Christians sometimes find themselves discussing their experiences in confession—especially if they had an unpleasant or confusing experience. They trade stories—some humorous, others jaw-dropping, some of them exaggerations, others misunderstandings. The words and personality of the confessor are always the center of the story—to which, by the way, he can never respond, since he is forbidden by the seal to defend himself from your complaints!
What makes a good confessor? How can we evaluate a confessor as “good” or “bad”? To answer, we need to know what confession is all about. We may be surprised at what we do not know, even if we have gone to confession habitually our whole lives.
First off, going to confession is not about having a conversation. Yes, that’s what I said. It’s not about the penitent’s talking, nor about the priest’s talking. It’s not about asking for advice or giving advice. Neither one is a requirement for the sacrament.
Notice the word sacrament. We call confession the sacrament of penance or the sacrament of absolution or the sacrament of reconciliation. If we understand what a sacrament is, we will go a long way in understanding confession and confessors correctly.
A sacrament is a sign of a particular grace established by Christ in order to convey the saving graces of his holy passion and resurrection. The grace of a particular sacrament corresponds to the different stages and circumstances and relationships of life. The sacrament of penance or confession corresponds to the circumstance of having sinned, especially mortally, after baptism and needing a new cleansing after our first one.
Each sacramental sign is made up of its matter and the form, which clarifies the meaning of the matter, as water and the baptismal words in baptism, or bread and wine and the words of consecration in the holy Eucharist, or the laying on of hands and the appropriate words in ordinations.
So when the priest who celebrates the sacrament of penance with you prepares, what is the matter, and what is the form? The matter is not precisely your sins! A sacrament is an act of divine worship, and we do not offer things that are evil in worship, and our sins are evil. We bring matter that is good, like water, wine, bread, oil, and chrism. The precise matter of the sacrament is contrition for sin, not sin. It is a loving and complete sorrow, not just felt, but willed, for grave sin committed after baptism.
So what is the job of the confessor? It is to determine and ensure as much as possible that the penitent has true contrition—that is, is sorry out of love, and sorry universally.
This is all from the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, by the way. Aquinas teaches that confessing our sins out loud is a super-prudent way of ensuring our contrition. This is so true that Aquinas advises that if we are dying and no priest is available, we may confess to any lay person just to establish our sorrow for sin. This extreme case (or maybe not so extreme in this age) reveals the basic reason for speaking our sins in confession.
Thus, the reason for talking at all is just to signify (sacraments are signs!) our sorrowing love. If we must ask questions, it is to know what to be sorry for. Any other discussion in confession is not part of the sacrament.
The sacrament of confession is not spiritual direction or counseling. Those things may conveniently take place, but they may well, and even best, be accomplished outside the sacrament, if there are other opportunities. Sometimes they may even be a hindrance, filling the sacrament with lots of non-sacramental discussion.
Ironically, too much talk, even pious talk, may undermine the penitential and loving purpose of our verbal confession, dissipating our attention from the experience of confessing our love of God. So the priest may need gently to correct us if we talk outside the purpose of the sacrament we are celebrating. If the penitent is uncomfortable and needs to be encouraged, the priest may talk a little more as well, but that is only to make it easy for the sinner to be sorry out of love, and not nervous or afraid of the priest or the circumstances.
All talk should point to loving contrition. This is true of almost everything we say at Mass, from the Kyrie to the “Lord I am not worthy.” This means that the priest also should not talk too much or ask too many questions or dwell on any details beyond what is necessary to clarify what sin was committed and whether the penitent intends to struggle against it. This is especially important regarding sins against chastity.
Sometimes a priest may be a little chatty. If he is, and it is not to the point, don’t encourage him. Just ask him for penance and absolution as sweetly as you can, and make room for the next penitent.
Often one hears the complaint, usually legitimate, from a devout penitent that a confessor will tell him he comes to confession too often, that he has only venial sins to confess. This is nonsense and an insult to the freedom of the faithful in approaching the sacrament. Even so, it is an opportunity to point out that venial sins never have to be confessed, and they do not all have to be confessed in any case. So if there is a long line, and you intend to confess many venial sins, you might be so kind as to limit your confession to the ones that threaten your love the most. There is no obligation to be complete when there is no question of mortal sin.
In fact, the best thing to do, better than confessing venial sins, is to renew your confession of some mortal sin already confessed for which you are especially sorry and which makes you especially aware of how you have offended our loving Lord. Renew your sorrow and confess past sins of adultery, theft, violence, abortion, the things that have wrecked your life and hurt others the most. Some priests do not understand that you are free to confess past sins already confessed. Just tuck it in after some venial sin you are also sorry for, and ignore Father if his lack of instruction makes him wonder at your devout practice.
After all, the form, the absolution, works off the matter, and in confession, the closer the matter is to the form—that is, the more intense the loving sorrow—the greater the effect of the form. The sorrier you are, the more you get out of confession. So if you have reached a point in life when you no longer commit many new sins, that does not mean that you cannot have confessions more contrite than when you were a fresh, young sinner. It is love that counts, and we can become more and more grateful and loving as the years go on.
So imagine if the priest is unkind to you, even cruel. Recognize that none of the sacrament depends on his priestly ministry in the strict sense for anything but that he can pray the words of absolution over you. If you come to confession with a sincere, loving, and universal contrition, nothing else matters except the words “I absolve you from your sins . . .”
To be sure, talk is important, and instruction is important, and our feelings are important, but “love endures,” and any experience of the priest, good or bad, is nothing in comparison with the amazing power of the instant when our loving sorrow meets the power of absolution.
Think of it. At your last confession, you may be unconscious, and the priest may not even know you, and there will be no talk, but only this: that he was told you are a Christian who desires the forgiveness of the Savior. Your confessor will recite the words of absolution over you, in obedience to the institution of Christ, and this will usher you into eternal life.
Then it will not matter whether he was a good or a bad confessor, and it will not matter how good or bad you were in life. As St. John of the Cross says in a way so perfectly in line with the matter of this sacrament: “In the evening of this life we will be judged on love.” You will be safe in the loving embrace of the Savior, who will continue to purify, perfect, and delight you forevermore. Amen.