Q: What is it like to hear confessions?
I was once riding in a shuttle-bus with a number of elderly men and women on the way from an airport. They noticed that I was a priest and started asking questions about it.
“Do you do all of the priest stuff?”
“Even the confession thing?”
“Yeah, all the time.”
One older lady gasped, “Well, I think that that would be the worst. It would be so depressing, hearing all about people’s sins.”
I told them that it was the exact opposite. There is almost no greater place to be than with someone when they are coming back to God. The confessional is a place where people let God’s love win. The confessional is the most joyful, humbling and inspiring place in the world.
What does a priest see during confession? I think there are three things.
Up close with God
First, I see the costly mercy of God in action. I get to regularly come face-to-face with the overwhelming, life-transforming power of God’s love. I get to see God’s love up close, and it reminds me of how good God is. Not many folks get to see the way in which God’s sacrifice on the cross is constantly breaking into people’s lives and melting the hardest hearts, consoling those who are grieving their sins and strengthening those who want to give up on God or on life.
As a priest, I get to see this thing happen every day.
The second thing I see is a person who is still trying. I see a saint in the making. I don’t care if this is the person’s third confession this week; if they are seeking the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it means that they are trying. That’s all that I care about.
This thought is worth considering: Going to confession is a sign that you haven’t given up on Jesus.
Pride gets in the way
This is one of the reasons pride is so deadly. I have talked with people who tell me that they don’t want to go to confession to their priest because he thinks highly of them. They don’t want to disappoint the priest.
I have two things to say to this.
First, he will not be disappointed. What your priest will see is a person who is trying! I dare you to name a saint who didn’t need to have God’s mercy.
Second, so what if the priest is disappointed? (He won’t be, but what if he is?)
We try to be so impressive with so much of our lives. Confession is a place where we don’t get to be impressive. Confession is a place where the desire to impress goes to die. Think about it: All other sins have the potential to cause us to race to the confessional, but pride is the one that causes us to hide from the God who could heal us.
Whenever someone comes to confession, I see a person who is deeply loved by God. When they come to confession, I see a person telling God that they love him back. That’s it, and that’s all.
Humility spawns humility
The third thing a priest sees in confessions is his own soul. It is a scary place for a priest. I cannot tell you how humbled I am when someone approaches Jesus’ mercy through me.
I am not over-awed by their sins; I am struck by the fact that they have been able to recognize sins in their life that I have been blind to in my own. Hearing someone’s humility breaks down my own pride. It is one of the best examinations of conscience.
Why is confession a scary place for a priest?
It is frightening because of the way in which Jesus trusts me to be a living sign of his mercy. I’m afraid of confession because I know myself, and I don’t want to get in Jesus’ way. The priest stands in judgment of no one. In the confessional, the only thing I have to offer is mercy.
Finally, when a priest hears confessions, he is taking on another responsibility. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the priest must do penance for all those who come to him for confession. This is why confession reveals the priest’s own soul; it reveals his willingness to sacrifice his life with Christ. He sees our sins as a burden that he will take up (with Jesus!) and offer them to the Father, while offering us the mercy of God.
Remember, confession is always a place of victory. Whether you have confessed this sin for the first time, or if this is the 12,001st time, every confession is a win for Jesus.
Father Michael Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain for the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.