Years ago, I went to confession to a priest who was, I thought at the time, a bit harsh with me. He wasn’t deliberately unkind, but the words he said had settled uneasily into my heart. They hit a nerve. After that, I avoided this priest in confession, not wanting a repeat of the experience.
About a decade later, I stood in the confession line and realized that this same priest was the one who would hear my confession that night. If I wanted the sacrament, I would have to go to him. I approached him uncomfortably and told him my sins.
To my surprise, he was the exact opposite of my first impression. His demeanor was gentle, reassuring, humorous, and uplifting. I left the confessional feeling a thousand times lighter. Not only did I have the graces of the sacrament to lift me out of the pit that I had been in, but I also had a complete reversal of my feelings about this priest. My biggest regret now was all those years I had dodged him, when I could have been receiving his good counsel.
It was my foolishness that had deprived me of that opportunity earlier; but God, in His goodness, made sure that I discovered the truth. Humility is the key to making a good confession, and I needed a healthy dose of it.
“Go to your confessor; open your heart to him; display to him all the recesses of your soul; take the advice that he will give you with the utmost humility and simplicity,” St. Francis de Sales said. “For God, Who has an infinite love for obedience, frequently renders profitable the counsels we take from others, but especially from those who are the guides of our souls.”
The power of forgiveness is at the heart of everything we believe, and a good confessor is a balm to the soul. On one hand, sacramental grace is present regardless of the degree of holiness of the priest, and so any valid confession will bring forgiveness of sins. But on the other hand, when a holy priest truly shows us the love of Jesus in confession, there is added grace. Penitents flock to priests who have extraordinary gifts as confessors—priests like Padre Pio and St. John Vianney—because of the supernatural grace that flows from their confessionals.
What follows is a letter to express my gratitude to the confessors who have shown me the living mercy of God. Although it was various priests who gave me the experiences in this letter, all of these things actually happened, and I am writing to this letter as a composite of the goodness these priests offered to my weary heart.
When I came to confession yesterday, I carried a heavy burden. But you made it lighter, and I am deeply grateful for the way you cared for my soul.
You left a party in order to hear my confession. It wasn’t a scheduled confession time, but when I called you on the phone, you dropped everything to make the sacrament available to me. I can’t imagine how many confessions you’ve heard in your lifetime, but you never fail to give me your full attention, making me feel like I’m more important to you than anything else at that moment.
You might not think I noticed it, but I saw the tear rolling down your cheek when I told you about the depth of my suffering. Your compassion gave me a glimpse of the compassion of Christ.
After I confessed my sins, you opened your well-worn Bible and read to me from Scripture. You quoted verses that related to my struggles and reminded me of how God’s power is made perfect through my weakness. Your voice was the instrument of the voice of Mercy Himself.
I lamented my lack of undivided prayer time, and you gently reminded me that I am not in a religious order, and so I must not hold myself to the prayer routines fit for a convent but to those fit for a busy mother.
You also explained to me that being hard on myself for failing is not from God. You reminded me that when I fall, I must not turn against myself in anger, but instead, have patience with myself and try again.
At the same time, you didn’t dismiss my sins as if they were nothing, and I was grateful for that, too.
When you gave me my penance, I appreciated that you gave me something concrete, so that I would know when it was finished. A few times in the past, with other confessors, I’ve received penances with no definitive end—things like, “Stop yourself every time you are about to complain, and give thanks instead.” Those ideas can be helpful as counsel, but when they’re given as penance, I never know when (or if) my penance has been completed. Thank you for giving me a set of prayers that I could finish and know that I was done.
And when you asked me to say the Act of Contrition, I was very grateful that you listened and waited until I was finished before you began reciting the prayer of absolution. Listening to the prayer of absolution is one of my favorite things in the world. When I hear the words spoken aloud over me, I can feel the grace rushing over me like a waterfall. Sadly, many priests don’t realize how important this is, and they save time by saying the prayer of absolution under their breath while I am saying my Act of Contrition. I know their time is valuable, and often more penitents are waiting; but when this happens, I’m both distracted from the prayer I’m trying to say and discouraged that I don’t get the chance to soak in the words of absolution. Thank you, Father, for the way you always patiently let me finish the Act of Contrition, and when I’m done, you speak the powerful words of absolution in a way that gives life to my soul.
St. John Vianney said that if a person has “a serious illness, if it is a dangerous wound, he must have the doctor; after the doctor come the remedies. In the same way, when we have fallen into any grievous sin, we must have recourse to the doctor, that is the priest; and to the remedy, that is confession.”
You, Father, are a doctor of the soul, working to save eternal lives. By your loving care and patience, you have given me a glimpse of the Divine Physician, Who is working through you to heal my wounds and draw me to Himself, healed and whole.
Thank you, and thank God for you.