this penitent, our response will likely be influenced by whether our parishioner is playing games for an hour or is viewing pornography into the early hours of the morning. Any question we ask, of course, we ask with care, respect and with the penitent’s permission.

Always Ask This

I try to find the answer to this question in almost every confession as soon as possible: Why is this penitent here now?

People approach the sacrament for many reasons. Some are buying fire insurance from eternal damnation, while others seek assurance of God’s loving forgiveness. Some come because of a terrifying diagnosis they received a few days ago. Others feel lonely or hopeless, for, in just a few days, they will observe the first anniversary of their spouse’s or child’s death. Again, while the sacrament is not primarily about spiritual direction or counseling, for many parishioners it is the only counseling or direction they will seek or receive.

What is it that brings this penitent to the sacrament now? The more we discern that, the better we can respond to them and not to a generic penitent. A wonderful question to ask our penitents on many occasions: What is it you want, what is it you hope for, in celebrating this sacrament?

I believe we should always ask “why” when a penitent tells us it’s been a long time since they’ve been to confession: “Welcome back! What brings you back now?” (Another question to ask here, perhaps a very important one, would be, “Was there something that kept or drove you away?”) After all, when a parishioner suddenly breaks a habit of not coming to the sacrament, what is it that happened, that is happening in their life, that caused such a sudden reversal for the better?

And for Your Penance …

Many priests — I include myself here — wish we could always offer a penance that truly is, as the rite describes it, “a remedy for sin and a help to renewal of life” (Introduction, No. 6b). I’m open to suggestions, and, in fact, I’ve received many fine ideas simply by asking at study days and days of recollection with priests, “What kinds of penances do you give out?”

I share an idea a priest friend offered many years ago. He selected a dozen or so prayers and Scripture passages (especially from the psalms) and had each one of them printed on card stock. They are available on both sides of his confessional and so, when a prayer or Scripture passage seems an appropriate penance, he literally gives his parishioner their penance. Consider the idea! The text is appropriate, the penance is readily accessible and many parishioners keep the card for their use throughout the week — or even bring it back the next time they come to confession.

We offer the penance after we give a few words of advice. Parishioners generally don’t expect nor want a lengthy moral treatise, but most welcome a thoughtful insight or a new way of looking at themselves. I try to remember that penitents approach the sacrament somewhat preoccupied with their sins, while what often strikes us are their desires to grow in holiness. So, for example, a woman who has admitted to losing patience with her husband and kids may take heart when we compliment her on her obvious desire and effort to be a good spouse and mother. And an appropriate penance to offer here might be, “Say a brief prayer for your spouse, for each of your children and yourself.”

Sometimes, without warning and appointment, people ask us to hear their confession. But usually, we know when we’ll be on call, be it Thursday or Saturday morning or the seemingly most popular Saturday afternoon. If 4 p.m. is the time and we dash over to the church one minute before (or a few minutes after!), are we perhaps shortchanging ourselves and our parishioners?

Even if we’re veterans, setting aside even a few minutes before the scheduled time to consider what it is we’re about to do can assure a time of prayer for us as we prepare to offer Christ’s forgiveness. No longer fine-tuning our homilies, getting what we want to say just right, we can turn our attention and our hearts to what others want to tell us. Those few minutes in church, outside the confessional, not only offer our parishioners an example of a priest praying for them but allow us to consider what “new” message from the Sunday Gospel we might suggest to those penitents whose confessions are more confessions of devotion than turning points in their life.

To Grow Closer to God

Sometimes, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is truly a dramatic turning point in a person’s life. More often than not, however, it is one of the many steps a person takes to grow closer to God. The example of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is admirable, but it is not typical. Spiritual growth usually takes place much as physical and intellectual growth do: slowly, with false starts and frequent turns and returns but, ultimately, with hope in the God who is at the beginning and end of all we do and are.

Confession is not only about the forgiveness of sins. It is about conversion of life. Confession involves more than our expression of regret for our past. It calls us to express our hope for the future. For both priest and penitent, the sacrament is an encounter with Christ. Both approach the sacrament to accept the offer of God’s grace as he gives it, and not to determine the final disposition or regulate the timing of that grace.

The “law of growth” of traditional moral theology reminds us that we ordinarily grow not by leaping from floor to floor (and certainly not on the express elevator) but by walking up steps. Those steps often take the form of a narrow, winding staircase. People need time to grow, just as the seed of God’s word takes time to take root in a heart and produce a harvest. While we can absolve sins, we may not be able to solve many problems. In many confessions, the only thing that might be accomplished is assuring our penitents know the sacrament as an occasion of grace, peace and hope — no small accomplishment there.

A confession is not a failure if a solution to a problem eludes the confessor and penitent. A confession is not worthless if stunning insights are not offered (or understood!). But a confession can be significant and meaningful to the penitent even if it is simple, brief and without much drama. Many times, probably more than we realize, our ministry is to plant seeds in the hope and with the trust that God will give the growth in his own time and according to his plan. God’s grace can have an effect over time that we cannot schedule, manage or force — or even imagine.

I conclude by appealing to St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (3:5-7): “What is Apollos, after all, and what is Paul? Ministers through whom you became believers, just as the Lord assigned each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth. Therefore, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who causes the growth.”

FATHER KURT STASIAK, OSB, is the archabbot at Saint Meinrad Archabbey at St. Meinrad, Indiana.

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ON EMPATHY AND RECONCILIATION

A confessor is credible when he knows from his own experience as penitent the fear and the courage with which his people approach the sacrament. He is credible because he has experienced, with another minister, both the embarrassment of his sin and the gift of God’s grace. Whatever he may have learned about human behavior and the art of counseling certainly will help him help his penitents. But he will continue becoming an effective and credible confessor to the degree that he knows what it is to confess to another and to have another minister to him. Professional competence can support and strengthen our personal credibility. Seldom can it replace it.”

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