One of the most important activity for priests is to hear the confessions. Lenten season is also the time, people would like to go for this sacrament. I had 3 days of confessions in our parish, extending for around 5 hours each day. Except for a little back pain towards the end, the experience has been immensely joyful.
There are great saints like Padre Pio or John Vianney who sat long hours in confessional almost daily. In some pilgrimage centres (for eg : Lourdes), you will have priests who have daily experience of confessions for long hours. But for most of the other priests, its one of their responsibility that comes once in a blue moon. Though this was not my first experience with confession, it was surely the “first big package”.
I feel a great sense of joy and peace. People comes and says about their sins; they are an important component of the confession; but only one part of it. It’s sacrament which speaks you about the courage and honesty of several people. Priest is a representative of the church and forgives in the name of Jesus; but he is still a fellow human being. To open up with such freedom is a big risk taken by people and that faith impressed me.
People may come with guilt, shame or any such kinds of feelings. Their feelings as they come needn’t be always negative. But they can go (better word is ‘should go’) with a certain relief, joy and peace. In the parable of the prodigal father/son, I can’t precisely state the feelings of the son when he is coming back; but it may not a great collection of positive feelings and emotions. But after the encounter with the father (which can be a beautiful example of confession, where the main point is not confession of sins, but the encounter of the son with the father), the son experiences joy and peace. There is celebration. He came to check for the option to be a servant. He became a son.
These experiences helped me to reflect on the word “mercy”. Among all the actions in the church, the sacrament of reconciliation (commonly known as confession) is probably eligible for a title called ‘sacrament of mercy’ or ‘the act of mercy’. What is mercy? A dictionary meaning is,
kindness that makes you forgive someone, usually someone that you have authority over.
Though this dictionary definition is a nice one, it's good to ask whether it captures the Christian understanding of mercy. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus asks his disciples to be merciful as his father is. Thus mercy is a very special attribute of God.
When all of them are beautiful quotes, the last one by Pope Francis captures (for me) the meaning of the sacrament of confession. The sacrament is a place where mercy of God (not any thing else, especially any manner of condemnation) reawakens a new life, giving us courage and hope for a new life. Its not just the forgiveness of sin, but the energy, support or grace for the new life. See the prodigal son, or the woman caught in the act of adultery, or Zacchaeus or Paul… they were all sinners in one way or the other. But an encounter with Jesus was an encounter in mercy which transformed them. No condemnation was made, but only transformation. This is the possibility in the sacrament of reconciliation. Its very important to stress that mercy is not equal to a small kindness or act of charity.
As a priest, I should be very conscious of this understanding of mercy. I can celebrate many sacraments; but the sacrament of reconciliation is a privileged means of mercy. And the conversation between the priest and the person is the privileged means of encounter for that person with God's mercy. Even with all my preparations in theology, pastoral studies and all other fields, nothing gives me a ready-made answer to the unique singular situation of each person. Yes, it's a dreadful possibility, but a unique privilege. I need to approach with all humility, no judgement and maximum dose of that mercy of God.
NB: Two experiences made me write this article. When one was my joyful experience with confession (hopefully for those who did the confession too, and i am sure that is more important than my feelings), the other was a devastating experience of judgement by a priest to a friend, which was totally wrong and unethical/unchristian.