I've been thinking about the sacrament of penance lately.
First, because my being in residence at Saint Rose means I can offer confessions there more than in the recent past, and I'm wondering when would be the best times (see nearby post and give feedback please!).
Second, because several of my brother priests are headed off soon for a conference on the sacrament; I'd have gone, however with this transition from Piqua to my two new assignments here in view, I decided it was better not to go at this time. But I wish I could.
Third, I was in the confessional today, and--here is something you might not think of unless you are a priest--but as long as the temperature isn't too far off, it's a very pleasant spot. It's quiet and prayerful; no one bothers you, except of course to make their confession, which is not a bother! I mean: there are no trivial interruptions. So it's a wonderful place to think and pray.
Even though I was busy enough--Deo gratias!--I somehow found time to meditate on the sacrament.
Here are some thoughts for my fellow priests: why you should hear confessions (apart from the obvious reasons):
> As mentioned, it's quiet and prayerful.
> It is humbling, for two reasons. First, because you are given a window into another person's soul. Second, because you will hear your own sins confessed to you.
> Because you hear your own sins confessed to you, it will challenge you to holiness and to make your own confession. To flip that around; if a priest himself doesn't confess, or doesn't take his own holiness seriously enough, I would imagine hearing confessions would be a difficult experience.
> Because you have a window into the lives of others, you will better understand the people God has given you to serve.
Here I pause to offer a conundrum. Church law is firm: the priest may make no use of anything heard in confession. And I would prefer not to remember a bit of it. But how can I not be affected? Can God really intend me not to be affected? Yet if my administration of this sacrament, including whatever counsel I may offer, is changed by the confessions I hear, have I "made use" of what I heard?
> As you understand the people you serve better, you will also be strengthened in your faith. I am strengthened tremendously by the faith of the people I serve.
> You may get the uneasy sense that God just did something through you--right then! I don't mean in the sense of absolution; I know--on the premise of faith--that God acts each time without question. Instead, I mean when I say things, as counsel or in answer to a question, and then as I say them, I wonder, "where did that come from? And yet, I can't really know if it's an inspiration; and most likely, I won't know till eternity whether what I offered really was any good--or just some blather the penitent is courteous enough to sit through until I wrap things up.
Sometimes I give no counsel; other times I give a little, sometimes a lot. Why the difference? Hard to explain. Sometimes I haven't a clue what to say, so I move along. Other times I have a firmer sense that there really isn't anything to say that the penitent doesn't already seem to know. Sometimes the start of Mass is approaching, no time! Other times, I hope that some words I give, however inadequate, may catalyze a sense of peace and relief for the penitent. There are times I would like to go through the words of absolution and provide a line-by-line reflection: do you hear what the priest is saying? Do you know what it means? If you could take a tiny drop of the Lord's own Blood, and turn it into words, this is what it sounds like. Do you know that Saint Thomas Aquinas (could I offer any better authority, other than the Lord himself?) taught that so great was the worth of our Savior, that any suffering of his, however slight, was sufficient to atone for all sins whatsoever? So the tiniest scratch, the bruise, the skinned knee...more than enough! One drop of his Blood is oceans of oceans of mercy,
I also thought, while in the confessional today, of some things I was taught in Philosophy of God (and you wondered what good would come of that dusty stuff!). We are taught that not only is God infinite, but God is, to use a word in an uncustomary way, "simple." How odd to say! It would make more sense, wouldn't it, to say God is anything but simple?
But in philosophy, it means that God is without parts. Any attribute of his is identical with his Being. So when we say that God loves, and God is infinite, and that God loves me, we can say that all these attributes are identical with his Being. God doesn't merely give me a second's worth of love and then move on to the rest of vast Creation; God's love for me is who he is.
Isn't that a comforting thought? Whatever shame or discouragement I feel for my own sins and failures, God's love for me is infinite; his favor toward me--being identical to his Being--is unchangeable. I can no more cause God to love me less, than that I can walk down to the Ohio River and tell it to become ice-cold beer. In fact, the latter is at least possible; our Lord said if we have enough faith, we can move mountains, so in theory with enough faith--and God approving of the plan--I could supply the Ohio Valley with beer! But how could I ever suppose any action of mine could undo God's Will? I might as well command the universe to spin the other way.
> I have heard priests comment that a hazard of very frequent confessions is that it can have unhelpful effects on some people. Just as some people can be overzealous about Mass and communion, or can go overboard with a devotion or volunteerism, so people can, in coming to confession, have unhealthy impulses--such as scrupulosity--reinforced. And yet we don't decide to have Mass but once a month because of unhealthy ways people approach that sacrament. I refer back to what I said above: we are invited into other people's inner sancta; we tread very lightly and reverently.
At any rate, those are some thoughts...for your edification I hope.