Editor’s note: During Lent, many of us choose to go to confession (the sacrament of reconciliation). But, it may have been a while since your last visit. It may seem a bit daunting. And there are questions: “Why do I have to go, doesn’t God already know?” “How can I confess that face to face? The priest knows me.” Even people who receive the sacrament regularly have questions. With that in mind, The Compass asked some local priests and others involved in pastoral ministry to give tips about going to confession. We will feature a different writer each week during Lent. See if they answer your questions.
Catholics and non-Catholics alike have varying opinions regarding this sacrament. But what do priests think when they are hearing a person’s confession? What is the priest’s perspective on the celebration of this sacrament? So much could be said, but perhaps these few words might capture some of our experiences as priests.
First of all, priests do not think poorly of you when you confess your sins. Never! After all, we are all sinners ourselves. What we think about is how beautiful your soul is in its repentant return to God. And when we hear your confession our own conscience is stirred. Many times we commit the same sins and your humble contrition urges us on to repentance ourselves.
Now, when you go to confession, it is often helpful if you briefly, in a general way, let the priest know your state in life. Married, single, retired, in the religious life, a student, etc. This will help the priest to understand you better. Also, remember that you always have the option of going to confession anonymously. Usually a screen is provided. Face-to-face confession can be a very beautiful and moving option, but anonymous confession must always be made available to you. Ask for it if you wish.
When you begin your confession, please tell the priest about how long it has been since you last received the sacrament. And if you have been away for a while and you need a little help, don’t worry. Just ask the priest to help you.
As priests, we have noticed over the years that men and women often confess their sins in different ways. Sometimes this can be quite humorous. Men often confess their sins using generalities. “Bless me father, for I have sinned. I was bad. I was dirty. I was unfaithful.” But what does this mean, exactly? Men, please be a bit more specific when you go to confession! Women are usually different. They sometimes say, “Bless me father, for I have sinned. My sister is fighting with my mother, and my friend’s husband is not being nice to her, and my dog barked at the mailman.” Ladies, please tell the priest your own sins, and not everybody else’s sins!
After hearing your confession, the priest will give you some advice. Alas, sometimes we priests can get confused and a bit off track. If we clearly did not understand what you had confessed, please correct us and help to get us back on track. And make sure that the priest gives you a penance! If the priest gives you a penance that for whatever reason is impossible to fulfill, you may request a different penance.
Now comes the act of contrition. I assure you, there are about 5 million different variations on the act of contrition prayer. What the priest is looking for in any act of contrition is two parts: sorrow for sin and a firm intention not to sin again. Sometimes it is easiest simply to make up a prayer from your heart. Do the best you can and don’t stress about it.
Finally, please know that priests really do not remember what you say. My friends, we hear so many confessions that all the sins blend together. Even though you might think your particular sin to be quite exotic, I assure you it is not. And besides, as priests we have enough of our own sins to think about, there is no reason to think about yours. Finally, I firmly believe that God gives priests a special grace to forget. We really do not remember. Really.
These are just a few experiences from the priest side of the sacrament of confession. What matters is that forgiveness has been won for us by Jesus Christ. And in this sacrament of penance and reconciliation, we are again made whole.
Fr. Girotti serves as vicar for canonical services and associate moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Green Bay.
Confession series articles: