The Indispensable Priest
Our mindset of commitment is crucial (Part I) and having Truth in Hand through the many textual resources the Church provides is important (Part II), but having access to the priestly resource is vital. Only the priest can confect the Eucharist; only the priest can forgive our sins. (John 20:21-23): “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, even so I send you.’ And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”
Choices which we make today prepare us for the decisions we may have to make tomorrow, whether tomorrow is a day of secular or spiritual blackout, or not. Is the confessor we choose today the one whom we would want if we were under persecution or under schismatic torpor? Is he likely to be one who would take the risk of hearing confessions if not civilly legal? Is he likely to be the one who will speak the truth of Jesus Christ rather than protecting his clerical career path? While these questions may relate to difficult times, they are not inappropriate questions for choosing a confessor today. It is not as if we hadn’t already seen red hats choose to pervert the Word of God, even publicly at a Synod. (If you don’t know what this is about, then unfortunately you’ve encountered a serious disconnect between what is happening in the Church, and being aware of the forces unleashed against God’s forgiveness.)
Choosing a Confessor
In today’s post, I want to concentrate on the need for access to a confessor while ‘Sheltering in Place.’ More than 10 years ago, I had occasion to write (now slightly tweaked) some thoughts about choosing a confessor (not that we need to be limited to having only one, as the intensity of widespread sinfulness ramps up in the world, and the holy suffer persecution.)
I wrote the original reflection because I was surprised that so many Catholics seemed not to choose their confessor with even a fraction of the care with which they choose a doctor, a lawyer, or a school for their children, and maybe even their grocery store. It seems that, over a period of time, just as we wouldn’t jump around from one doctor to another without their knowing about our medical history, it is good to rely on someone who can begin to know us and our spiritual needs. That decidedly does NOT mean a mandatory spiritual advisor! More on that another time!
Most people seem to make a decision about a confessor (and even which parish they join) based on convenience – convenient geography and convenient times for the Sacrament of Penance, or by seeking out a stranger whom they might never see again for a quick hosing off. But there is a difference between an emergency (just like going to the emergency room after an accident) or having a relationship with a GP (general practitioner) physician.
With that in mind, I also don’t think that a confessor relationship must always be with a priest from one’s own parish, especially if it makes us inhibited in fully confessing or in accepting guidance. One size definitely does not fit all! Some members of a family might benefit from going to reconciliation with one priest, another family member with a different priest. Even for ourselves, a different priest may be more helpful at various stages in our lives (like a specialist in the medical situation), and that relationship also need not stay the same over time, depending on the challenges we face in our lives. Like any relationship, we can usually allow it to evolve over time, if done prayerfully. But with some of the heavier aspects of “end times” looming over life today, it seems not unreasonable to include “confessor planning” as part of the strategy for Sheltering in Place. When we don’t make a choice, we are making a choice.
When I first published these thoughts on line, on a parish blogsite, I was particularly surprised at positive reactions from several priests who commented that they’d had some new insight. The main point, as I remember, was that they were struck by the view that when a priest dismisses any sin as ‘not that serious’ or as ‘many people do that’ or –worse—‘why I’ve done that myself’ as if it then couldn’t possibly be a sin, what they are really doing is demeaning God’s prerogative of forgiveness, and diminishing the penitent’s ‘sense of sin’.
Criteria for Choosing
So, how do we choose a priest to whom to begin to confess on a regular basis? I think by first doing a sincere daily examination of conscience to increase our awareness of our needs, in conjunction with prayer to the Holy Spirit for guidance. Many examen lists emphasize commission of sin which must be confessed, and even develop applications which might not be recognized as implicit in the commandment transgressed, but what is sometimes missing from such lists are omissions, especially failure to respond to the initiative of the Lord in our lives, to follow God’s promptings of our hearts. When we ask God to provide the confessor, He really does respond. And, when He steers us away from a confessor, even a seemingly, wonderful priest, we must be sensitive enough to listen and obey. Still, we do need to consider the characteristics of a confessor in making our choices.
There are also at least a dozen characteristics which need careful scrutiny regarding the prospective confessor in order for us to choose wisely:
- Listen to his homilies, his tone, attitude and content. Do they bring us closer to God and His Will, or do they simply entertain me or make me look at my watch? Is he a one-theme homilist or far-ranging over the needs of the parishioners? If I am being touched by his homilies I should remember the key message even a day or two later. His demeanor in confession and his impact on me will probably be similar to the effect his homilies have on me.
- How obedient does he seem to Church Teaching? How respectful of the Eucharistic celebration in gestures, cleansing the vessels, bowing at the name of Jesus? How careful is he to “do the red and read the black” from the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, rather than improvising his own words? Does he genuflect before the Tabernacle when passing through the Church or does he have an “exempt” mindset? What about if he goes through multiple times?
- In his homilies and sermons, does he confront head-on, with clarity and care, those difficult issues that can send souls to hell? Or does he tip-toe around the matters of intrinsic evil, preferring to preach on what no one can disagree with, or on matters of prudential judgment without acknowledging the other side for consideration? Is money a pervasive theme from the pulpit, but not morals?
- Outside the confessional, ask him a small question, like about a scripture just read (sincere, not contrived) and see if he takes the question seriously, responsively, with care and compassion. See if he takes you seriously. See if he gives the time needed, or answers while walking away. Notice if he is willing to correct something for the sake of truth and accuracy, or lets misunderstanding remain rather than apologize.
