A few years ago, a family friend went to confession for the first time in over three decades. She was an otherwise practicing Catholic, but had a great fear of returning to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. My mom was still living at the time, and had been “working on her” for a while to go to confession. I was therefore surprised one Lenten Saturday when I exited our church’s confessional to see her waiting in line.

She was reading her purple “examination of conscience” printout when I saw her but she looked up and her eyes met mine. I smiled and gave her a thumbs up, mouthing the words “good luck” as I went back to my pew. I did my penance and said a few extra prayers for her. She was inside the confessional when I left the Church.

On my way home, I stopped in to check in on my mother. Shortly thereafter, our friend’s car also pulled up in front of the house. She was furious. Her experience in the confessional had been horrible for her and she spent the next several hours describing how awful it had been. I was surprised because her confessor was a priest to whom I’d confessed countless times without difficulty. Nevertheless, knowing the priest well, the details she provided rang true to me, and her anger seemed justified. There was no question that it was a bad match between priest and penitent, even if the priest didn’t mean to make her upset. To my knowledge, she hasn’t gone to confession since.

Bad confession experiences happen, regrettably, and a single traumatizing encounter can often be enough to permanently drive someone away from the Sacrament of Reconciliation or even the Church. For this reason, it is imperative that priests do everything within their power to be a good and welcoming confessor. Not every priest is charming or a master of people skills, but every priest has the capacity to be kind and decent in the confessional booth.

Those of us who have been Catholics for a long time know how agonizing the sacrament can be when the priest decides to lecture us at length or even gets angry at us. Sometimes it feels like a hostage situation. Pope Francis does not exaggerate when he warns priests against turning the confessional into a torture chamber.

One of the most horrifying confession experiences I’ve ever heard is a bit of family history that took place a little before I was born. My aunt was a young mother at the time and decided to go to confession at her parish. My cousins were with her — a newborn and one-year-old — and my aunt brought them into the confessional with her because she didn’t have anyone to watch them. The confession, behind a screen, began as normal until one of the two babies made a sound. Suddenly the priest said, “What was that? Do you have a child with you?” My aunt said yes. In response, the old priest shouted, “Get it out of here!!! I am not running an ecclesiastical play pen!!!”

Needless to say, my aunt was very upset and angry about this, and said that if her faith was any weaker, she would have left that day and never gone back. She was not alone. This priest was something of a local legend and I’ve heard from at least two other people who were tossed from the confessional by this same priest when they were kids — for wearing shorts. One of them looks back at the story with amusement. The other is still angry at this priest, who died decades ago. These anecdotes cause me to wonder how many other teenagers and young parents were thrown out of the confessional by this priest? How many never went back?

Many readers reacted negatively to Alessandra Harris’s article earlier this week about the pain caused by a priest denying absolution to her close family member. They felt that by providing some of the details of the church and the time of the incident might lead people to identify the priest. They offered their opinions that this priest was right in denying absolution and condemned the author (and Where Peter Is) for publishing something that might damage the priest’s good name. On the other hand, I have already heard from another reader who was also denied absolution at the same parish. Was Alessandra’s family member’s experience a one-off, or was it part of a disturbing trend?

As the father of teenagers myself, I can’t imagine the pain Alessandra must have felt when her family member told her that he was denied absolution. And if he’d said he was sorry for his sins, it’s difficult not to imagine that this priest was especially harsh in his judgement. After all, even the Baltimore Catechism taught that “Imperfect contrition is sufficient for a worthy confession,” even though “we should endeavor to have perfect contrition.”

In discussing the denial of absolution, Pope Francis told confessors in 2016 that they should not take the denial of absolution lightly, and before taking that extreme course of action, “First of all, try to see if there is a way; there frequently is. Second, don’t just bind yourselves by spoken language, but also to body language. There are people who can’t speak but by their gestures they show their repentance, their sorrow.” In other words, a priest cannot deny absolution when, in his subjective opinion, the penitent isn’t “sorry enough.” The real question is, are they sorry at all? God can work within even the slightest opening.

Pope Francis describes, in The Name of God is Mercy, the “lengths to which God goes to enter the heart of man, to find that small opening that will permit him to grant grace.” This is perhaps best exemplified in the passage of the book where journalist Andrea Tornielli recounts a story told in the novel To Every Man a Penny by Bruce Marshall:

The protagonist of the novel, the abbot Father Gaston, needs to hear the confession of a young German soldier whom the French partisans are about to sentence to death. The soldier confesses his love of women and the numerous amorous adventures he has had. The young priest explains that he has to repent to obtain forgiveness and absolution. The soldier answers, “How can I repent? It was something that I enjoyed, and if I had the chance I would do it again, even now. How can I repent?” Father Gaston, who wants to absolve the man who has been marked by destiny and who’s about to die, has a stroke of inspiration and asks, “But are you sorry that you are not sorry?” The young man answers impulsively, “Yes, I am sorry that I am not sorry.” In other words, he apologizes for not repenting. The door was opened just a crack, allowing absolution to come in” (p.33).

To this story, Pope Francis replies, “It’s true, that’s how it is. It’s a good example of the lengths to which God goes to enter the heart of man, to find that small opening that will permit him to grant grace. He does not want anyone to be lost. His mercy is infinitely greater than our sins, his medicine is infinitely stronger than our illnesses that he has to heal.”

Yes, there are certainly extraordinary situations where granting absolution is impossible, but Pope Francis offers some serious guidance:

If you can’t give absolution, speak to them like a father: “Listen, because of this I cannot [absolve you], but I can assure you that God loves you, God is waiting for you! Let us pray together to Our Lady, that she protect you; and come, come back. I will wait for you just as God is waiting for you”. And give them a blessing. That way, this person leaves the confessional and thinks: “I found a father and he didn’t hit me”. How many times have you heard someone say: “I never go to confession, because this one time I went and he yelled at me”? Even in the extreme case in which I cannot give absolution, let him or her feel the warmth of a father! Let them be blessed and be called back. And also may you pray a little for him or for her. This is always the point: there’s a father there. And this too is a celebration, and God knows how to forgive things better than we do. But at least we can be an image of the Father.

When a priest fails in his role as a father, intentionally or not, and drives away a penitent by refusing absolution, he wounds the body of Christ. An erroneous judgement in favor of mercy, by granting absolution to someone whose sincerity is suspect, will do less harm than creating an unnecessary barrier to the grace of the sacrament. God is the ultimate judge of our actions, only he knows our hearts.

Image: Adobe Stock. By Seventyfour.

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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