Allowing another to shift the burden onto our shoulders makes that burden ours, too. It is no longer just “their” problem.
A momentous change in the life of a newly ordained priest is beginning to hear confessions. While time spent in the confessional may range from one to several hours per week depending on one’s schedule, even just one hour of “sitting in the box” can be quite draining, especially at first.
It is a singular privilege and grace to offer the sacrament. I have already witnessed many moving, deeply edifying confessions in my short time as a priest. At the same time, it really is draining. I often leave with a low-grade headache and feeling of all-around physical tenseness.
Why can hearing confessions leave a priest feeling so spent? One factor is certainly the sheer focus required to listen accurately to sensitive, important information relayed by another person about his or her inmost life. Another factor is the expectation that the priest will address some helpful words of counsel to the penitent, though these are meant to be brief and modest in scope.
The real reason, in my view, is the exertion of heart, mind, and soul that takes place when we share another person’s burdens. Whenever we allow ourselves to share in others’ struggles by listening attentively and expressing our compassion, this takes a certain toll. Such compassion means opening ourselves to receive the other’s burden as our own.
This often happens in relationships with family and close friends, those who turn to us when they are struggling. It can also happen that acquaintances or even strangers come to us in a moment of vulnerability, when their struggle becomes apparent. Whenever it happens, it takes a toll, because allowing another to shift the burden onto our shoulders makes that burden ours, too. It is no longer just “their” problem.
While the confessor’s role is primarily theological and sacramental, it is also human. The priest acts as a representative of Jesus, receiving the penitent’s sins and imparting the Lord’s forgiveness — but he can only do so as a man. In every confession, there is a man sitting on the other side of the screen, who has opened himself to all comers and agreed to make their burdens his own, even if just for a few moments.
Hearing confessions is supposed to be draining. With all its theological and pastoral particularities, it is also an exercise in the broader human experience of compassion.
Don’t be afraid to keep opening yourself to compassion. While it may be draining, it is an essential part of a fully human, and Christian, life.
This is part of the series called “The Human Being Fully Alive” found here.