Ten Commandments for Confessors

Some basic principles that we should rehearse from time to time

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Msgr. Michael HeintzOne of the greatest privileges of our priestly life is the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance. To serve in the name and person of Christ to reconcile sinners to God and his Church is a profound gift to us as priests (one we didn’t merit) and to the Church (through our faithful and generous service). I offer here some basic principles, ones we all probably know, but which each of us should rehearse from time to time.

1. Before setting foot in the confessional or reconciliation room, pray. Pause in church, kneel down and ask for the grace to be a good confessor. Too often we find ourselves dashing to the church and the regularly scheduled confessions become just one more thing we have to do, one more box to check.

2. Primum non nocere: first and foremost, do no harm. The words of the Hippocratic oath are apposite to our work as confessors. We must be vigilant that our work does not damage souls, which are already vulnerable, fragile and in need of gentle care.

3. Presume the contrition of the penitent. I don’t imagine there are too many souls who stumble haphazardly into the confessional on a Saturday afternoon just to kill time. Their very presence can be taken as a sign of contrition (or at least attrition, which is sufficient). So, in the absence of any obvious and positive indication of the absence of contrition, presume the penitent is sorry.

4. Often, the less we say, the better. Never ask a question without first asking politely, “May I ask you a question?” This is not mere courtesy, it bespeaks respect for the penitent. Inquiry on the part of the confessor should be limited and very prudent. We ask questions to clarify, not to probe. We should ask questions to relieve burdens, not to impose them, on the penitent.

5. As a wise priest once told me, when we are hearing confessions, we are there to absolve, not to solve. Spiritual direction and pastoral counseling are worthy and important pursuits, but they are not the same thing as the sacrament. Do not feel compelled to analyze every element of the penitent’s confession; if they are looking for guidance, they will, more often than not, ask for it.

6. The obligation to make an integral confession rests on the penitent, not the confessor. You may ask, “Is there anything more?” but I am personally very reluctant to start grilling the penitent about sins he or she may possibly have committed (such questions may reveal more about the confessor than the penitent). Occasionally, the penitent may ask our help in guiding them in making a good confession; that opens the door for us to guide them much more directly. But even then, be prudent: simply employ the Decalogue as a tool for helping them to articulate their sins.

7. While the precise form of the sacrament has developed over the course of history — from canonical and public penance to auricular confession — the Church has always employed medicinal metaphors in its understanding of the sacrament. In fact, the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), which promulgated the obligation of annual confession on all the faithful, speaks clearly in medicinal terms. Evoking the good Samaritan, the council speaks of the priest carefully “pouring oil and wine” on the wounds of the penitent. It’s worth looking up; it’s really beautiful.

8. Hearing confessions can be demanding on our energy and focus. After an hour or more we can easily feel worn out, and we need to be vigilant lest we unconsciously (or worse, consciously) rush or hurry penitents who arrived near the end of the time simply because we are tired. We need to be as welcoming, patient and engaged with our final penitent as we were with the first.

9. As a pastor, be generous and regular in offering the sacrament. Parishes whose confessional is in operation “from 3:15-4 p.m. on Saturday afternoon and by appointment” become self-fulfilling prophets for low turnout. Make it available. More than once a week. More than twice a week. If you build it, they will come.

10. Be a penitent. Regularly. And faithfully. In some ways, it’s the best way to become a good confessor.

MSGR. MICHAEL HEINTZ, a priest of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, serves as academic dean and director of intellectual formation at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

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