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Much has been written about the sacrament of reconciliation — the theology behind it, the scriptural evidence for it, the power and benefits of it for penitents. But what’s it like, experientially, for a priest to hear the sins of others week after week and month after month? Can it be a burden? Does it affect a priest’s spiritual life? Aleteia’s lifestyle editor, Zoe Romanowsky, asked Msgr. Charles Pope about what it’s been like to hear confessions over his 24 years as a priest.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington DC. He is a graduate of Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary where he earned a master of divinity and a master of arts in moral theology. Ordained to the priesthood in 1989, he has served in in the Archdiocese of Washington ever since. Msgr. Pope conducted Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and the White House and is currently the dean of the Northeast Deanery, and the archdiocesan coordinator for the Celebration of the Latin Mass. A teacher, retreat leader, spiritual director and published writer, he is a weekly columnist for Our Sunday Visitor and moderates a daily blog for the Archdiocese of Washington.
Msgr. Pope, do you remember hearing your first confession? What was it like?
I do remember. In the parish setting, anyway — someone may have asked me to hear confession before I got to the parish. But sitting in the confessional for the first time was memorable because there were some problems with the confessional. I was already feeling a bit nervous and someone came in and knelt down and then the screen collapsed and suddenly there was a person’s face staring into mine. She was embarrassed, since she expected an anonymous confession, and I got so nervous I fumbled around trying to find the absolution form, even though I had it memorized. So, it certainly was memorable in that sense!
I was a mere 27 years old when that happened, and some of the things I’d hear during Saturday confessions were rather complicated. I mean, what possible sage advice could I give a 70-year-old man with marital questions, for instance? It’s amazing the trust people put in priests when they come to us. We have to trust that God will work through us.
What has changed about how you heard confessions early in your priesthood and how you hear them now?
The main thing is, I’ve learned to encourage people to go deeper with their confessions. What tends to happen is that people say what they did and didn’t do, and that’s fine; but the deeper question is why? What are the deeper drives? I find I’m more skilled now at being able to listen to the things people tell me and how they are related.
There’s a long list of things I encourage people to reflect on when they’re preparing for confession, or afterwards, like the seven deadly sins, attitudes, arrogance, fury. Doing this helps bring confession alive. Many people get frustrated because they confess the same things all the time … but looking deeper is the key.
What has listening to people’s sins day in and day out taught you about human nature?
It’s taught me to have patience with the human condition. We all have our foibles; our struggles. There is a call to take sin seriously, but most confessions are people dealing with their struggles and I’ve discovered that people’s struggles and their strengths are closely related. Maybe a person is great at getting along with people, but they don’t stand up for things, for example; or maybe they are really passionate and make a difference, but they struggle with chastity. Our struggles and strengths are often related.
I remember a confessor saying to me: “However you solve this, don’t destroy Charlie Pope in the process.” I took it to heart. So often we could resolve our sins in a way that would have us surrender our strengths. But the Lord wants to work out that difference. We don’t want to destroy ourselves, and we need to respect the process.
How has hearing confessions for so many years affected you emotionally and psychologically?
My first experience when someone comes to confession is relief. They’ve heard the Gospel, and it brings them to repentance, but also to hope and grace. I’m so happy they’re here, and it is a moment to be gentle and to listen to them.