- Does he stretch the rules and even seem somewhat tolerant of sin? Make a joke about it? Correction of our faults is one of our needs in confession and it seems a waste to confess to a priest who minimizes our sins, because then he also, in a sense, minimizes God’s forgiveness. Does he give necessary correction with love and caring? Does he encourage the penitent, or discourage?
- Listen to how he speaks about others to get a sense of his ability to keep things confidential and respectful. Confidentiality is important, whether or not we think so at the time; it is a sloppy habit to try to engage in discussion further on confessed sins outside the confessional, for both the priest and the penitent. I was in a parish once where a priest gave a homily about confession and the difficulty of forgiving and, having been in a prior parish, how a woman’s sister had “run away” with her husband. Although no names were given, it made me very uncomfortable and I knew instantly that I would never go to him to confession, ever. I would rather have a confessor who even seems ‘secretive,’ rather than wandering too close to discussing “thinly veiled” situations that might involve what is personal to other people in the parish. While I should expect him to obey the church’s teachings on the seal of confession, the way he respects confidentiality outside the confessional gives me an idea of whether or not he will narrow his obligation down to the sin content only or also to the general discussion I might have in seeking direction or advice. (Ergo– if we need to call a parish problem to a priest’s attention, don’t do it in confession (unless it involves your sin!) He won’t be able to act on what you said under the seal! And he shouldn’t be entertaining casual discussion in the confessional either.)
- Look for a real willingness to respond to the need to confess on a timely basis — not for just being fit into the calendar, say, like “next Tuesday at 1:15 PM”
- It is one thing to know the basic rules, but it is another thing to understand an individual confessor’s attitude toward those rules. But outside the confessional. we can ASK him about his attitude toward the seal of confession, and how broad or narrow he accepts that obligation, including how to have a follow-up discussion if needed. At least we will have let him know what is important to us, and have gained a better sense of what to expect from him. There are priests who are very uncomfortable with face-to-face confession; it isn’t inappropriate to ask his preference, if he has one.
- Pay attention to how we feel after going to reconciliation with a particular priest. Refreshed? Clean? Energized? Or depressed and anxious? Is it a “feeling” that will help me to go back to reconciliation sooner rather than postponing in dread in the future?
- Always PRAY about the choice of a confessor, because he has the potential to have more effect on us than any other advisor. See to whom God wants us to confess. It doesn’t have to be the world’s best confessor; he only has to be someone who can help us to move closer to God.
- If we are not carefully choosing AND using a confessor, we are only receiving part of the richness the Catholic Church offers, especially the graces of the Sacrament. It makes sense to avoid confessors who challenge whether one really had ‘enough’ to confess.
- Revisit from time to time if the choice of confessor is still the right one, if we are moving closer to God, committing fewer sins, having clarity about sin and the occasions of sin, vs. personality quirks, or falling short of our own (sometimes prideful) expectations of ourselves. There are confessors, of somewhat lax consciences themselves, who may mix-up “scrupulosity” with a tenderness of soul. Scrupulosity is easily recognized by a compulsive re-confessing due to not believing or “feeling” that God really has forgiven us. A tenderness of soul may result in re-confessing not because we disbelieve God’s forgiveness but because, as we grow more mature spiritually, more grateful for having been forgiven, we come to realize damages from our sins beyond what we understood when we first confessed. This distinction is not insignificant.
Staying free from sin
The very consideration of the end-times context, or loss of religious liberties, or of trauma within the Body of Christ will help to bring focus to the question of choosing a confessor for such times. That in itself is preparing to Shelter in Place, if indeed we have provided for such care of our souls. But two other thoughts are perhaps worth mentioning:
- The best way to prepare to confess sins is to have no sins. Easier said than done! In difficult times, with the potential of months or even years between confessions, avoiding sin will be easier if we are not already carrying the burden of unconfessed sin. In such difficult times it means taking every opportunity possible to be reconciled. If we are “Sheltering in Place” we don’t know how long it will be; but, we may have a clue in the words of Jesus in Mark 13:20: “And if the Lord had not shortened the days, no human being would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom He chose, He shortened the days.”
- It is important to cultivate deeply the “sense of sin.” A confessor ought to be able to help. It seems to me that there is a reason for what David wrote in Psalm 51:4: “Against Thee and Thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in Thy sight, so that Thou art justified in Thy sentence and blameless in Thy judgment.” We hurt other people, abuse them, cheat them, and injure them. But we do not ‘sin’ against them even though we must confess what we’ve done and make atonement. The SIN is against God. The chasm which SIN creates between God and myself is infinitely deep, which only Christ’s Sacrifice can bridge. Using the idea of “sin” too casually can seem to diminish the reality of SIN, and even obscure our sense of conscience, and of our own responsibility for Christ’s suffering. One meditation to deepen contrition is to reflect on Peter’s thoughts and emotions on Saturday morning, the day after the Crucifixion, when he heard the cock crow. And he knew he would hear that sound every morning for the rest of his life. Sculpted statues of St. Peter may show grooves beneath his eyes, deepened by his tears.
As you think about and plan for “Sheltering in Place,” what would you add or change on the above list?