Priests need to remind themselves of the awesome gift God has bestowed by allowing them to be His instruments of healing and mercy. Jim Olvera Photo

Celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation has been one of my greatest joys as a priest, but I also know that there have been many times in the past when I found myself simply going through the sacramental motions of just “hearing confessions,” and not really celebrating God’s love and mercy with the penitent.  

I have spent a lot of time searching my heart and looking for the origins of and the differences between “hearing confessions” and “celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation,” and have discovered three: my preparation, the preparation of the penitent, and a fear of praying with people. 

I can still remember when I got my first job as a teenager at a local pizza place. I was excited and could not wait to get started, but as time went on there were days when the tasks were boring and monotonous and other days when the same tasks were fun and enjoyable. All of this of course depended upon my attitude. In my opinion, one of the most devastating effects of original sin is that the longer we possess a thing, do an activity, or interact with a person, the more we forget that all is a gift from God. 

An Attitude of Gratitude

We must remind ourselves daily that all we have is a gift from God, and this is especially important when it comes to celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation with people. We, priests need to remind ourselves of the awesome gift God has bestowed upon us by allowing us to be His instruments of healing and mercy, and developing this attitude of gratitude is the first part of our preparation. 

My Preparation

Another key part of the preparation for celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation is to prepare ourselves in some way so that we can give appropriate penances. As I prepare to enter the confessional, I will often bring with me prayer cards (both homemade on my computer and store-bought). Prayer cards that explain how to pray the rosary and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy are great.  

My personal favorite prayers are the Litany of Humility, the Prayer of St. Michael and a prayer for the virtue of chastity. Having the cards ready to give to penitents helps them to learn new prayers and reminds me that there are more prayers that can make a good penance than the Our Father and the Hail Mary. 

In addition to prayer cards, I also keep a list of favorite Scripture passages with me that I can assign as a penance. In addition to bringing prayer cards with me, I also bring a list of resources for people who have had an abortion, who are struggling with an addiction of some sort or who need some professional psychological help.  

I always feel much better celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation when I know that, through the power of God, I am prepared to forgive the penitent’s sin, and also that I am prepared to point people in the right direction so that they have a better chance of avoiding the near occasion of sin. 

Frequent Confession

The final thing that I do to prepare myself to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation is to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation frequently as a penitent myself. As I receive forgiveness of my personal sins, it makes me appreciate God’s love and mercy even more. The more that I appreciate God’s love and mercy, the more I wish to share it with others. God’s love and mercy are too good to keep to oneself. 

How do we prepare others to celebrate the Sacrament of Penance worthily? We all know that there are many who celebrate the sacrament routinely as if they were on autopilot. 

We also know that there are many times that a person who comes in says, “Bless me father for I have sinned, it has been six months since my last confession, I really have not done anything. . .” While I am excited that the person is coming to the Sacrament, I am also frustrated because it shows me how much catechesis needs to be done. 

In order to help people examine their consciences better, I have invented what I call “personal penance services.” 

A ‘Personal Penance Service’

A personal penance service is a simple two-sided sheet of paper with an opening prayer, a Scripture reading, a small reflection on the reading, an examination of conscience, and a prayer of thanksgiving to pray after they have celebrated the Sacrament of Reconciliation with a priest. I also include a copy of an act of contrition with each personal penance service to help ease their fears. I invite you to check out the “personal penance services” on my website Having a couple of different examinations of conscience nearby can help penitents approach the Sacrament with a greater awareness of their sinfulness and their need for God’s mercy. I know that I enjoy celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation much more with a person who is well prepared. 

A Quick How-To

It saddens me to know that there are many out there who desire God’s forgiveness but are afraid to enter into the confessional because they can’t remember the Act of Contrition that they learned when they were a child.  

I have found great success in bringing people to the confessional by including a quick how-to when I preach about God’s love and mercy. I make sure to include the fact that penitents do not have to know a formal act of contrition and that they have the option to pray one from their hearts. A welcoming attitude and a quick greeting can go a long way toward calming the fears of the penitent who has been absent from the confessional for a long time. 

The third reason, a fear of praying, may sound a bit funny, because after all celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation is praying. I used to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation very formally, and in some ways it seemed very cold. For example, when people confess that they lost their temper with a loved one who is severely ill, I used to give them a penance and absolution and send them on their way.  

Now I have learned to take the time to pray with them for their loved ones. I find that taking these few extra minutes really means a lot to them, and I feel that it better communicates God’s love to them. If someone is struggling with sins of sexual impurity, I may take a moment either aloud for the penitent to hear or silently in my heart and say a prayer for the penitent to be able to live a chaste life. I may even invoke a saint or two to help aid individuals in their struggle against temptation. Feeling free to pray with the penitent while still remaining true to the form and demands of the Sacrament allows me to truly celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation as a sacrament of healing. 

It is my constant prayer as I enter the confessional, that God may truly help me celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation with each individual to the best of my ability so that I may be a true instrument of God’s love and mercy and not merely “hear confessions.”

FATHER PASTORIUS is pastor of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in South St. Louis City, St. Louis, Mo.