“‘Let the one among you who is without sin
be the first to throw a stone at her.’
...And in response, they went away one by one,
beginning with the elders.
So he was left alone with the woman before him.
Then Jesus straightened up and said to her,
‘Woman, where are they?
Has no one condemned you?’
She replied, ‘No one, sir.’
Then Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you.
Go, and from now on do not sin any more.’”
Before I was ordained a priest and was serving in a parish as a deacon, the one thing my pastor at the time (now Bishop Spalding of Nashville) required me to memorize was the formula for absolution. These are the words the priest says at the end of your confession which begin, “God, the Father of mercies...,” and end with, “...I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” He admonished me, “You’ll need this right away, best be ready.” How right he was! Less than half an hour after I was ordained, at the reception in the undercroft of the Cathedral of the Assumption, a man pulled me aside and asked, “Father, will you hear my confession?” Okay. Gulp. Here we go.
In the colloquial, to “hear” confessions has been one of the great graces of my priesthood, and I believe the same for a vast majority of priests. Of course, I had the experience of going to confession, myself, which was usually quite profound for me, but nothing quite prepares you for the experience of pronouncing God’s forgiveness for the contrite. No two confessions are the same and the ones I have heard run the gamut: from “it’s been three hours since my last confession,” to “this is my first confession since before first communion 47 years ago;” from the small lightness of most second graders’ sins (or those of elderly cloistered nuns—they are remarkably similar, like being pelted with popcorn) to the grave grizzled sins of men serving life sentences in maximum security prisons; and from the excruciatingly detailed list of sins from those who suffer scrupulosity to those who simply state, “the one thing I want to work on is...” Almost everyone enters nervous, proceeds with stark honesty, and leaves relieved. It’s all very, very human and very, very divine.
It is, perhaps, the closest I get to get to God’s heart. That is, to mercy. Not my own, of course. It doesn’t really matter a hill of beans what my personal response to your confessed sins is: first, because of the seal of confession, which means I can’t ever tell anyone, anyway, or even allow what I have heard to affect my actions, at all, and, second, because I have the awesome responsibility of acting in the person of Christ. My path of discipleship and holiness is to be more like Jesus, but in confession, it is not between you and me, really, but between you and Jesus, you and the merciful Father, you and the Holy Spirit.
We are all scared. In confession, we pull back the image we cultivate and the facade we show to the world. We are nakedly honest with ourselves and with God (and with another human being). It’s scary and not easy. Last week I went to confession to a Dominican priest and, after years of going to and hearing confessions, I was still nervous. Then, honest. And, then, relieved. I was also reconciled, restored, and renewed. “Your sins have been forgiven,” the priest said, “Go in peace.” My anxiety has been put to rest and I am set free. “Neither do I condemn you,” Jesus says, “Go and sin no more.”