Last Thursday and today, the other two priests and I heard confessions for the schoolchildren; we do it every other month. It's not easy fitting into the schedule: it takes the three of us about six hours, over two weeks, to do it; longer if we arrange for a short penance service beforehand, which is helpful as a way to help the children learn to see this as (1) a communal experience as well as personal, (2) to situate this in the context of prayer, (3) to have an opportunity to give a homily with instruction on the sacrament and (4) to go through an examination of conscience.
Maybe someday we can do it every month, but as I say, it's not easy.
This is a pause in the day, after that, before a staff meeting in a few minutes.
Some thoughts on the sacrament of confession:
* It really matters that you specify your sins...aloud. Sometimes this feels awkward, and believe me, as a priest, I don't want to go digging. Many people are awfully general.
Here's the thing: every sacrament has "matter" and "form." The "matter" of the sacrament is an essential part of what is used, what is transformed, so that you receive God's grace. In baptism, water is the matter; in the Eucharist, bread and wine. See a pattern?
Now, do you realize what the "matter" of this sacrament is? It is the sins you confess!
God's purpose, it seems to me, is to take what is worthless to us, and even harmful, and transform it into something awesome. This is part of what's amazing about this sacrament. Every other sacrament, we bring something wholesome and good to be made better. But here, we bring something truly awful and ugly--and yet he is eager to take it all the same.
Also, our specificity is how we "connect" with God in allowing specific healing. We can either say, "I need healing (generally)" -- okay, and maybe you'll get it...generally. But how much more we need specific healing--and this is how we unlock the door for that. The act of specifying our sins is also an act of acknowledgment and consent regarding these specific areas.
The analogy I often use is with a doctor: you may be embarrassed to mention a specific ailment, but if so, you can hardly expect the doctor to do much with, "I don't feel good." When you uncover and say, "this is my wound," that opens new opportunities.
A final thought on this. Someone else made the point that frequent confession means there is never anything in our lives, that is sinful and dark, that we haven't confronted and dealt with--no rocks we haven't turned over; no dark recesses we are afraid to face. Sometimes someone will come to confession, and remember something from the past, and it will be a real burden. When we frankly confess, and do it frequently, there's nothing lurking to bother us, down the road.
* It's hard to improve on the "short and sweet" approach. A lot of folks dwell on their feelings in confession, or they talk about the context: "I did ___ because..." Now, to some extent, of course, circumstances change the nature of the sin. "I missed Sunday Mass because I had no way to get there."
But I'm talking about the tendency to move, rather quickly, from confessing ones own sins, to confessing the sins of others. "It was because of how rotten she was to me."
There is a real temptation to lapse into self-justification: "I wasn't that bad," or "I better than usual." Again, to some degree, it is good to arrive at a point where you can see yourself with some clarity, both for good and bad. God wants us to acknowledge our sins, but he also wants to know when things are getting better, too. But there is a fine line somewhere here, where we cross over into a place where we're looking at our merits, rather than giving thanks for what God has done for us.
My point is, one can avoid all this by keeping to a concrete, straightforward agenda. This is the wisdom of the "old fashioned" way of doing this:
"Bless me + Father for I have sinned. It has been ___ (how long?) since my last confession. These are my sins..." Then confess your sins specifically, by kind and number, with only enough detail to clarify what the sin is. End with, "for these all my sins, including all those I cannot now remember, I am truly sorry." Answer any questions simply, hear whatever counsel may be provided, accept your penance (This means you have a choice; if you can't do that penance, if it's something you can't easily do, simply say so. The priest should know to offer something else. If not, you can have another priest "commute" your penance to something else.), offer your act of contrition, then listen and receive the absolution the priest gives in the person of Christ, through the prayer of absolution.
It's not that you aren't welcome to be friendly and exchange pleasantries with the priest. That's fine, and since it often helps deal with tension or fear, that's good. This need not be grim or frightening. But at the same time, if too much is "added into" the celebration of the sacrament, the structure and meaning of the sacrament can be obscured. We can derail ourselves from our central purpose--which, if you realize it later, may be unsettling.
Finally, knowing the basic form of the sacrament, and being thoroughly familiar with it, gets rid of one of the reasons people avoid the sacrament: "I don't know how to do it." Going to confession can be a tense experience, and not knowing what to do doesn't make it any better. So often, it's how we start something that is stressful; once we're underway, it's easier. At the pool--how do I get in? Behind the wheel, learning to drive; a new priest, how do I start Mass?
This is the genius of Catholic spirituality, with our oft-criticized "rote prayers." Lots of times in life, we lack the energy or wherewithal to summon up prayers "off the cuff." In times of crisis, that's the last thing we may want to do. That's when the prayers and rituals we repeated so often come into play, and we know how to pray. The prayers, in a sense, "pray for us," and we are carried along. Let me tell you, when people are lying in a hospital bed, barely able to move, these prayers are a great comfort. And they help us know what to do, when otherwise we would be lost at sea.