My parishioners were struck when I told them that priests – just like all baptized Catholics – have to go to another priest to hear their confession. “I can’t absolve myself in the mirror,” I remember telling them. For me, this is fundamental. I can’t be a minister of God’s mercy if I myself don’t desire it, if I myself am not wrenched out from beneath the weight of my sins, my limits and defects, if I myself am not the first one to go and drink at the font of Jesus’ forgiveness that he extends to us on the cross.
Because I often hear others’ confessions, I become aware of the evidence that nothing – apart from our own forgetfulness or pretensions to be our own savior – can separate us from the love of God. We are not our own savior, rather, we need to go to another.
After Mass this morning, I went walking through the brilliant Massachusetts autumn leaves that blow about on the sidewalks and trees of Somerville to reach the Davis Square metro station. This “having to go” had some element of a pilgrimage to it, even besides the fact that I was going to a shrine. I walked hurriedly for a half mile to descend into Boston’s metro, attacked by the rumble of trains and by the reactive hostility of people forced to crowd themselves into tight spaces, all taking the red line to Downtown Crossing station.
The Shrine of St. Anthony, home of Boston’s Franciscans, was just around the corner. There’s a large community of priests who take turns hearing confessions every day. It’s easy to find a confessor there, especially for a priest, who is usually busy hearing confessions during the normal times when confessions are heard.
I’m so grateful for the presence of the Franciscans there that I’ve taken up the habit of always thanking the priest who receives the burdens of my sins and gives them to Jesus monthly. Maybe that’s somewhat of a grey bureaucrat image, but we confessors are kind of like postal workers. And at the end of the day, each confessor begins to realize how grey, repetitive and truly dull sin is, our own, and that of others. But a true miracle is performed in every act of mercy. When those things that are heavy and burdensome are taken away, they become revelations of grace and beauty.
People often seem to shine after confession. Sometimes they laugh or cry. They’re rarely indifferent. This day and age is a time when everyone is constantly besieged by banal and meaningless gestures, a time when we’ve lost the sense of value. Confession, though, is an extreme exercise. It is an exercise that still gratifies us with strong and true emotions. It never occurs without an awakening. It never happens unless I rebel against meaninglessness and resignation.
The penitent is a poor person who suffers from amnesia. Something, though, finally reminds him who he is: the son of a King. So he gets up and begins his journey to the Father’s house. As a confessor, obviously, I can’t tell the stories of the people who have come to me for the sacrament of reconciliation. I can say, though, that it is a privilege to be present to watch the miracle that is worked by sacramental forgiveness, in me and in those who receive it through me. And to be present, as priest or penitent, gives me a perspective for which I am truly grateful.
I got on my knees in the confessional, with my head against the screen, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned … I’m a priest, and these are my sins…” A number of times the priest to whom I’m confessing has, afterwards, turned to me, and asked me to hear his confession. It is a strange and beautiful thing to give and receive mercy thanks to the sacramental presence of Jesus, in confession and in the order of the priesthood.
The list of my sins transformed itself into a sad and well-known litany. The old friar, with Franciscan joy, listened to my recitation of Gesù d’amore accesso, my act of contrition, at the end of my confession. I asked him permission to say it in Italian, because, despite being in America for thirteen years, I can only really feel penitent in my mother tongue. As a good-hearted follower of St. Francis, the old priest was more than happy to hear a little Italian and kindly allowed it. Then he gave me absolution, which is never to be taken for granted, as can be understood after decades of walking as a sinner. “Thank you, Father, for being here to listen to my confession today.” We exchanged goodbyes and promises of prayer for one another and for our communities.
The metro swallowed me up again, only to spit me out, like Jonah, half a mile from my parish. I walked back home, with a renewed awareness of the ocean of mercy that is behind each priest seated in the confessional. Even behind me, a sinner.
Boston, Massachusetts (photo sushiesque – flickr.com).