I have always found sacramental confession to be powerful. It keeps me accountable for my sins to God and to another human being. And is that not the essence of the meaning of the Incarnation, of being saved by a God-Man and not just by God alone? Confession also allows me to exercise my “sacramental imagination” as I come to this or that priest—Fr. Bob, Fr. Dennis, Fr. Luis—and to see not only this particular man, but Christ. Such an imagination is not a mere work of mental conjuring, though, but rather the effect of divine grace in the soul opening the mind’s eye to the presence of Christ alive in his mysteries. It’s a gift from God to see the world thus, and is something you should not only practice in your reflective prayer (for example, engaging in St. Ignatius’ imaginative prayer), but should earnestly pray for—an awakening of the Spirit’s gift of understanding that allows you to fathom the unfathomable depths present in the “Sacramental Ocean.”
To help me cultivate that power of spiritual sight, I read, prior to my own confession, the words an Eastern Orthodox priest speaks to the penitent just before his or her sins are confessed:
Behold, my child, Christ stands here invisibly and receives thy confession: wherefore, be not ashamed, neither be afraid, and conceal thou nothing from me: but tell me, doubting not, all things which thou hast done: and so shalt thou have pardon from our Lord Jesus Christ. Lo, his holy image is before us: and I am but only a witness, bearing testimony before him of all things which thou dost say to me. But if thou shalt conceal anything from me, thou shalt have the greater sin. Take heed, therefore, lest, having come to the physician, thou depart unhealed.
The Gift of Priesthood
I experience such gratitude after every confession—not only for God’s inexhaustible mercy, but also for the priest’s sacrificial gift of himself to hear my ugly sins and bear them up into the Heart of Christ. We should express our gratitude! A priest I used to go to confession to regularly, as a “confessor,” would always say to me at the end,
Now that the Lord has freed you from your sins by means of me, a poor sinner, pray for me to God that I may not myself be lost but receive the same mercy he has freely given you this day.
What an important reminder that is to the faithful to pray for priests, for we rely on their self-giving and sin-bearing love to make present to us the saving mysteries of God.
Thinking about this also makes me think of the powerful witness ordained clergy offer when they themselves go to confession. I knew a pastor who, at the seasonal Penance services in his parish, would begin the private confessions by having all the priest-confessors go to each other first before hearing the confessions of the lay faithful. It was very moving and communicated a powerful message.
“I am a sinner”
Let me end by allowing Pope Francis, the sinner-pope of mercy, to speak to us about the beauty of this sacrament.
But if a person, whether a layperson, priest or sister, goes to confession and converts, the Lord forgives. And when the Lord forgives, he forgets. This is important. St. Peter committed one of the biggest sins ever—he denied Christ—and he made him pope. The sincere and humble admission of one’s weaknesses, of having “a thorn of Satan in my flesh,” shows that the power of salvation comes from God, not oneself.