There is an old story among lawyers selecting jurors. Prosecuting attorneys prefer Protestants—old-time-religion Calvinists, if possible. Numbered among the elect, they are more inclined to say: “There, by God, goes a sinner!” The defense attorneys prefer (or used to prefer many years ago) Catholics. Familiar with the sacrament of penance, the defense team could count on them for introspection: “Under the right circumstances, I could have done that!” A trial by jury can be an innovative way to examine a conscience and do penance for sins.
Peter was aware of his sins. At the beginning of Our Lord’s ministry and after the miraculous catch of fish, Peter is astonished by the miracle. He falls to his knees and begs Jesus: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). Jesus does not accept Peter’s prayer and responds with kindness: “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men” (v. 10).
Peter spends the remainder of the Gospels proving his sinfulness. His altercations must have been frequent. There is a hint of weariness in this question: “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matt. 18:21). As the Last Supper grows more solemn, Jesus prophesies Peter’s abandonment: “Before the cock crows twice, thou shalt deny me thrice” (Mark 14:30). But Peter responds vehemently: “If I must die with you, I will not deny you” (v. 31). The evangelist Mark records the exchange, probably from the lips of Peter himself.
St. John reports the foot-washing scene. When Jesus attempts to wash the feet of Peter, he objects: “You shall never wash my feet” (13:18). But Jesus answers him: “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.” Peter could not bear the thought of life without Jesus, so he exclaims, comically: “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Peter knows he is a sinner, but he is a man without guile, wonderfully honest.
Despite Peter’s impetuous track record, Jesus confers multiple dignities upon him. Peter accompanies Jesus as a select witness during the Transfiguration. Peter is prominent after the Resurrection and appears first on every listing of the apostles. Jesus founds the Church on Peter the rock: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). Jesus protects Peter from Satan: “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:31-32).
But there is no record of Peter confessing his sins—nature and number—to Jesus after the Resurrection. In a touching encounter, Jesus evokes the threefold expression of love in reparation for Peter’s threefold denial. The scene takes place after another miraculous catch of fish. But this time, Peter does not beg Jesus to depart from him. Peter flails into the water to greet the risen Lord. John records the famous exchange: “When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs’” (21:15).
Nevertheless, there seems a need for an assigned penance, something specific for the reparation of sin. Did Jesus designate the penance in the previous chapter of John? Appearing for the second time to the frightened apostles, he breathed on them and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:22-23). Peter and the other priests would hear confessions in the early Church version of the confessional and forgive them in the name of the Lord. He could not help but hear his own sins from the lips of his penitents—constant reminders of his weaknesses and failures.
A priest today has the privilege of forgiving sins in the name of Jesus. But hearing confessions, in many respects, is a penance for the priest. (Trained to avoid too many questions, his seminary instructors warn him not to extract too much detail—nature and number will do.) His penitents also remind him of the many sins he has committed and would commit without God’s grace. A priest who conscientiously hears the most routine of confessions benefits from a frequent examination of conscience.
Indeed, the spiritual health of every priest comes with hearing his penitents confess variations of the sins he commits or has committed or could commit: “There but for the grace of God go I.” Is it any wonder why so many priests and laymen have abandoned the confessional? Have many priests grown weary of hearing their own sins?
Jesus also envisioned the many failures and grievous sins of priests and penitents alike in the confessional. Such is the mystery of the permissive providence of God when sinners face sinners in the most sacred of encounters. Modern scandals have precedents. St. Charles Borromeo first ordered the installation of metal grills between priests and penitents in Milan after the Protestant revolt to reduce abuses prevalent at the time. The ritual and formality of the confessional protect both priest and the penitent. (Alas, many pastors discarded his wisdom in the decades following Vatican II. We have the pastoral wreckage as evidence of what a bad idea that was.)
When a priest hears confessions with orthodox sincerity and zeal, it is a penitential act of charity. (Ask any priest who encounters a mother with ten kids arriving five minutes before the end of the scheduled confession. Who knows what Mom went through to get them to church?) Be of good cheer. All priests profit with an abundance of grace from the mortification.