For many Catholics, the sacrament of confession presents certain challenges. But as a Catholic priest, I find it presents some of the most privileged moments in my life. Writing about those moments, however, is a little difficult, for two reasons. First, confession and the forgiveness of sins are a uniquely private interaction between the penitent and God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit. No one, not even the priest as himself, may intrude on that covenant. It is a very serious and personal relationship, so it’s not like I can share with you, “I remember this one confession when …” Disclosure of that sort would rightfully earn me the condemnation of the Church and a place in the deepest regions of hell. That is something I spend a great deal of energy trying to avoid, which brings me to the second reason that makes writing about confession difficult. I pray often that God may help me as a priest to forget. I am grateful for answered prayers and a forgetful heart.
Under that introduction, I will try to share with you something of what I do remember as an aid of reflection to get more out of the sacrament.
My first words of advice are: Prepare to be judged. We know that we are being judged all the time. When God judges, it is because he knows where we are and where we could be. Sin bogs us down. God’s judgment, accompanied with his mercy, gives us freedom. I remember this one confession when (it’s OK, it was my own) at the moment I confessed a particular sin, the priest I was face to face with had this reaction. It was a tiny, non-verbal response, likely even involuntary, but I immediately felt judged. For the longest time, all I retained from that moment was the embarrassment and shame it caused me. Now, some years later, I would be hard-pressed to consider a circumstance in which I would willingly commit the same sin I confessed then. The judgement I felt and the words, “I absolve you …” from the same priest gave me freedom.
That really is my second piece of advice: Know that the judgement is divine, with the purpose of winning our freedom. In the presence of the Divine, before the foot of the cross, the sting felt has the purpose of restoring. God is not pleased to condemn. He did that to his only begotten Son, and we have the Garden of Gethsemane as a record to know how it felt. But we also have the empty tomb and the joy of the apostles to tell us why he endured such pain for us. Divine judgment opens for us the gates of paradise. When we expose ourselves to it, we are set free. The challenge of facing our sinfulness is met by the abundance of Divine Love.
Father Woodrow Pace, Director of the Missions Office