Aleteia logoAleteia logo
Wednesday 22 September |
Saint of the Day: St. Maurice and the Theban Legion
home iconSpirituality
line break icon

A Priest Confesses What It’s Like to Hear People’s Sins

Courtesy Image

Zoe Romanowsky - published on 03/11/16

One of the dangers for priests is that we’re a little like doctors. I remember years ago, I went to a family doctor who’d been in practice for years. I didn’t know it, but I’d broken my ribs and thought something must be horribly wrong. The doctor’s attitude was very much like, “You must have broken your ribs, that’s a bummer.” He’d seen things like that a million times, but for me, it was brand new and scary.

As priests, we’ve heard it all and can be a little matter of fact or go on autopilot. We have to fight against that. It’s about trying to be with the person in that moment. It may be confession number 30 for you that day, but it’s not for the person in front of you. Trying to stay in the moment is important. I try to stay mindful of St. John Vianney, who said to be tough in the pulpit but kind in the confessional.

How do you spiritually prepare to hear confessions? Is there anything specific you do when you’re finished that helps you forget what you’ve heard and move on?

I go to confession weekly myself. Priests should go a lot, otherwise we won’t be effective confessors. I take this as important preparation. The rest is mainly what I call “remote” preparation. I’m a blogger and a writer and a lot of my work is on the spiritual and the moral life so I do a lot of spiritual reading. To me, this is a sine qua non for priests, and certainly very important for me. Usually I’m reading a few books at any given time. And I do a Holy Hour every day. There are down times in the confessional and I spend that time feeling grateful for God’s mercy. When people ask me how I am, I like to say, “I’m pretty well blessed for a sinner.”

I know the seal of confession is sacrosanct. Do you ever wish you could share what you’ve heard with someone else, or process what you’ve heard?

The ban isn’t so absolute that you can never speak about it; you just can’t ever share particulars, or any information that could allow someone to be identified. But I can go to a brother priest and run something by him so long as nothing is specific. Every now and again I might use something in a homily too — but again, in a very general way.

I think all priests experience this, but when I was ordained, God blessed me with a poor memory. As a priest, you hear so much that it’s really hard to remember what people tell you. And there is so much you have to keep confidential — the counseling you do, helping people in crises, etc. Within a few years as a priest, generally, you can’t possibly remember what you’ve heard in confession by the end of the day. Poor memory is a grace God gives us.

How has being a confessor changed your spiritual life? 

For me, it’s just the immense gift of doing it. The word that comes to mind is humility. It’s a
remarkable thing, that I’m sitting there doing what St. Paul called the “ministry of reconciliation.” I’m not doing it; it’s really the Lord. And it’s an incredibly humbling thing. Jesus takes up the person of the priest; the priest’s humanity is the substantive bread of the sacrament of Holy Orders. Jesus takes us up and makes use of us. So it does make me think, Wow, what is it about me that I was chosen to do this? It’s humbling. In almost a scary way.

Does hearing confessions affect the way you approach the sacrament yourself and  vice versa?

Sure. For example, if I’m quick to interrupt somebody I try and remember that I don’t like to be interrupted myself in confession. Sometimes you have to, of course, but I try to listen well. I usually go to a regular confessor, but sometimes I may be in a different setting and I’m mindful of the beauty of having someone listen. There is something so powerful about listening; it allows someone to unburden themselves. What I say as a confessor is a minor part — the fact that someone can speak it out loud is powerful. I’ve learned this as a spiritual director too. In letting the person talk it through, they minister to themselves; there is a healing that goes on. Ultimately, I hope I convey that I’m so glad they are here. I want them to feel comfortable speaking.

What makes a great confessor?

Good listening. I tell some of the younger priest I work with that 90 percent is listening — you don’t have to have sage advice at every moment; it’s not the purpose of confession. At the end of the day, the gift of listening with compassion is enough.

  • 1
  • 2
Support Aleteia!

If you’re reading this article, it’s thanks to the generosity of people like you, who have made Aleteia possible.

Here are some numbers:

  • 20 million users around the world read every month
  • Aleteia is published every day in seven languages: English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, and Slovenian
  • Each month, readers view more than 50 million pages
  • Nearly 4 million people follow Aleteia on social media
  • Each month, we publish 2,450 articles and around 40 videos
  • We have 60 full time staff and approximately 400 collaborators (writers, translators, photographers, etc.)

As you can imagine, these numbers represent a lot of work. We need you.

Support Aleteia with as little as $1. It only takes a minute. Thank you!

Daily prayer
And today we celebrate...

Top 10
Domitille Farret d'Astiès
Attacked with acid as a baby, Anmol Rodriguez overcomes and inspi...
Esteban Pittaro
Argentine “Mother Teresa” was a former model and actress who embr...
Philip Kosloski
Your body is not a “shell” for your spirit
Our Lady of La Salette
Philip Kosloski
How Our Lady of La Salette can give us hope in darkness
Philip Kosloski
Pray this Psalm when you successfully recover from an illness
Philip Kosloski
An alternative Hail Mary to Our Lady of Sorrows
Cerith Gardiner
12 Habits of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati that every young adult...
See More
Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.