After hearing confessions for 53 years, I began to ask myself what I have learned from that experience.
As for sin, I haven’t heard anything new for decades. As for the occasions of sin, new technologies have introduced new occasions. Over the last 15 years I have heard a great deal, for example, about pornography on the Internet. That has made me realize how naïve I am. I’m not interested in encountering it but am puzzled about how much pornography is available and how one is introduced to it. Many people are absorbed by online pornography; porn magazines were around in my youth. Now Blackberrys, iPads and phones that transfer pictures are also, for some, occasions of sin—the offense being not in the device, but in the use.
Some Catholics express surprise that I am still hearing confessions. Use of that sacrament has fallen off considerably. When I was a teenager, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to finish my Saturday job and get to confession, the practice that allowed me to receive Communion on Sunday morning. In those days, the three or four priests living in our parish rectory heard confessions for an hour or more each Saturday afternoon and again on Saturday evening, so it was probable that I could get to church before confessions were over. Today a parish is lucky to have one priest hearing confessions for a half-hour or an hour on a Saturday afternoon. Many parish bulletins announce that confession is available only by appointment with a priest.
For over a century, the blossoming of psychiatry and psychotherapy has made inroads into the confessional. Recently, there has also been an increase in pastoral counseling. These developments have been for the good. The penitent who has been overcome by a habit—like stealing, gambling or abusing another person—needs to see a professional healer over a considerable period of time. If I am in a parish only occasionally as a visitor, I can forgive a person’s sins, but I cannot help cure his pathology.
Of course, those who are poor cannot afford a psychiatrist or a psychotherapist or perhaps even a pastoral counselor. So they may choose to tell their pathologies to a priest. Is that confession? This may take place in the context of the sacrament, but still the sacrament is not a cure for a pathological condition.
The Damage Done
Pathologies aside, sin damages an individual personality. I have learned from the confessional that despite the laws and freedoms guaranteed by the society in which we live, those who obtain an abortion or persuade a woman to have an abortion or do nothing to prevent an abortion they know is about to take place are often scarred for life. Even in today’s liberal society, sexual activity outside of marriage often leaves irreparable damage on one or both of the participants. Habits of stealing or gambling and addictions to alcohol or drugs can mitigate individual responsibility for a sinful act, but the scars are already there and the road to a cure is long and painful.
The worst offenses, however, are those against the basic law of charity. Few penitents realize how destructive offenses against charity are. A penitent who cannot or will not shed animosity toward another individual because of a long-ago unresolved “hurt” multiplies that animosity, knowingly or not, in other relationships.
I have made a few changes in the way I hear confessions. Though I was brought up in an era when “five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys” were dished out as penance for mortal sins, in recent years I often ask a penitent what he thinks should be the penance. If he starts to say “an Our Father, a Hail Mary and a Glory be…,” I know what he has been used to hearing. But I, however, prefer to connect the penance to the sin. So if he has been vocally abusive to his children (not physically, which calls for something completely different), I like to suggest, “O.K., the next time you do that, you will apologize to your child. Will you do that? If you will, that is your penance.” If a penitent confesses a longstanding grudge against a parent, I propose that the penance be an attempt to repair that gap. I can impose only the attempt. I cannot hold her responsible if the parent will not meet her halfway.
Sometimes I have to interrupt a penitent. Some penitents like to confess the sins of others. A woman wants to report the sins of her mother-in-law, or a young man wants to list the sins of fellow workers at his place of employment. “Hold on,” I say. “Just tell me your sins.”
I remember the first day I heard confessions. I had been assigned to weekend work in a large urban parish. As I was about to leave the rectory for the church, an elderly, experienced pastor stopped me with, “Are you about to hear confessions for the first time?” When I assented, he continued, “Don’t give any advice today. Just listen.” It was excellent advice. I observe it often 53 years later.
Do penitents prefer to hide behind a screen or sit face-to-face with the confessor? In my experience, neither option alters what is said. I have encountered the scrupulous, who will confess day after day if they see a priest in a confessional. I have heard penitents who go to confession regularly once a week, once a month or once a year. I still encounter some who have not been to confession for 10 or 20 years. They offer a multitude of reasons for returning. Once I was entreated by a third party to hear the confession of a person with multiple personalities (Which did I hear?). In another large city parish, a stranger came in just to see “what this bizarre practice of the confessional box” was all about. I have heard the confessions of Catholics, Protestants and Jews.
What do penitents confess? I would say that 80 percent of what is related in confession is not really sinful. Yet I would not discourage people from saying what they actually say in the confessional. For what they admit to is their membership in this imperfect world where we all live. They would like it to be better. And since they are not as good as they want to be, they remind themselves to hope for a better world. Three cheers for that.
To me, the most redeeming aspect of confession is the humility it takes for a person to confess personal sins to another human being. This is the outstanding grace of the sacrament. This is what leads to forgiveness for sin. This, more than any words a penitent says, makes a reality of the concluding prayer the priest utters: “God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his son, has reconciled that world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and the of Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”