Bless me, Father. Please!

confessionalI entered the Catholic Church thirty-six years ago this month and over the years I’ve been to confession countless times. I’ve had many more good confessors than bad ones. But this week something happened in confession that I’d never experienced before. I was visiting a parish while on vacation and using my iPhone confession app for the first time. By the way, I really like it. There’s a very thorough examination of conscience and it keeps track of the date of your last confession, which is something I always have trouble remembering. And it’s password-protected so if someone picks up your phone and starts rooting around there’s no chance they’ll come across your list of sins. But I digress. So I go into the confessional and take my place behind the grille. Yes, I’m old-fashioned that way. None of the face-to-face confessing for me. I make my confession and the priest is helpful with his questions and spiritual direction. I pray an Act of Contrition, letting God know my sorrow and my promise to do my best to avoid sinning in the future. When I was done, I waited. And waited. But the priest remained silent. He didn’t pray the words of absolution. Now of course I know that it’s God Who forgives me and not the priest. But it is the priest who shares the beautiful prayer of absolution. Only this priest didn’t.  I always love this prayer. “God the Father of mercies through the death and resurrection of His Son has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  So I continue kneeling for a few more moments, and the priest finally says, “Hope you have a good evening.”  I take that as my dismissal and say, “You, too, Father,” as I get up and leave. Hmmm.

By the time I get to my car, I realize that I should have just asked the priest for the prayer of absolution. I guess I was kind of stunned and hadn’t wanted to offend him by pointing out that maybe he’d forgotten a really important part of the sacrament. I almost turned around and went back inside. But I didn’t. And as I drove away I thought perhaps I was making a big deal out of nothing. I mean, I’d done my part, right?  I had felt the Lord calling me to go to confession. I’d made a thorough examination of conscience (thanks to that new app) and I was truly sorry for my sins. I had driven to the church and confessed my sins to the priest. I’d prayed an act of contrition. It was up to the priest to do his part and share the prayer of absolution. The fact that he hadn’t prayed it wasn’t my fault, was it? God knew what was in my heart and what my intentions were. I was forgiven. Wasn’t I?

If you aren’t Catholic you might not know the term “scrupulosity.”  It means to worry too much about the letter of the law. When you’re scrupulous you are usually too hard on yourself and you use rules and regulations to try and put God in a box. It’s a sin. Was I being scrupulous? Was I worrying over much about the prayer I didn’t hear? I didn’t want to. I just wanted to know for sure that I’d made a valid confession. So the next morning I called a priest friend and explained the situation to him. He lives in another city or I’d have just dropped in to see him for a “do-over.”  He told me, “Don’t worry. You’re covered. But if it would make you feel better, I’ll pray absolution right now.”  And he did. I heard the beautiful words of mercy over the phone. Don’t get me wrong. I know he was praying to make me feel better. But he and I both know that you can’t make your confession over the phone. A valid confession requires that the priest and the penitent be with one another even if they’re separated by the grille. So did hearing him pray make me feel better?  Not really. I’m realizing that confession isn’t so much about warm and fuzzy feelings, but is, in fact, about forgiveness.

I’ve done a little research and talked with some fellow Catholics since my confession and evidently my experience isn’t all that uncommon. It seems there are more than a few priests who don’t exactly go by the book in the confessional. It might not be unusual to hear a “different” prayer of absolution or, as in my case, to hear none at all. Evidently this most private of sacraments is being freelanced. If you’re reading this and you’re a priest, let me just say: stop it!  It’s hard enough going to confession and telling you all my sins. I’m there to beg for God’s mercy and forgiveness. Don’t make me have to wonder “what just happened here?” by making up your own prayers or forgetting what it is that you’re there for. Tell me that God has forgiven my sins. Let me know for certain. Pray those beautiful words of absolution over me. Let me have no doubt that God’s sweet mercy has erased my sins. Tell me that God has given me pardon and peace. I need that. I need His peace. Please don’t send me away from confession unsure if my sins have been forgiven. Every sinner in every confessional is seeking mercy. BE THAT MERCY, Father. I know you’re busy. I know your schedule is packed. I appreciate that and I thank God for your vocation and your service. I pray for you and I pray there will be more men like you who are willing to answer God’s call. But in the confessional, during those moments we’re together, please take the time to do it by the book. I count on you. I depend on your faithfulness to the teachings of Christ and His Church to help me make it through this world.

In the end, I went to another priest in another parish a couple of days later. I explained the whole story to him. I made a new confession and he was very understanding. When I heard him pray the words of absolution, I knew without a doubt that I’d been forgiven. And that’s what confession is for.

“Whatsoever you bind upon earth shall be bound in heaven and whatsoever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”                                                                            –Matthew 18:18

“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  —John 20:23

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Centavo
    Aug 12, 2013 @ 12:03:13

    Thank you for sharing. Several years ago, while on vacation, I entered the confessional to find a Priest in a plaid shirt. I was very uncomfortable as he was not wearing the purple stole, or any religious garment, and I hesitated, afraid he was an imposter, or…. After exchanging names, I breathed a sigh of relief. But it was not until he later appeared vested to Celebrate mass, that I felt at peace. I love our faith and traditions!

    Reply

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