by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — It happened to Father Harry Schneider while he was Christmas shopping.
Father Schneider was resting on a bench at a mall when a man approached him.
“Are you a Catholic priest?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Father Schneider.
“I need to go to confession,” the man said, and he began to tell Father Schneider about his life.
“We just prayed quietly and then I offered him absolution,” said Father Schneider.
In fact, it happens all the time. A priest will be at a reception, a hospital, a restaurant, an office or a store, and someone will come up to them and want to go to confession or talk about his or her life.
It happened to Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann in a fastfood drive-through.
There have been lots of stories and social science studies about the decreasing use of the sacrament of reconciliation, but lots of priests have stories about being approached in public by people who feel desperately burdened by sin.
It’s a paradox. People want the sacrament, but they will sometimes say they’re afraid to go to confession.
“I, and many priests, have been approached [in public],” said Father Schneider. “People will, very openly, tell me about their lives in a conversation — things that they have done wrong, that are sins.”
“They’re not embarrassed at all to talk about all these things in their lives,” he continued. “Then they say they’re afraid to go to confession — but they essentially just have.”
There are many reasons why people don’t go to confession, said Father Schneider, who was a key member of the committee that designed the archdiocese’s Lenten initiative, “Confession: Springtime of Your Soul.”
Sometimes it’s a lack of a sense of sin, he said. Sometimes people no longer believe in the sacrament and think they need only pray to God directly — ignoring the fact that Jesus established this sacrament, as recorded in the Gospel of John: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them” (20:23).
Sometimes the barrier is the form in which the sacrament is presented. People may be reluctant to come to a church or wait in line. Lack of support from the family — like a good example from parents — can discourage going to confession. Ignorance, from a lack of good catechesis, can be the problem.
And then there is another barrier: not wanting to face personal sin.
“Many people find it difficult to be really honest with themselves about sin in their lives,” said Father Schneider. “It is difficult to be honest and accountable about sin in our lives.”
Often, however, it’s because of a lack of opportunity. Father Schneider found this out at 30,000 feet.
About 20 years ago, he boarded a flight from Kansas City, Mo., to Newark, N.J. The plane was fairly full and the flight attendant asked him to move way to the front, where there were a few vacant rows. After takeoff, the flight attendant made a request.
“She came and sat down, and she told me that the whole flight crew was Catholic and they had no opportunities to go to confession because of their schedules,” said Father Schneider. “She asked if I would hear their confessions.”
Father Schneider agreed, so one by one — everyone from the flight attendant to the pilot and copilot — took turns in the “confessional.”
“Basically, I heard confessions over Illinois, Indiana and Ohio,” he said. “They were all very grateful, and when I got off the plane, they all thanked me.”
People really need confession because they sin and need to experience God’s forgiveness and love, he said. And they need a concrete sign — the priest — to help them to be honest and accountable, and to have the forgiveness confirmed.
“The fruits and benefits of reconciliation are the forgiveness of sins and truly knowing that our sins are forgiven,” said Father Schneider, “and the great freedom of knowing that our sins are truly forgiven.”
Just as it’s common for priests to be asked for the sacrament in unconventional circumstances, it’s also common for a priest to encounter someone who is coming back to reconciliation after 10, 30 or even more years of absence.
“They should go and not be afraid,” said Father Schneider. “My experience is that it seems the longer someone has been away, the kinder I am. We priests are very sensitive and understanding of that, and we are there to help that person — to welcome them as they reflect on their life.”
In those instances, Father Schneider said, he often welcomes the penitent with: “I’m glad you’re here. It took a lot of courage, and I’m glad you’re here.”
Although he’s willing to hear confessions in unusual circumstances, Father Schneider believes it serves the penitent better to prepare in advance. The best way to prepare to receive the sacrament is with prayer and self honesty — a reflection about one’s life and the state of one’s soul — which is often accomplished by a thorough examination of conscience, he said.
The wrong ways to approach the sacrament include doing so without adequate reflection and prayer, as well as taking a rote or mechanical approach. The sacrament of reconciliation is a prayer prayed together by the priest and penitent, he said.
And it’s a misunderstanding to think that the confession ends with absolution, said Father Schneider. The sacrament must continue to be celebrated by praying, giving thanks, thinking about and doing one’s penance, and living the sacramental life.
Indeed, reconciliation is an important part of our ongoing conversion.
“The challenge for all of us is ongoing, continued spiritual growth,” said Father Schneider. “So the sacrament of reconciliation is a real gift for us to look into our lives, face ourselves, and be honest with ourselves.
“No matter what age we are, there is always some area in our lives . . . to draw closer to the Lord and to experience his love, kindness and mercy, in order that we become witnesses of that.”