My Side of
the Confessional: What Is It Like for a Priest?
By Fr. Mike
Schmitz | November 26, 2012
I was once
riding in a shuttle-bus with a number of older folks on the way from an
airport. They noticed that I was a priest and started asking questions about
it. “Do you do all of the priest stuff?” “Yep.” “Even the Confession thing?”
“Yeah. All the time.”
lady gasped, “Well, I think that that would be the worst. It would be so
depressing; hearing all about people’s sins.”
I told them
that it was the exact opposite. There is almost no greater place to be than
with someone when they are coming back to God. I said, “It would depressing if
I had to watch someone leave God; I get to be with them when they come back to
Him.” The Confessional is a place where people let God’s love win. The
Confessional is the most joyful, humbling, and inspiring place in the world.
What do I
see during confession?
there are three things. First, I see the costly mercy of God in action. I get to
regularly come face to face with the overwhelming, life-transforming power of
God’s love. I get to see God’s love up-close and it reminds me of how good God
folks get to see the way in which God’s sacrifice on the Cross is constantly
breaking into people’s lives and melting the hardest hearts. Jesus consoles
those who are grieving their sins . . . and strengthens those who find
themselves wanting to give up on God or on life.
As a priest,
I get to see this thing happen every day.
I see a
saint in the making.
thing I see is a person who is still trying – a saint in the making. I don’t
care if this is the person’s third confession this week; if they are seeking
the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it means that they are trying. That’s all that
I care about. This thought is worth considering: going to Confession is a sign
that you haven’t given up on Jesus.
This is one
of the reasons why pride is so deadly. I have talked with people who tell me
that they don’t want to go to Confession to their priest because their priest
really likes them and “thinks that they are a good kid.”
I have two
things to say to this.
- He will not be disappointed!
What your priest will see is a person who is trying! I dare you to find a
saint who didn’t need to God’s mercy! (Even Mary needed God’s mercy; she
received the mercy of God in a dramatic and powerful way at her
conception. Boom. Lawyered.)
- So what if the priest is
disappointed? We try to be so impressive with so much of our lives.
Confession is a place where we don’t get to be impressive. Confession is a
place where the desire to impress goes to die. Think about it: all other
sins have the potential to cause us to race to the confessional, but pride
is the one that causes us to hide from the God who could heal us.
Remember Your Sins? No!
people will ask if I remember people’s sin from Confession. As a priest, I
rarely, if ever, remember sins from the confessional. That might seem
impossible, but the truth is, sins aren’t all that impressive. They aren’t like
memorable sunsets or meteor showers or super-intriguing movies . . . they are
more like the garbage.
And if sins
are like garbage, then the priest is like God’s garbage-man. If you ask a
garbage-man about the gross-est thing he’s ever had to haul to the dump, maaaaaaybe
he could remember it. But the fact is, once you get used to taking out the
trash, it ceases to be noteworthy, it ceases to stand out.
once you realize that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is less about the sin and
more about Christ’s death and resurrection having victory in a person’s life,
the sins lose all of their luster, and Jesus’ victory takes center stage.
we meet the life-transforming, costly love of God . . . freely given to us
every time we ask for it. We meet Jesus who reminds us, “You are worth dying
for . . . even in your sins, you are worth dying for.”
someone comes to Confession, I see a person who is deeply loved by God and who
is telling God that they love Him back. That’s it, and that’s all.
Confession I see my own weakness.
thing a priest sees when he hears Confessions is his own soul. It is a scary
place for a priest. I cannot tell you how humbled I am when someone approaches
Jesus’ mercy through me.
I am not
over-awed by their sins; I am struck by the fact that they have been able to
recognize sins in their life that I have been blind to in my own. Hearing
someone’s humility breaks down my own pride. It is one of the best examinations
But why is
Confession a scary place for a priest? It is frightening because of the way in
which Jesus trusts me to be a living sign of His mercy.
Fulton Sheen once told priests that we scarcely realize what is happening when
we extend our hands over someone’s head in absolution. We don’t realize, he
said, that the very Blood of Christ is dripping from our fingers onto their
heads, washing the penitent clean.
after I was ordained, we had a little party and my dad stood up and made a
toast. He has worked his entire life as an orthopedic surgeon, and he was a
very good one. My whole life, his patients have come up to me at one time or
another and told me how their lives have been changed because my dad was such a
So, there my
dad was, standing in the midst of these people, and he began to say, “My whole
life, I have used my hands to heal people’s broken bodies. But from now on, my
son Michael . . . um, Father Michael . . . will use his hands (at this
point, he got choked up) . . . He will use his hands to heal broken souls.
will save even more lives than mine have.”
is such a powerful place. All I have to do is offer God’s mercy, love, and
redemption . . . but I don’t want to get in Jesus’ way. The priest stands in
judgment of no one. In the Confessional, the only thing I have to offer is
I get to
sacrifice for you.
a priest hears Confessions, he is taking on another responsibility.
after college, I was returning to Confession after a long time and a lot of sin
and the priest simply gave me something like “one Hail Mary” as my penance. I
Father…? Did you hear everything I said?” “Yes, I did.” “Don’t you think I
should get a bigger penance than that?” He looked at me with great love and
said, “No. That small penance is all that I’m asking of you.” He hesitated, and
then continued, “But you should know . . . I will be fasting for you for the
next 30 days.”
stunned. I didn’t know what to do. He told me that the Catechism teaches that
the priest must do penance for all those who come to him for Confession. And
here he was, embracing a severe penance for all of my severe sins.
This is why
Confession reveals the priest’s own soul; it reveals his willingness to
sacrifice his life with Christ. He sees our sins as a burden that he will take
up (with Jesus!) and offer them to the Father, while offering us the mercy of
is always a place of victory. Whether you have confessed a particular sin
for the first time, or if this is the 12,001st time, every Confession is a win
for Jesus. And I, a priest, get to be there. That’s what it’s like . . . I get
to sit and watch Jesus win His children back all day.
Fr. Mike Schmitz