Almost any Catholic can tell you what it’s like to be in the confessional. Initially, it really isn’t all that pleasant of an experience. After all, the confessional is pretty much a designated spot in which you have to admit what a horrible sinner you are. And with being human and all, no one really likes to do that.
However, the confessional is also a place in which a great miracle occurs. God Himself looks down on His creatures, Whom He loved even to the point of death, and (providing they have true contrition for what they have done) offers His love, mercy, and forgiveness. Needless to say, leaving the confessional is always more pleasant than entering it.
In working for the Church, one thing I find that often keeps people away from this great sacrament is fear. Fear of admitting their guilt, of having to let go of habitual sins, and most especially, fear of the priest. There seems to be this general consensus that in the confessional, the priest is a figure of judgment, ridicule, gossip, and condemnation. I hear fearful expressions about the minister of this sacrament all the time: The priest will think poorly of me! The priest will laugh at me! The priest will judge me! He will tell everyone else my sins!
I expressed these concerns to one of our parish priests, telling him the reasons that some people choose to stay away from confession. Shortly after, he gave a talk to a group of youth from the parish about the sacrament of Penance, and he gave a profoundly optimistic testimony as someone who more often than not sits on “the other side of the screen”.
He began by explaining the sacrament of Penance as an opportunity to encounter God’s grace and mercy. The confessional is not meant to be a torture chamber, as Pope Francis has reminded the faithful. In the confessional, we do not hear Christ saying to us “Depart from Me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). Rather we find ourselves in the story of the prodigal son, returning home after departing from the Father, Who upon seeing us, runs out to embrace us in love.
But then, speaking from his own perspective, this priest said one thing that I don’t think anyone was expecting to hear:
“I have nothing but admiration for people who come to confession!”
This was so confusing to me! But he continued on to say that those who come to confession acknowledge their sinfulness before the Lord, and have the humility to confess that sinfulness to Christ, through the ministry of the priest. And for that, he admires them. As a fellow sinner, he recognized that going to confession is not always an easy thing to do. But he greatly encouraged everyone to take advantage of this great sacrament as an opportunity to receive much grace. He reassured those listening that the priest waits for sinners with the mercy, love, and forgiveness of Christ Himself, ever ready to bestow these generous gifts on those who earnestly repent.
You see, the priest does not just sit in the confessional in the hopes of hearing an embarrassing or shameful story that he can run off and share with his priest buddies (in fact, the Seal of Confession prevents his from doing so). The confessional is not a place of condemnation and judgment. It is a place of forgiveness and pardon. It is an opportunity for us to have a fresh start in our relationship with God, a second chance (or third, or fourth, or…hundredth) to be the saints that we are all called to be!
I hope that we can all take the comforting words of this priest to heart. On one side of the screen is a sinner, one who has acknowledged his guilt and sinfulness and has come with humility to the sacrament of Penance. On the other side of the screen is the priest, who acts in persona Christi (in the person of Christ) to offer God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness. As prodigal sons and daughters, we hang our heads and make our way back to God the Father, having sinned against Him in all of His goodness. God Himself, through the priest, runs out to meet us with open arms, and rejoices that we have come to Him, that we might be fully alive once again.
May we be filled with the courage to repent of our former way of life, and return to the friendship of God. May we pray for our priests who wait patiently for sinners, in order to embrace them with the loving arms of the Father.