Editor’s note: The Compass asked several priests about their experiences of the sacrament of reconciliation: from their advice on how to prepare for confession, how they determine appropriate penances to help people heal and how they “return to the everyday world” after hearing confessions. During these weeks of Lent, we will share some of their reflections here. This week, Fr. Scott Valentyn reflects on the following questions: How do you prepare to hear confessions? And what do you do immediately after hearing confessions?
My preparation to hear confessions can change dramatically depending on the situation. At times, I am completely blindsided by someone’s request for the sacrament of reconciliation.
For example, it will often happen that someone asks to make a confession in an airport terminal because they are a nervous flyer and they want to “cover their bases” before getting on a plane. This is one of the advantages to a priest wearing his clerical collar, even when he’s not actively serving in his parish. In these cases, I usually find myself muttering the words, “Come Holy Spirit,” under my breath at least a few times in a rushed attempt to ensure God’s presence in the confession that is about to take place. In particular, I pray that I might be a vessel of his love, mercy and wisdom. I also find myself praying that same, simple prayer over and over while hearing confessions.
When I have more time to prepare myself, I like to take five or 10 minutes of silent prayer time beforehand, in order to ask God to be with me and with those who confess. It is my hope and prayer that the sacrament be an authentic encounter between our loving Father in heaven and the individual who has come to seek his forgiveness.
In some ways, the confessional can be an intimidating place for me. As I sit down and prepare to hear confessions, I often feel hilariously out of my depth. Fortunately, it is God who forgives, and I just serve as an instrument of this forgiveness. However, it is still a daunting experience to hear someone’s confession. People come to confession and bare their souls in a position of ultimate vulnerability, often seeking some degree of counsel. Since I don’t usually feel experienced enough to offer insights into most of these situations, I find myself begging God to speak through me only the words that they need to hear.
That might be my biggest prayer before going into the confessional: that I serve as a bridge to God and an instrument of his love and mercy rather than an obstacle.
Immediately after confessions, I am usually exhausted. I think this is due, in part, to the effort of actively listening for an extended period of time to so many different people.
But I think this experience goes beyond just physical tiredness. God’s love, mercy and forgiveness are infinite. By allowing God to use me, a finite vessel, as his instrument for dispensing these, I open myself up to an inevitable spiritual fatigue that is both tiring and beautiful.
It is beautiful in that it is a reminder of the fact that none of the people I just interacted with needed me. The one they needed — and the one responded to that need — was God. The work was his, not mine.
As I finish hearing confessions, I usually offer another five to 10 minutes of silent prayer to thank God for the gift of my vocation, as well as a prayer of intercession for all those who have confessed.
Fr. Valentyn is parochial vicar at St. John the Baptist Parish in Howard and priest celebrant for Catholic Campus Ministry at UW-Green Bay.