Young confessors discover life on the other side of the screen
by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — One of the questions young priests inevitably encounter is: “How do I become a good confessor?”
The answer, in part, is: “Be a good penitent.”
People sometimes forget that priests have to go to confession, too. Being on both sides of the screen — at least figuratively — gives them special insights on the sacrament of reconciliation.
By both administering and receiving the sacrament, they learn how the human soul is touched and healed, and their essential role in bringing people back to the heart of Jesus.
“In [the] seminary we had one professor . . . who [believed that] to be a good confessor you have to go to confession,” said Father Andrew Strobl, associate pastor of Prince of Peace Parish in Olathe, ordained in 2009. “He wasn’t talking about just once or twice a year, but very regularly — go to confession yourself.”
As seminarians, they studied the history and theology of the sacrament, said Father Pat Sullivan, administrator of Annunciation Parish in Frankfort, St. Joseph Parish in Lillis, and St. MonicaSt. Elizabeth Parish in Blue Rapids. And they read and wrote on the sacrament.
But they also practiced it.
“[With five or six classmates] each week we’d run through scenarios,” said Father Sullivan, ordained in 2009. “One would be the penitent and the other would be the confessor.”
The rest of the seminarians would watch and critique.
“It was a fascinating learning experience,” said Father Greg Hammes, associate pastor of Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood, ordained in 2007. “I discovered that it is kind of challenging to be on the other side of the sacrament.”
“One of the things that at least one of our professors taught us is that in every confession we should ask, ‘Why is this person here?’” he continued. “‘What is it they are seeking?’ That is often a very difficult question.”
As much as they could, these simulations tried to get seminarians to think and react to situations they’d encounter as priests.
“It did give you a good sense that you didn’t know what was coming, and a sense that the sacrament of reconciliation is one of the most precious, intimate opportunities we have to make a huge impact in someone’s life,” said Father Strobl.
Still, these classroom scenarios were nothing like the “real world.”
“You can talk about scenarios and general things about how to address certain sins, but you are not prepared to go to one confession after another and totally refocusing,” said Father Strobl. “When you hear multiple confessions, you have to totally refocus to the new person in front of you . . . and give them the attention they deserve.”
It was really helpful to him, as a seminarian, to go to different confessors, he added. He’d pick up on things he really appreciated, with the thought in the back of his mind that “someday, you will have to do this,” said Father Strobl.
Learning in the trenches
The learning didn’t stop in the seminary, said Father Sullivan. In fact, one thing he gained was a deeper appreciation of his own priesthood.
“I have realized just how important the priesthood is to the faithful,” he said. “So often we hear that without the priesthood, there is no Eucharist. This is true, of course, but without the priesthood, there would not be the sacrament of reconciliation, either.”
Administering so great a sacrament is a tremendous responsibility. Like other young priests, Father Hammes was concerned about getting the rubrics right and saying the right things. In time, he learned to relax and trust God.
“I learned — and am still learning — to relax and listen,” said Father Hammes. “I’m often very surprised by what I say. It feels like the Holy Spirit is speaking through me, so I’ve learned to listen and not even think about what I’m going to say [to the penitent] until I do speak.”
“I’ve also learned a lot about people and their faith in the sacrament,” he continued. “To me, this is the most encouraging sacrament, because you get to see the heart of people. It’s often quite beautiful to see their faith as they struggle, and their trust, courage, and humility. It often amazes and encourages me.”
Learning to be a good confessor comes hand in hand with experience. “A good confessor gets a feel of where the penitent is coming from,” said Father Strobl.
“A good confessor will be able to pick up if this is someone comfortable with the sacrament, who goes regularly. A good confessor will be able to zero in if this is someone who needs encouragement or a little push in a certain direction, or hasn’t been to confession [in] a while and needs to be put back together again.”
They also learn to ask the right questions. Not too many, but just enough to be helpful.
Father Sullivan has gained a deeper appreciation of the sacrament as he’s come to realize more fully how we’re all sinners in need of God’s mercy.
