This is a two-part open letter, first to penitents and second to confessors. It seems especially urgent now, when sacraments are particularly difficult to come by.
I’m glad you’re going to confession. If it’s been a while, welcome back. If your last time was only recently, no problem. This is the place where the infinite mercy of God finds victory in its battle with the devil within your soul. It is an act of wisdom to take advantage of such a mercy, and an act of humility to kneel there and not only admit your wrongs, but do so in the presence of a priest who is himself a sinner, and who can only forgive you by the same grace with which he is forgiven. Conversely, it is foolishness to reject such a gift, and very often pride that motivates us to do so. May God continue to grant you the wise humility you show at this moment.
But please hurry up.
I’m not saying this because I’m impatient (even though I am). I’m not saying this because I don’t care about you (which shouldn’t matter either way). I’m certainly not saying this because I have better things to do (which I don’t – this is as important as it gets). I’m saying this because the people behind you in line will not get to go to confession and therefore may not be able to receive the Body of Christ if you take too long. For every extra minute or two you spend giving details that might not be important at all, that is another person who, due to the constraints imposed on us by the necessity of temporal existence, is being denied the sacramental grace of God.
No, I don’t want this to make you self-conscious or feel rushed. But I do want this to make you aware that there are other people who need forgiveness just as much as you do. Being aware of them even while you’re in the confessional is itself an act of love. The fact that you even made it to the front of the line today is probably because the people in front of you were conscious that you were behind them, and got to the point out of love for you.
Have your sins in mind before you get in line. Enter the confessional when it’s your turn. Say your sins (mortal and/or venial), plainly and simply. Species and number. Don’t make excuses for your sins. Don’t tell the whole story. Don’t be embarrassed either – God already knows, and the priest will forget the second you leave. Listen to the priest’s counsel. Receive your penance. Say your Act of Contrition. Be forgiven through the infinite mercies of God the Word made Flesh. Kneel at a pew, pray your penance, and go home. Do this as often as you need.
If you want advice about something serious going on in your life, and if a priest is the right person to talk to about it, then make an appointment. If you just want someone to talk to, make some friends. If you want someone to listen to you complain or vent, ask yourself whether that has ever helped you before. It hasn’t.
Confession is about love. It’s about re-establishing the love of God and neighbor within your heart that you broke when you sinned. Remembering the people behind you in line is an act of love that will help both your soul and theirs. And for everyone waiting in line: remember that being patient and praying for the person in the confessional is also an act of love, and very good for your soul.
PS- Remember, you should only confess your own sins, not those of others. That’s called gossip.
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Dear Priest Confessors, brothers,
We sit, by no merit of our own, on the throne of mercy, a terrible and beautiful place. We dispense and distribute the compassionate forgiveness of God, undeserving even of receiving the grace we grant to others, and despite the darkness of our own sins. Our hearts twinge when we hear a serious sin, but rejoice when we remember that at that moment, the sinner who has committed it is repenting. We love the children of God who come to us broken and wounded, but we cannot save them, since that job belongs to, and has been accomplished by, Another. In Christ, we are channels of the infinite graces he pours upon the entire human race.
But please hurry up.
I’m writing this because for maybe the hundredth time, I’m hearing from friends who drove a significant distance with their kids to stand in the confession line for an hour or more, only to be turned away at the last minute. These are God’s children too – not only the person you’re talking to.
Attend to the penitent kneeling before you, but do not forget the line behind her. Caring for one soul does not mean neglecting others. Christ, whose power is infinite, can stop and allow Jairus’s daughter to die while he attended to the woman who had bled for twelve years. He raised the little girl afterward. You cannot. There might be someone in line who hasn’t been to confession in decades, and who might never have the courage to get in line again.
I’m not asking you to neglect the person with you now, or to make them rush or feel uncared for. I’m asking you to also care about the rest. I’m asking you to give the forgiveness of God that is being begged for through you, and to move on. Yes, counsel them according to their need. But no one needs a ten minute lecture. No one is taking notes on your advice. They will remember one, maybe two things you say. Distill your words, make them count, and they will be remembered. Less really is more. More is really less, and approaches the kind of idle talk that Christ condemns in Matthew 12:36. The problem is sin, not ignorance. The solution is forgiveness, not information.
We are instruments of grace and forgiveness. Some of us are also therapists. But even though all of us like the sound of our own voice, none of us are spiritual gurus. People are not in line to talk to us, or to hear our wisdom. They are here for God’s forgiveness. Give it to them and let them leave. Love them enough to give more than yourself – because in virtue of your ordination, you have much more. And because of that, just as importantly, I beg you:
Hear more confessions.
Let me be blunt: offering one hour of confessions a week during a Saturday afternoon is negligent. Make it longer. Make it every day, at a time when people can actually come – maybe around 5 or 6 PM on their way home from work. Bring a book with you in case nobody shows up – or just use your phone and go on Facebook or Twitter, I don’t care. But I bet they will show up.
Hear confessions before Masses too – not just weekdays but Sunday. You finished the last touches on your homily already; you have the time. They’re already here for Mass; why require them to drive to church another day to receive a sacrament from the same Christ? Why make it harder for them at all? Doesn’t the devil put enough obstacles between them and God’s grace without us adding to them?
If you’re a priest with three parishes or four assignments, I feel for you. I’ve been in your place, and I’m there right now. But this is the heart of the job. Everything else we do is for this forgiveness to take place. Believe me, and ask my parishioners: I’m more rushed and vain and impatient than any of you. I am in no place to judge any priest, and my words here cut my own conscience. But this really has to become a greater priority for all of us.
Let’s pray for each other.