Hurry Up in Confession

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.

Dear Penitent,

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.

In Christ,

FA

PS- Remember, you should only confess your own sins, not those of others. That’s called gossip.

* * *

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.

In Christ,

FA

15 thoughts on “Hurry Up in Confession

  1. I say this having been ordained a priest 18 days and having heard 3 Confessions, so I’m pretty inexperienced.

    I’m going to guess that very few of the people I will minister to in the Sacrament of Confession are confessing mortal sins. If that is the case, then why isn’t “stop confessing sins that don’t require sacramental Confession” also included in this post? One receives mercy at Mass in the Penitential Rite and one need not stay away from the Eucharist save for unconfessed mortal sin.

    If the answer is simply “yes, but it’s so good to confess my sins out loud, to receive and perform a penance, and to hear the words of absolution”, then how is your “not strictly required” reason for taking a precious spot in the Confession line any different than Chatty Carl or Spiritual Direction Sally or Pontificating Pastor? Isn’t it really just being Needful Ned? Are they not all potentially keeping a penitent who NEEDS the sacrament, i.e., someone with unconfessed mortal sin, from receiving that gift of mercy?

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    1. I’m not pushing for a “bare minimum” approach – I mention counseling and advice, and give what I think is the best way to do that as well, in my experience (not that it’s very important, but I have almost a year for every day you’ve been ordained, brother).

      My main point is that charity is owed to the other people in line as well.

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    2. Father, Some people are sincerely trying to conquer their vices and become holy. There are specific graces from the Sacrament of Penance to help us do that, different ones than we receive at mass. Please don’t become a “don’t-bother-me-with-your-petty little-sins priest”! When I followed the advice of monthly or every six weeks, I would forget that time I said ugly words to my husband, or that I gossiped, or ate ice cream and did Facebook instead of doing the dishes. All I could remember was the sort of things I tend to do, and that I had an awful feeling that I was not what God wanted me to be. I was so relieved when a priest said yes, I could come weekly. He made me be brief and to the point, and learning that was sometimes painful. But he took seriously my daily struggles to work and pray instead of indulge and amuse myself. He admonished me when he thought I was not really trying to change. I am sure he was doing this for all the other people who lined up at confession times, too. He made sure there were enough of those times,, as well as being willing to hear confessions when ever asked if it wasn’t 5 minutes before mass. He has been transferred and I am trying to keep up that practice, but it is so easy to slip into thinking,”Well, I haven’t done anything *really* bad…”. Especially now that there has not been mass for two months here. Sad. Anyway, please be a priest who encourages people in their struggle to be holy, and hear their confessions willingly even if they are not ax-murderers. Remember Dostoyevsky said that every sin leads to a murder. Obviously not one to one, a lot of sins lead up to one murder. Sometimes I think, a lot of petty sins lead up to one divorce. So be willing to listen and take it seriously if someone says she yelled at her husband, and manages not to tell you why he deserved it. And vice versa.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I totally agree. I have no problem with people going to confession weekly, and think in many cases that it’s very much needed. It’s one of the reasons why I begged priests, in the second letter, to hear confessions more often, even daily.

        My point here is about brevity, not frequency. I also think it’s very important to confess venial sins, and will try to clarify that in the article.

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    3. Fr Sean Smith, I was a daily communicant for many years but it was only after I began to receive the sacrament of Confession weekly did my life transform for the better in a noticeable way, spiritually and physically. I would highly recommend weekly Confession to anyone serious about living the Christian life.

      Another point: if the Sacrament is restricted to mortal sins, then those in line for Confession will be advertising that they are all mortal sinners. Not good.

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      1. I understood the post to be making the argument that:
        1) Access to the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a limited resource
        2) Not everything that takes place during the Sacrament carries the same objective weight
        3) Therefore, those doing things during the Sacrament that are objectively of lesser weight, i.e., excessive spiritual counsel or excessive detail on reasons for the sin, might modify their manner of celebrating the Sacrament out of Christian charity to those with an objectively greater need of the sacrament, i.e., those in a state of mortal sin.

        In fact, the argument was limited to only particular types of things the author believes can and should be modified out of Christian charity, or, alternatively, that person could schedule time with the priest outside of the usual hours.

        I was simply offering another example of something else with an objectively lesser weight, i.e., venial vs. mortal sin, that might be modified out of Christian charity. I might also suggest that those wanting to celebrate on a regular schedule, such as weekly or bi-weekly, might themselves schedule time with the priest if the manner of celebration of others is interfering with their ability to celebrate in the manner they desire. The point being that it is also possible for the aggrieved party to make changes, too, to solve their own problem.

        Apparently I’m the only one that feels that way. So be it. But I did not say and do not believe that there is no value in confessing venial sins or that there is no grace offered or that there is no spiritual benefit. And I am in total agreement that the starting point is priests being more available for the Sacrament, addressing the scarcity problem at the root!

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      2. Thank you again, Father, for your comments. I don’t think anyone read you as saying not to confess venial sins – I know I didn’t.

