Not long ago, I was attending Mass at the parish where I was baptized. After Mass, I picked up a bulletin, out of habit and out of curiosity to see what had been going on at this parish since I had been there last. It turned out that week the priest administrator of the parish had an important reminder for the congregation: When coming to confession at the parish, Catholics had better get there before confessions began. Confession time would end precisely according to schedule; anyone left in the confession line would be out of luck and would have to return another time.
I had hoped that this was an anomaly. Perhaps the parish had been overwhelmed by penitents streaming in five minutes before the end of confession times and the priests could not handle the demand. A happy problem to have, but it seemed to me that the solution needed work.
Then today a friend told me that a priest at the parish we both attend regularly had a similar announcement to make during a recent homily: He asked that congregants not ask him for confession before Mass began but to wait for the scheduled times. Now, to be fair, this parish offers confession three times a week and the lines of penitents are usually quite long. Again, a happy problem, but a problematic solution.
Perhaps there are some things that we, the laity, can do to ease the burden on priests who are hearing confessions. If we do so, then we will have more credibility in petitioning priests to be more generous with the time they set aside for hearing confessions. With that in mind, here are some tips I hope will be helpful for making a good and an expeditious confession, so that priests will have more time to offer the sacrament to as many of our fellow Catholics as possible.
- Do a thorough examination of conscience before you go to confession. If you don’t have a problem with scrupulosity, it might help to write down what you need to say so it can be confessed without pause (take care to destroy the paper afterward). You must confess your mortal sins in number and in kind.
- Do not elaborate beyond number and kind. If you do have a problem with scrupulosity, say what comes to mind while you are in the confessional, and leave it at that. State it simply, concisely, and then do your best to forget about it immediately after doing your penance. If the priest needs clarification, he’ll say so. Don’t brood over past confessions or start thinking right away about what you need to confess next time.
- State your mortal sins first. It might help the priest to know what you consider your mortal sins and what you consider your venial sins if you say, “My mortal sins are . . .” and then “My venial sins are. . . .” He will be less likely to hurry you along if he knows you are still confessing what you believe to be mortal sins.
- Know that you are not required to confess venial sins. The Church encourages it, and it’s a good thing to do, but you don’t have to do so. If the confession line is long and time is short, please consider just confessing the mortal sins. Venial sins can be forgiven by a devout reception of the Eucharist (CCC 1416). If you like, you could end confessions by saying, “For all of my venial sins, for all of the sins of my past life, and for any sins I may have forgotten, I am truly sorry.” If you remember later a mortal sin that you did not confess, mention it at your next confession.
- If the priest tries to unjustly hurry you along, or tries to omit necessary rituals (e.g., the Act of Contrition), you are within your rights to stop that—firmly but respectfully. Speak calmly and politely, but let the priest know that you won’t be shoved out of the confessional. Sample lines: “Father, I’m sorry, but I still have mortal sins I must confess”; “Father, please allow me to say the Act of Contrition now—O my God, I am heartily sorry . . .”; “Father, I’m not sure that what you just said was the full prayer of absolution—could you please read the full prayer, just for my own peace of mind?”; “I’m so sorry, Father, but I didn’t understand what you just said—could you please repeat that?”
- If the priest tries to justly hurry you along (e.g., “I don’t need to know all this”; “Could we please wind this up?”), keep in mind that there might be people waiting outside who may need confession even more urgently than you do. My friend also told me that she once was in a confession line that was inching along. It broke her heart to witness one young man, whose appearance gave her reason to think he may have desperately needed confession, give up and walk out in frustration.
- Do not expect the priest to give you spiritual direction. If you want spiritual direction, make an appointment with the priest for another time.
These are things that laity can do to make the celebration of confession more readily available for themselves and for their fellow Catholics. But there are other things that only priests have the authority to do. Let’s also review a few of them.
- Confessions should start on time. Barring emergencies, there is little more frustrating to penitents than to arrive early for a half-hour slot of confessions, then watch the priest wander in late but stop confessions precisely on time.
- There should be a sufficient number of confessors to handle demand. If your parish has the happy problem of twenty or more penitents at confession time, then priests at neighboring parishes might be importuned to help out in handling the lines. Perhaps pastors could coordinate their parish confession schedules so that they can assist neighboring parishes with confessions. If it is done at Lent and Advent, there is no reason why it cannot be done the rest of the year.
- Signs instructing penitents where to line up, like those pharmacies use to create medical privacy buffers, would also be helpful. Visiting priests should be fully instructed in the technical challenges of the parish’s confessionals. At one parish I attended, the “reconciliation room” had nothing to muffle sound. The pastor solved the problem by playing music outside the room for those waiting their turn. But one visiting priest unfamiliar with the setup did not start the sound system properly and everyone outside suddenly had to back far away from the room to avoid overhearing a penitent’s confession.
- Penitents who come to confession ought not to be turned away. If confessions must end because a Mass is beginning, the remaining penitents in the line should be invited, whenever possible, to stay for Mass and remain after to have their confessions heard. If a time slot for confession will not be followed by a Mass, then (again, barring emergencies) priests should stay in their confessionals and hear everyone’s confession. Stock some energy bars and bottles of water in the confessional for tired, hungry priests. Waiting out a snack break or restroom break usually is far more preferable for penitents than being told to come back another time.
- Childcare during scheduled confession times (just as is offered in many parishes during Sunday Mass) will encourage people with families to come to confession. Penitents worry about how to juggle family obligations with going to confession. We often get questions from penitents upset that a priest won’t allow them to bring a young child in need of supervision into the confessional with them. The priests are correct: Penitents cannot bring children into the confessional with them. It creates the possibility that the seal of the confessional will be violated. But priests can assist penitents by rounding up volunteers for childcare.
- Diocesan and religious priests should help each other out. A religious brother brought to my attention the problem of parishes assisted or staffed by priests who belong to religious communities and who are ordinarily required to participate in their community’s activities. While I am sympathetic to the demands of religious life, this is not a problem that should be passed on to penitents. If a religious priest assisting a diocesan parish must return to his community by a certain time, then he should be scheduled for the time slot right before Mass. The parish’s “in house” priests can then take any slots not followed by a Mass. They can also make themselves available to hear the confessions of any penitents who did not get a chance to have their confessions heard before Mass. As for parishes run by religious communities, the religious community should reach out to diocesan priests to cover a time slot during which confessors are needed that conflicts with the community’s schedule.
The Code of Canon Law outlines the expectations the Church has regarding the availability of confession for the faithful:
All to whom by virtue of office the care of souls is committed are bound to provide for the hearing of the confessions of the faithful entrusted to them who reasonably request confession, and they are to provide these faithful with an opportunity to make individual confession on days and at times arranged to suit them.
In an urgent necessity, every confessor is bound to hear the confessions of Christ’s faithful, and in danger of death every priest is so obliged (canon 986).
It may well be that not every request for confession by a penitent constitutes “urgent necessity.” A priest does have latitude to determine when a request for confession seems to him to be unreasonable. But the default, I think, should be to give the penitent the benefit of the doubt.
A couple of years ago, a small Catholic college’s alumni association hosted a class reunion here in San Diego. I did not attend the college, but I was involved in the reunion because some of the events were being held at the house I shared with an alumna of the class. A legendary chaplain of the college, retired now but beloved by his former students, attended the reunion at the class’s urging. At a party during the reunion weekend, I watched with amusement and joy as several young boys, sons of attending alumni, dragged the priest off to a guest room so that he could hear their confessions.
He was thrilled to accommodate them.