During this Year for Priests, I have been reflecting on my vocation and the different ways God has worked in my life since my ordination.
And I have to say that of all the things I have been called to do as a priest, I have been most affected—and most surprised—by my experience of hearing confessions. Before I was ordained in 1991, I thought it might be burdensome or strange to spend hours in the confessional every week. But it didn’t take me long to discover how very powerful this sacrament can be, for me as well as for the people who come to confess their sins.
Courage to See and Say. Many people are nervous when they approach this sacrament. Once, a woman came in and instead of praying, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned," she started, "Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts. . . . " I half expected her to break out some food so we could celebrate. Actually, we laughed about her nervous beginning, and it became a moment of relaxation for her.
Often when a person steps into the confessional, I will clasp their hands as they sit down. They are usually freezing cold. I understand why. Sometimes when I preach, my own hands get cold. A major reason for this is nervousness. When the preaching event is over, I feel my hands getting warm right away. Confessing your sins to another can be scary, too, and I admire the courage of every penitent.
I remember one man who came to me for his first confession. As he covered various sins and issues, I was impressed by his ability to look within and examine his heart. After he talked, I counseled him and then asked him to pray an Act of Contrition. He pulled out a piece of paper and started reading it—not with his eyes but with his hands, for the prayer was in Braille, and the man was blind. "He may be blind on the outside, but he has more sight than most," I thought to myself.
Many people are unable—or unwilling—to look within and examine their conscience. When they come for Confession, it’s with an attitude of "I can’t imagine what I’ve done wrong." That’s a problem. But no confessor has a problem with people who come to the sacrament knowing they have failed and need forgiveness, even if it is a matter of grave sin.
A Healing Sacrament. By his preaching, counseling, and celebrating the sacraments, a priest mediates the healing presence of Jesus. As a traveling missionary who hears confessions in many different churches, I try to facilitate this in practical ways. Wherever I am ministering, I try to provide a simple, prayerful atmosphere where a person will feel welcome. I air out the confessional and clear away any clutter. I light a candle. I provide a box of tissues. That last item is because some people unexpectedly tear up. Often they will apologize, but I will hand them a tissue and say, "That’s okay. Tears are a gift. They can be cleansing. Take your time, no hurry."
Tears are often a sign of inner healing. And this inner healing, as I have discovered from many hours in the confessional, is what people desperately need. We need healing from perpetuating the same sins over and over. We need healing from guilt, shame, and inner condemnation. We need healing and restoration in our relationship with God. All of this is available through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Once, I went to a priest friend of mine and confessed a sin from my past that I had never told before. As the confession ended, he stood and gave me a long hug. He was a tall man, and as I felt his embrace, I suddenly realized that I was being hugged by the One who forgave me—Jesus. It was a touch of Christ that I will never forget. I was able to let go of the guilt and forgive myself.
No Masks. The trust people give priests is inspiring. There are no masks in the confessional. I see people at their best, as well as their worst. They are extremely honest and vulnerable. They share their hidden secrets and tell me things they have not even shared with their spouse.
I try to provide a nonjudgmental, safe place where people can open themselves fully. When they share their innermost secrets and sins with me, I know they are letting in the light of God and moving forward. A process of freedom begins. Healing occurs. Issues are confronted. Forgiveness and mercy are received. The founder of the Passionists, St. Paul of the Cross, said he preached in order to get people to come to Confession. He knew the power of what could happen one on one.
I am surprised, not only by what happens in each penitent but also in me. When I hear someone share honestly and with complete vulnerability, my own heart softens, and I am more open to grace. In some ways, you reflect my life, as if I am looking into a mirror. Seeing you wrestling to forgive someone, overcome your compulsions, or surrender to God confronts me with my own struggles and moves me to look at my own life more closely. Your honesty is a witness to me.
We are not islands unto ourselves but are all part of the same continent. We share a common humanity, and as you share with me, my communion with you is profound. I have heard thousands of confessions and never cease to be amazed at how Christ touches the priest, as well as the penitent, in this healing sacrament.
Fr. Cedric Pisegna, CP, is a Passionist priest. He preaches parish missions across the United States, has authored thirteen books, and produces a TV program that airs in numerous cities. More information at www.frcedric.org.