Thursday, October 12, 2006


I had thought that, in my years of hearing confessions, I had heard just about every possible sin. One day not long ago the word “cannibalism” leaped unbidden into my mind and I couldn’t figure out why. I screwed up my face in puzzlement and then it dawned on me that it was a sin I had never heard in confession before.

Surely for everyone, it is scary to make a confession—especially for the first time. I still get a little scared when I make my own confession, which I do about four to six times a year. I wonder if anyone ever considers how scary it can be to hear one! At least it was scary for me the first few times. Now, hearing confessions produces in me an amazing but predictable mixture of great love and respect for the penitent coupled with the tedium of hearing another list of sins. There really are only a few basic sins that people can commit, and hearing confessions very quickly becomes repetitive and forgettable.

I remember teaching about the joy of confession about thirty years ago to a junior confirmation class, and then finding myself suddenly made captive to more than twenty 12-year olds for over an hour as each one made his or her confession. It hadn’t occurred to me that they might actually take me seriously. What followed was one of the most boring hours I’ve ever spent, coupled with wry affection for those dear children.

I suppose that I have heard hundreds of confessions now. As a priest, I am called to exercise the ministry of “God’s garbage man”, as it was described to me when I was on retreat prior to my ordination as a priest back in late winter 1974. Hearing confessions is one of the ways I have learned to give love to my people. Whenever anyone is penitent and humble before God, it is a powerful experience. It takes a measure of courage to make a confession, and I am myself humbled to be, by invitation, in the presence of such an intimate moment between an individual and God, and to see that moment almost invariably turn out to be such a grace-filled experience.

Whenever people want to know that God loves them, they pretty consistently find that assurance in the experience of making a confession. The Prayer Book gets it right in calling this service “The Reconciliation of a Penitent”. It’s not about sins; it’s about making peace with God and finding the assurance of his love—personal, deep, dependable, and emotionally fulfilling. You can’t beat it. I think that the anticipation of making one’s confession is more scary than actually making it. I admit that there have been times when I have responded to a penitent during confession in such a way that both of us have erupted into laughter. I don’t think that is mentioned in the textbooks on how to hear a confession, but it should be.

The so-called “Great Commission” at the end of Matthew’s Gospel is about making disciples—which is truly great, don’t get me wrong—but Luke’s version of the Great Commission is much more specific. It is about proclaiming to all nations the resurrection of Christ and repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 24:46-48). That sins could now be utterly forgiven was one of the major hallmarks of the earliest Christian preaching. That hasn’t changed. From the first centuries of the Church, the making of a confession to a priest has been one of the ways by which reconciliation with God can be made—and the only one that comes with a guarantee: absolution. “By his authority given to me, I absolve you from all your sins.” (James 5:16 and John 20:23.)

My role in hearing a confession is to be almost transparent—neither anticipating, interfering, nor remembering, and taking no personal harm from what I hear. I’m probably about 95% successful. And of course the priest must always keep the confidentiality of the confession, which is unlike any other kind of confidentiality that there can be. The Prayer Book calls it “morally absolute” (page 446). Once completed, for the priest it must be as if the confession had never happened, although his love for the penitent is a little deeper and remains so.

So when the word “cannibalism” popped into my mind out of the blue, and I realized that I was guilty of a small measure of smugness over “having heard it all”, I was convicted. I concluded with some chagrin that I had to remember that for the next time I make my confession. I expect that my confessor and I will laugh out loud about it.

1 comment:

Jon Cooper said...

Thank you for the thoughtful and uplifting posts! I've been enjoying them; they're worth saving and rereading later in the day - there is so much to them, and they seem to brim with a kind of radiant joy and laughter.

Being a Baptist my church does not do confessions, but I wish they did - I can see a lot of value in them. I'd never spent much time thinking about the person hearing the confession; that would be a terrific challenge. I hope that there are indeed some things you never run across. Thank you for sharing all of this with us.