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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Silence of a Confessor

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There are many who fear confessing their sins to someone else but one need not be. Priests take an oath to silence about what they hear in the confessional as should be fearful since the confessional is always sealed. If you have never been to confession and have a heavy conscience about something or are unsure of the practice I think you will become a bit more comfortable with it after reading this piece from the mouth of one who has heard thousands of confessions.
I am a priest. I hear confessions. I have heard thousands of confessions. I also go to confession myself quite regularly, but that is not the angle from which I am writing here. I want to write from the angle of the confessor, not from that of the confessing.

I do so for the sake of the thousands of Catholics who need a good confession, but don't make one because of what they think might go on in the mind of the confessor while they tell their sins. Also for the sake of the thousands who are not Catholics and who have been taught to think that just about the most horrible institution in the world is that in which one human being is supposed to tell another his sins. Well, here are some of the things, 'that go on in the mind of the confessor.'

Of course, I cannot (I say 'cannot' instead of 'may not' deliberately, because the thing I speak of is so near to a physical impossibility) say anything that would reveal or publish the sins of any individual. That is what is called 'the seal of confession. ' You have to lock up in your heart what you hear. You have to be ready to stand up to inquisitors, dictators, persecutors, and dare them to order you to the gallows or the firing squad or solitary confinement rather than tell them anything about anybody's confession. I suppose every priest has, at some time or other, had the dream of glory involving brave and stony silence in the midst of a third degree about confessions he has heard.

Actually, however, it isn't so hard to keep the seal of confession. I said I have heard thousands of confessions. I have never kept track of the totals, though we are asked to count the number heard on specific occasions. I would roughly guess that I have heard many more than one hundred thousand confessions in twenty odd years, which would be less than five thousand a year. Some years, I know, they were many more. Anyway, that comes to an average of about one hundred a week, and I've often wondered if there are any other professional men in the world, doctors, lawyers, psychiatrists, etc., who in any given week treat the problems of a hundred different clients. I suppose doctors behind the front lines of a battlefield during a war do: But they would call this 'emergency treatment.' For hundreds of priests, one hundred or more confessions a week is normal practice for years. However, the point I want to make is that you don't have much capacity for remembering the sins of any individual when you are hearing one hundred or more confessions a week. All the stories blur together. The people whose confessions you have heard become like a crowd that you see only from a distance. You can see different heads and hats and heights, but you cannot distinguish features. You get so that these many voices you have heard whispering through a grate are like the one great voice of humanity whispering its plea for forgiveness and peace.

Sometimes, it is true, a penitent may arrange it so that you won't forget him or his sins. He comes to you in the parlor of a rectory, or he takes you aside from a gathering of people, and tells you outright what sins he has committed and asks you if there is any chance for him. Sometimes, if the place and time are suitable, you can have him kneel down at once, and put it all into a sacramental confession. He doesn't care what you know about him or what you think of him. To him, you are but an anonymous and shadowy instrument of God's mercy. But after such an open confession, you sometimes find the penitent wanting to keep in touch with you, remembering you with a greeting on feast days, reporting on how well he has been doing since the 'big' confession was made. This makes you very happy. Indeed, it is one of the great sources of happiness for a priest. It keeps before your eyes the kind of miraculous transformation that can be effected in people through a good confession and the strong graces that are imparted through the absolution you are empowered to pronounce.

There are those, too, who come to you regularly in the confessional in quest of guidance and help toward greater holiness. They want you to know them and to remember them just well enough to enable you to give them continuous direction. To you, they become souls without external features; you would not recognize them outside the confessional. Sometimes, on meeting you, a person will say: 'I've been going to confession to you for ten years. ' Yet, you won't have the slightest inkling of which 'case' or 'soul history' the person represents.

But nobody ever has to reveal himself, or herself, to the priest, either face to face, or by personal identification, when in need of a good confession. All they have to do is to join the queue outside the confessional, become one of the nameless, faceless, blurring multitude on a Saturday afternoon or evening, and slip into the shadowy cubicle when their turn comes. The story may be long or short; it may be weighted with big numbers revealing many falls, or it may come tumbling out charged with the emotions of remorse, sadness, fear, humiliation, grief. It may be the simple and placid revelation of those half deliberate slips and failings of which the Gospel says that even the just man can be guilty seven times a day. It doesn't matter to the priest. He has heard it all before. He has acquired the personal disinterest that routine and monotony and anonymity cannot but produce. Yet, that personal disinterest, that total lack of curiosity about who the penitent may be, does not destroy an intense desire to become the instrument of another miracle of forgiveness.
Read all of it.

1 Comments:

Blogger Luke Strawhorn said...

Yes- and the burden fo being left to oneself and your gulit is far more "weighty" than the possiblilty of a priest breaking his seal. Afterall, Christ does really absolve the sins through the priest- an what joy this is.

7:56 am  

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