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.