        I think maybe the idea of relative weight isn’t the best analogy, and that could be where some of the disagreement lies. It’s not that confessing mortal sins is “more important” than counseling someone, it’s that both can occur, rather than only one, with a little bit of charity and prudence on every side. And I really think there are many occasions (in my experience, most by far) where counseling is most powerful when it is concise – it is more focused and therefore more memorable. Certainly there are situations where more conversation is needed to understand the root of the problem or clarify some confusion, and in fact my proposal would create a situation where there’s also more time for those situations even in the confessional. But you can see the frustration in those who stand in line for an hour only to be sent away – and you can also see (from the comments) how common this is (you should see my Twitter feed). The fact is, parents (as one example) can’t leave their kids and come in for an appointment very easily, and they understand what they did wrong and how to fix it – they just need absolution, which is exactly what they’re not getting. The hour they spent in line was an hour they needed to take care of their household, but they set it aside to care for their soul, and weren’t able to do it. And the fact is, some of the fault does lie with some priests and penitents talking way too much – not just more than they “need” to, but more than they should. Charity for others in line and prudence in time management should not be forgotten, and I really believe that many times they are, and the people going home unabsolved are the victims of this. There is a serious problem with our approach that needs to be addressed. My intention is at least to begin a conversation about it.

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    4. I think a priest should be educated enough to kindly and gently guide a confessor to keep their confession short and to the point. After all, the confessor is in a vulnerable situation. Please handle with care!

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  2. Yes! Exactly! I once urgently needed to confess a grave sin with only a few people in line in front of me. The confessor spent 20 minutes with each confessee—obviously his decision because people were bailing from the line with impatience. At least five people gave up, just lost their chance to receive the sacrament. I was the last remaining and the confessor tried to turn me away because he had to go prepare for Mass. So unfair! I confronted him about his gratuitous waste of time and insisted he hear me quickly. He did, thankfully.

    I will say, though, that I have had some life-changing moments in the confessional because of priests who delved a little deeper. Long lines aren’t very often an issue. It’s not easy to access a priest for spiritual guidance, so I think many (on both sides of the screen) seize the occasion of confession to get (and give) a little counsel. A few would turn the sacrament into a therapy session! I’m grateful for the love and compassion I’ve felt from some priests—and also the bored indifference from the no-nonsense variety. In any case, I always feel the pressure from the line outside the door when it’s my turn and try to be patient with those in front of me. No one should ever be turned away.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well said, thank you. I’ve also had life-changing moments from advice I’ve received and been able to give. And when there isn’t a long line, or the line is short, it’s something to cherish. On the other hand, sometimes the short-and-sweet advice is the most memorable and important. Charity all around is my basic proposal.

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  3. Very well said and it should be taken to heart by both penitent and confessor. Can’t even tell you how hard it is to wait in line for 40 minutes with 6 kids in tow, and only 1 person ahead of you because the priest is giving the penitent a long homily. And then to quickly confess and receive the next long homily. Ouch!! It makes one regret going to confession which is such a terrible and sad thing to even say. For a parent with lots of little kids something like that has the power to skew the entire day. A toddler or baby’s missed nap, older kids hungry, late for the doctor’s appointment, all rolled into one. The irritation, stress and challenges of parenting through the rest of the day can easily land a parent right back in that confession line. Thanks for writing this and I hope many people read it!

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  4. Fr. I found your article very rude. The act of reconciliation is a sacrament. Therefore, if I need counseling for the sins that I committed then I shouldn’t feel like my sins are a nuisance and the priest is getting commission check for how many he can hear. I should feel that I am in the presence of Christ and He is counseling me. Most of Christ’s parables were lengthy His advice sage. However, you are saying make a grocery list, and treat it like “Speed Dating” just get in, get out, and say your 10 Hail Mary’s and your 3 Our Fathers and come back again in six weeks. You are actually going against the Precepts of the Catholic Church. If you were my Pastor I would not be Catholic, why receive the sacrament. You’d be better off going to a Christan Church where you are more than a “warm Body, going on and on” your sins are already forgiven because The Bible says they are! If you have something troubling you, the pastor will stop and pray with you. Then he/she will give you some sound advice to help you to sin no more or overcome that sin. In today’s society, it is better to not be rushed and feel that you are in the presence of the Lord.

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  5. I had until the shutdown the opportunity to go to confession and Mass daily if I wanted to. I learned to get there early in case the line was long. I would even call up to see which priest was hearing confessions. One could zip through 15 or so penitents in half an hour, using what I might call the boilerplate method–saying essentially the same thing in general every time. Others might spend 5-10 minutes with one person and whoever was left over when time ran out was out of luck. I used to be annoyed at that, not a good attitude if you supposedly penitent. Despite there being a lot of self centeredness in it (i.e., I got mine, tough luck for the rest of you), I do think priests ought to keep an eye on the line when time is limited. I sometimes fear this might be just impaitience or the American drive for efficiency. But whatever; my two cents.

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  6. You reply to Father Sean Smith was rather rude in my opinion.

    “Not that it’s very important but I have almost a year for every day you’ve been ordained, brother”.

    You obviously thought it was important enough to say it in the first place.

    I wonder how many confessions you could have heard in the time you spent writing this blog post and all the replies.

    I know which priest I would rather hear my concession.

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