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The World’s Confessional

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The World’s ConfessionalFr Leon Pereira OP serves in Medjugorje, where thousands of Catholics flock each year. As a Dominican he works alongside the Franciscans in preaching and ministering to souls especially through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In this article he reflects on his experience as a confessor to tens of thousands, and he is preparing a book on the importance of this sacrament.

 When I was a junior doctor working in a hospital in Leeds, something that often struck me was how many patients wanted to confess. They ­weren't asking for a priest (they weren't all Catholic), but they wanted someone to hear their sins. When people are poorly and vulnerable, faced with their own mortality, confession comes readily. But I was unable then to absolve anyone. My thought at the time was, I should be a priest – I'd be more useful!

Confession is good for the soul, and it comes naturally. We all have an innate need to confide. I'm not surprised that many murderers are caught only because they could not keep their 'perfect crimes' to themselves. They shared, not simply to boast, but because humans find it so difficult to keep dark secrets to themselves. Friends often know that a person is committing adultery. It seems we are not simply bad at keeping secrets; we actively need at least one other human to know our inner darkness. Perhaps confiding acts as a lifeline; like an unravelled ball of twine to lead us out of our labyrinthine misery, in case we repent.

Most people have more prosaic sins, not through lack of desire but sheer lack of opportunity. Still, the desire to confess remains innate. I say this because experience leads me to reject the claim that sacramental Confession is too difficult for modern humans. I would say Confession is what we need more than ever, and we are all capax pœnitentiæ: by God's grace, capable of repentance and penance.

Ministry of Mercy

I have been based in Medjugorje (Bosnia and Herzegovina) for the last four years. This parish is often called, with good reason, the 'confessional of the world'. It has been my ordinary experience to hear Confessions for at least two to three hours every day, and certainly for six to nine hours when I had more energy! In this period I estimate I have spent more than 3,600 hours hearing roughly 40,000 individual Confessions (these are conservative underestimates). This contrasts with, at most, 500 hours in my preceding 11 years of priesthood.

Priests steel themselves not to betray shock during Confession. I thought Id already heard everything under the sun, and then I came to Medjugorje. Now I can say I've truly heard not just everything under the sun but also everything trying to hide from it. A good confessor should retain an unruffled exterior, to encourage the penitent. An unperturbed interior is not difficult either. I just think, They’re Your people, Lord, and no one loves them more than You.

Overcoming Reluctance

Some claim that Confession is difficult, but I liken it to taking blood. If we fuss and cluck, we increase a patient's nervousness and we also increase their subjective perception of pain. But if we treat plunging a needle into human flesh as entirely normal, and try to do it quickly while distracting the patient, they often say, I didn't even feel that! Confession ought to be like this. Since sinning is a common experience, the remedy – Confession – should be treated as entirely natural and normal.

From my experience, I would say that the problems of Confession almost always originate with the clergy. I hear fairly frequently from people who ­haven't confessed in 40, 50, or 60 years, and often because of a bad prior experience in the confessional. I also hear about abuses: general absolution being granted willy-nilly, or penitents being told to confess only one sin, or to confess to a pebble. The people of God are no fools; they know they are being short-changed. I explain to them that general absolution is for when they are on the Titanic after she hits the iceberg, and if they survive, they are duty-bound to make an individual Confession. As for confessing only one sin, I ask penitents if they'd be satisfied with washing just one part of their bodies rather than having a complete shower or bath. People yearn to confess – they just need a confessor who is not going to condescend to them.

Problems in Practice

Bad catechesis has its effects. With Irish Travellers of a certain age, I feel like Santa in a shopping mall listening to Christmas wish-lists. Will you pray for this-and-that Father? They look surprised when I ask about their sins. I also get people who claim to have no sins, despite several years away from Confession. The Franciscans here will allegedly respond: 'Jesus, it's You! You've come back!' As the Italians say, Se non è vero, è ben trovato – even if it's not true, it's a good story. Such people don’t genuinely think they are sinless; it's more that they are unable to acknowledge their sinfulness, because they don't think they'd survive the guilt. Lots of good catechesis is needed, especially for adults.

Some of the hardest Confessions to hear are from the self-righteous, who complain about everyone else's faults: spouses, parents, children, in-laws, colleagues. I'm tempted to tease them, Shall I absolve all of them, but leave you unshriven? Such penitents generally require more time with a priest outside of the context of Confession. I realise the scrupulous suffer greatly with Confession. Frankly, these days I’m more concerned about the 'unscrupulous', that is, those who have almost entirely lost any sense of sin. I catechise these patiently and frequently, within and without the confessional.

The hardest thing for me as a confessor has not been hearing the so-called 'worst sins'’ (surely the worst sin is pride?), but having to withhold absolution. It goes against the human desire to be nice, but niceness is not necessarily virtuous. In those rare cases, I spend a great deal of time, patiently and kindly talking to penitents, praying with them. Repentance can be a multi-stage process, and genuine accompaniment shouldn't rush absolution until the penitent is ready. This calls for the virtues of prudence and charity. We priests are stewards of Christ's mysteries, not masters. We cannot betray Christ and the Faith just to be popular and loved.

One great joy for me has been hearing the Confessions of my brother priests. Pope Francis has set a good example of being seen as a penitent kneeling at the confessional. Confessing humbles us, but also hearing Confessions can humble us too. One learns to confess better by hearing more penitents. I must admit I often feel a great joy within me at the reconciliation of those who have been estranged from God. The converse, when penitents are closed to God, is always a source of sorrow.

Finally, my experiences convince me that every priest and seminarian ought to be trained in deliverance ministry. I frequently absolve people who have made curses, cast spells, summoned spirits, etc. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn't experienced it myself, but confessors can get physically sick from merely attempting to absolve such penitents without first making them renounce by name these particular sins before the Cross. We priests must also spend a good deal of time in prayer before and after Confessions: for our own protection, for the penitents, and of course, to do penance and to fast for all the penitents we encounter, since we give them much lighter penances.


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