Ernest Skublics extols the great privilege of a sacrament too little considered and too little used in our day

In his new book on the priesthood, Diener der Freude – a Celebration of Priestly Ministry, Cardinal Kasper recalls the deep and formative impact that hearing confessions had on his early years in the priesthood. He says that no other aspect of his ministry gave him such valuable pastoral experience as he had during the many hours he would spend in the confessional. These intimate conversations changed his style of preaching and transformed him, and made him understand the infinite mercy of God.

Reading this, the point was driven home to me how deprived we all are today of a genuine, shared journey of exploring the mercy, the call, the peculiar personal presence of God in our lives. Sacramental confession, so rare in our day, is a unique and privileged place where we can safely and openly share and explore the many aspects and quests of our spiritual lives.

The origins of this Sacrament had to do with serious breaches of communion with the Church, and so, of necessity, frequent confession was not the practice. However, over the centuries, it became refined and sophisticated into an encounter of exploration and counsel; a joint, shared quest for learning how better to implement God’s designs in our lives, how to avoid the pitfalls and become more adept at navigating through life’s conundra in the context of the love of God. How often can we freely engage in such a conversation, in the context of love and prayer, these days? And so, it maybe useful to see this precious gift as not only a rite to formally forgive sins, but as a veritable sacrament of spiritual friendship. What Cardinal Kasper remembers of the wonderful resource this sacrament was for his own formation and growth as a priest, resonates with me. This sacrament is not only good for the ‘penitent’, for the one who comes to the priest, in a more or less formal setting, to confess, to explore, to inquire, to share and converse. That overture is really a response to the priest’s preaching and teaching as much as it is a reflection on the ‘penitent’s’ life opened up in confidence and trust.

Kasper says these encounters first and foremost affected his preaching – and changed him as a person, a priest, in his own life. How often does a priest feel – if he really puts himself into his preaching – that he is making a confession himself every time, hanging out his own struggle with God for all to look at, share and learn from? Much of the time it feels as if he shouts into the void, and there is no reply, there is no turning it over, considering it, responding to it. Yet sometimes his sermon is a lonely cry for spiritual friendship, for help: for it is through each other that together we can grow and deepen.

The confessional is a private, safe, confidential place, where we can share questions, explorations, reactions we have to the Word of God and his call to us. Of course, it is also an incredible privilege for the priest to be trusted, to be able to be, at the very least, a sounding board, and, perhaps more often someone who is himself prodded to move on and deepen, but also who can share and apply the wisdom of the Church and his own experience to the life of another.