“I also learned how broken we are as a people, every one of us — the successful businessman, the wife and mother, the athlete, young and old — we are all broken,” said Father Sullivan.
“I am humbled to see people lay all their sins down in front of a stranger and trust in the Lord,” he continued. “I think this is one of the great things about the sacrament — that [to receive it] we have to be humble.”
A good confessor learns to be comfortable with the “awkward pause,” lets penitents collect themselves, and doesn’t rush them.
A little feedback is good, too.
“I love the penitents who aren’t afraid to give a little helpful feedback,” said Father Strobl. “It’s like, if you start going off on some advice, and they fill you in [by saying], ‘Well, Father, here’s my circumstance,’ then they give a little bit more helpful [information].”
Father Strobl believes that a good confessor does not assume too much. For example, the reason he might go to confession may not be the same reason the penitent has come to him for confession.
The confessional is a place of healing and liberation, and thus requires kindness and compassion on the part of the confessor. It also, however, requires honesty and firmness.
“You need to be firm when you’re directing someone in their spiritual life,” said Father Sullivan. “ I often tell people, “If I were a medical doctor, and we were talking about your physical health, you’d want me to tell you the truth if you were doing something horrible to your body.’”
“Well, I’m a doctor of the soul, and you’d want me to tell you the truth,” he continued. “So, very lovingly and in a convincing and real way, I tell [penitents] the error of their ways if they need to hear it. Always with love and a smile. The backbone to tell the truth in confession, with patience, makes a good confessor.”
New ways of appreciation
Going to confession is never easy, even if you’re a priest, said Father Strobl. Yet, confession can become such a beautiful time to encounter God’s love and mercy and to experience spiritual growth.
The sacrament has helped him appreciate his vocation even more.
“I love being a priest,” he said. “God bless us, we need so many great counselors and good psychologists. But, as priests, we have such a blessing to be able to turn to someone who needs God’s mercy in some way, ask them, ‘When was your last confession?’ and offer it — boom — on the spot.”
Probably the best part of being a confessor is that the experience of grace isn’t limited to the penitent.
“I’ve learned as a confessor that the peace that comes from the sacrament of reconciliation, the joy that is in it, is reciprocated back to the confessor,” said Father Sullivan. “At least for me, the confessor gets just as much out of it as the penitent. You can sense when both of you are uplifted by the grace of Jesus.”
Some of that uplift comes from the holiness found in the penitent.
“It’s very interesting and humbling to see someone come in,” said Father Sullivan, “and they are just really upset and hurt by their sins, and you sit there thinking, ‘You really haven’t done much. . . . I’ve had a worse week than that,’” said Father Sullivan. “You’re learning that, perhaps, they are holier than you are. Their smaller sins are eating at them, and perhaps [your own] should be eating at you.”
Often, the confessor can identify with the penitent and learn more about themselves.
“Often I learn about myself, because — wait a minute — I struggle with that, too,” said Father Hammes. “And when I listen to them and respond, often I am preaching to myself, too, so I do learn from that encounter personally.”
Living the sacrament
Another aspect of the sacrament only fully appreciated once the seminarians reached the other side of the screen was how it continues to be celebrated and lived outside the confessional.
“Do your penance,” said Father Hammes. “Always practice some penance in your life to remind yourself throughout the year that we are sinners and we need penance.”
“Whatever gift [of grace] we have been given is meant to be shared with others,” he continued. “We have been reconciled with Christ and the church, and we need go out and reconcile with others. We need to repair old relationships to bring people back to Christ.”
Celebrating the sacrament is more than just getting the slate wiped clean. It’s about going on to avoid sin, said Father Sullivan. We should use those times when we return to the sacrament to grow in holiness, and not give in to frustration.
“So many people come in frustrated because they confess the same sins,” he said. “It’s OK. Don’t be afraid to confess those sins. But you want to ask yourself if you are doing anything to try to stop committing those sins. . . . That’s what will help make us saints. Chip away, little by little, and pray for God’s help in those areas of your life.”