If you ever visit a seminary you will find that they are places where there is much laughter. I really enjoyed the comradery I found among my classmates, which was healthy and joyful. While most of our formation sessions involved moments of levity and laughter, there was one particular experience that I remember we took with absolute seriousness, and that was the confession practicum, where we learned and practiced to be confessors.
The sobriety with which we approached confession was due, I think, to our personal familiarity with how it feels to enter a confessional – nervous, perhaps embarrassed and ashamed, to confess something we had done. We all knew the penitent’s hope to find kindness, wisdom, and mercy there. “Only God forgives sins,” the Catechism tells us (1441). Yet He shares this power with men who are sinners, while withholding it from the angels and the Mother of God herself. It is not personal worthiness of the priest, but the will of God that it be so.
As a priest, it is a humbling experience to be the mediator of God’s mercy. In the confessional I am often convicted of my own moral failings as I hear penitents confess their sins with the simple confidence of faith. At the same time, I am reminded of the goodness of God when I speak the words of absolution as His priest: “I absolve you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Any concern that someone might have that the confession of a particular sin might diminish them in the eyes of the priest confessor should be set aside, for I have found that the opposite is in fact true. The confession of sin in the context of the sacrament reveals the faith of the penitent, which should elevate the person in the personal esteem of the priest. But even if for some reason it did not, it would have nothing to do with the joy that it brings Our Lord to lavish His mercy upon a soul that entrusts itself to the care of one of His priests.
There is a common objection that one often hears – “Can’t God forgive me without confession?” Well, yes, of course He can. In fact, sacramental confession is never strictly necessary for the forgiveness of venial sins. An act of contrition, the recitation of the penitential rite, use of sacramentals like holy water, prayer, the sign of the cross – these things will absolve our venial sins. Confession is ordinarily necessary only for the forgiveness of mortal sins – those serious sins through which we cut ourselves off from the life of grace. It is possible to be forgiven for mortal sin by making what’s called a perfect act of contrition, motivated by love of God and not fear of punishment, with the intention to go to confession as soon as possible. The problem with relying on making a perfect act of contrition, however, is that you have no certainty of its perfection and whether you actually received forgiveness for your sins.
How different it is to speak aloud our confession to another, to acknowledge the reality of our particular sins, to make ourselves vulnerable and lay bare the burden of guilt that we carry on our consciences, and then to hear the words spoken by the Lord through His ordained priest: “I absolve you.” The Sacrament of Reconciliation gives us total assurance of mercy. There is no wondering if you’re really forgiven, or if that sin will ever be held against you by God. What a consolation! It reveals the Lord’s intimate knowledge of our need for personal encounter, and His familiarity with the incarnational reality of what it means to be human.
Sadly, many have fallen out of the habit of going to confession. I believe this has had a profoundly negative effect on the way people treat each other, and the severe lack of mercy and forgiveness on display everywhere. When we go to confession, we acknowledge that we are sinners in need of mercy. When we are aware of our struggle with sin and our need for mercy, and when we experience God’s mercy in the sacrament, we should become more merciful towards others. We are able to forgive them more readily because we know our need for forgiveness, and God’s desire for our reconciliation with Him and with each other.
If you’ve been away from confession for a while, I invite you to return. Catholics are supposed to go to confession at least once a year. But I encourage people to come to confession monthly, even if they have only venial sins to confess, and to not allow three months to go by without confession. Parents should bring their children to confession, setting good example by going to confession themselves. Regular confession keeps our consciences sensitive, and it takes the mystique out of confessing our sins that would otherwise make us reluctant to go. You can find a helpful pamphlet for preparation to make a good confession here.
Priests will tell you that they never feel so much themselves as priests as when they are saying Mass and when they’re hearing confessions. Those encounters in the confessional are the most important conversations in the world. And based on what I saw during those formation sessions in seminary, I can say that the vast majority of priests take our responsibility as confessors with great seriousness, while we marvel with joy at the unmerited privilege of being Christ’s chosen instruments of mercy.