I have never had a bad experience at the Rite of Penance, but I’ve heard from people who have. Those people are pretty much all women. That’s a subjective observation, as guys seem to complain less frequently about confessors.
So I was reading this important lesson in what can and shouldn’t be done. The Twitter exchange was interesting: one priest chiding another even though he seems to agree that quizzing a penitent about sex toys seems a bit off.
I think clergy in particular need a refresher. When a penitent comes for the Rite of Penance:
- First, it is important to remember that you are a presider at a liturgy. You are not a judge. That task is reserved for Jesus. Your task is to present the sacramental experience in the context of ritual prayer. Follow the rite and stay close to the prescriptions given in the ritual book.
- Next, it is vital to remember you are not a prosecuting attorney. Resist the urge to watch lawyer shows on streaming tv Saturday mornings. You are a listener when the penitent is confessing sins. If you have to interject a comment, make it one that encourages the penitent to talk, not one that sends you down the conversation rabbit hole.
- Familiarize yourself with the Praenotanda of the Rite of Penance and refresh your reading of this every year or so.
- Use Scripture. You are given more options than in any other ritual except for the Mass. If penitents are unprepared, use it as part of your won prayer time before, in between, and after hearing confessions.
- Follow the example of Luke 15:22-24. The Father interrupts the planned speech of the Son, and moves directly to an expression of gratitude.
- Did I mention gratitude? Every penitent should be thanked for the mutual experience of prayer. A priest hearing confessions as part of form I is celebrating several liturgies in one sitting. Be grateful you have an experience that would take even the most scrupulous of lay persons or deacons weeks or months to achieve.
- Pope Francis gives good lessons reproduced here by the Canadian bishops. This should replace any “confession practicum class” a seminary can cook up. Let the Holy Father school your practice.
- Do you spend a half hour prior to hearing confessions or afterward praying for your penitents? The absolute minimum would be 10% of the time spent celebrating the sacrament.
- If you are behind a screen, no secular reading and certainly no phones.
- Remember that penitents are vulnerable. Bad confessors do incalculable damage to individuals and to the reputation of the sacrament. If need be, police your own brothers in the priesthood.