As a wonderful part of our priesthood, ''God has given us the ministry of reconciliation'' (2 Cor 5:18). It is interesting, however, to note that a priest can spend 50 years administrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and never once be checked on, questioned, queried, or examined on what or how he is doing!
Part of the problem may be that either some priests give so little time to this sacrament outside of Lent and Advent, or the ''wrong'' people (e.g., the minority who confess more emotional faults than real sins) are the few who are coming.
To help us reflect on how we are doing it, let us recall what St. Alphonsus, patron saint of confessors, has to offer on this subject. If there are still people who think of Alphonsus as a very severe and harsh theologian, nothing could be farther from the truth. Conservatives manipulated texts of St. Alphonsus during and after Vatican I. He was the living personification of mercy and pardon. To scare sinners with the fear of hell was not his normal practice. He reminded confessors that they are priest, doctor, teacher and judge, in that order. (Notice how he puts the role of judge in last place.)
In his role as priest, the good confessor will be full of charity. Without deemphasizing the seriousness of what sin does to a person, the good confessor does it with lots of love (cf. Lk 15:11-32, e.g, The Prodigal Son). You treat a criminal with harshness, but a sick person gets tenderness and care, lest you kill the patient! Alphonsus saw sinners much more as spiritually sick than wicked hardened criminals of bad will.
Now with the advantages of confession face to face, the good confessor will observe the non-verbal language he can pick up. Is the penitent nervous, tired, sad, tense, in a hurry, confused, without conditions to express himself?
As Doctor, he recommends seven types of ''medicine'' to heal the penitent:
1) LOVE OF GOD -- Alphonsus knew from pastoral experience that if he could get people to make a commitment to love God, he had won half the battle against sin. He felt that fear could not maintain a lasting conversion, only a deep love for the Lord. So he tried to show the penitent what life without God would be like. True that his style was that of the warm Neapolitan, Alphonsus's use of persuasion can show that happiness comes only from being a friend of the Lord, that peace of soul comes only from living a life in grace.
To repent of one's sins, therefore, has meaning only if we confessors help people to love God more. I don't think Alphonsus would be very happy with a confessor who promptly gives a penitent three Hail Marys, and has them off on their way.
2) MARY -- After love of/for God, Alphonsus felt that a strong devotion to Mary (he recommended the Rosary) helps the weak sinner. Remember that in Alphonsian theology, Mary is a sign of hope. In his worst moments of scruples, when he thought he was already condemned to hell, his one consolation was that his dear Madonna would somehow save him. One could be ashamed or afraid of going to God the Father because of past sins; no one is frightened by a conversation with their Mother!
Pope John XXIII said that we cannot have a full and total love for Jesus without including his Mother. She brings Jesus the Savior to his redeemed people. Ad Jesum per Mariam.
3) THE SACRAMENTS -- The frequent use of the sacraments is a strong remedy when lusty and sensual temptations expose us to the seductions of sex, power, ambition and money. Lucky the Catholics in the United States who can still find priests for daily Mass during Lent or while on vacation, or even if they must drive great distances on a Sunday to get to a church.
How often should a person go to Confession? How often do you take your car in for a checkup? Or visit your dentist? Depends! As for ''frequent confession,'' four times a year is no exaggeration. It will not hurt anyone. Maybe it is time to reread works such as Karl Menninger's Whatever Became Of Sin? (Hawthorn Books) once again.
Yes, some things we used to call sins are more symptoms of psychological disturbances and distresses. Not to confess guilt, however, is filling up clinics with people who need spiritual healing more than anything else. Contrary to some popular wisdom, not all guilt is bad. It is like a nerve in our body that tells us something is wrong and needs attention. Needs fixing.
For those who feel that they need to go once a week, I tell them that they really don't have to, while those who go only once every five years need it more regularly. I recommend that they come back again within three to six months to see what progress they have made during that time.
4) FAMILY PRAYER -- Alphonsus recommends to fathers and mothers of families that they promote family prayer, even though the term domestic church was not common in his day. The head of a household has to exercise his or her ''priestly'' role of leading all family members to pray.
Maybe the family Rosary doesn't appeal to all, but it is a proven fact that youth and children need to see their parents praying one way or another, so that their own faith passes from a mere cultural or intellectual exercise to a living, existential experience. It is like love. You do not learn how to love without seeing and experiencing love first. You do not get a vibrant faith without seeing and experiencing others living theirs.
The family is the basic cell of the Church, society's best teacher of so many values and virtues. A good family living together in peace and harmony is still the best example we have to reveal and explain that the Trinity is a divine ''family,'' a community (just as the Trinity becomes the model for the human family to imitate.)
Would it not be wonderful if confessors could get heads of households not only to pray more, but also to pray together with family members?
5) GOD'S PRESENCE -- We used to think that being a ''mystic'' was the privilege of a rare few locked up in monasteries. Alphonsus's pastoral experience showed him that there are thousands, even millions, of people out there who live constantly in God's presence. They are conscious of Him in all their daily work and actions. They consider what God might want or expect from them before deciding a certain action.
If we are conscious and aware of this reality, we can affirm people in their mysticism. Not just in a moment of temptation or crisis, they are continually mindful of God's presence. Our job is to confirm them in this. It is not so much that we create or train mystics, but that we alert them. We give them an intellectual perception and appreciation of what is going on in their lives.
One of Alphonsus's principles was that we should never rush people through this Sacrament just because there are others waiting (easier said than done when we have a schedule to follow). The confessor fixes his attention on the person before him and needs orientation. Of course, we cannot take the luxury of spending 20 minutes with each penitent (mark another time.) But the ''other'' Charles Curran -- psychologist -- talked about the ''five minute'' interview, when a short bit of advice was all the person needed or wanted.
6) EXAMINE OF CONSCIENCE -- Businesses at the end of the week or month take a look at their stock. What is selling? What needs to be reordered? What to put on sale because it is not moving? Are things going well or not?
We need to stop and reflect upon our lives. How generous or selfish have I been? How kind or malicious was I? The Sacrament of Reconciliation will gain new value in proportion to the effort we make to get people to check up on themselves: what are their motives and what are their thoughts and desires leading them to? Are their goals and attitudes correct?
If we can get people to stop frequently (every night before going to bed?) and take stock of their lives, to see if their reasons for acting were the right ones, we are giving the penitent a great remedy for not only avoiding future sins, but also for growing in love with God.
7) JOIN A CHURCH GROUP -- Besides good family life, the ideal would be that each Christian belongs to some kind of group or association of faith. We all need the stimulus that example and words give us. Firms dealing in sales are always sponsoring pep rallies and motivational seminars for their salespeople.
When one belongs to a group of faith, he or she becomes challenged and motivated by the good example being lived by others. Every parish offers a variety of options. If a parochial one seems too limited, there are diocesan groups with greater scope.
Whether it be once a week or once a month, a gathering with other motivated Christians is a great remedy for avoiding sin and a stimulus for growing in the love of God. The U.S. Army recruits young men by challenging them to be the best they can; the Marines want only A Few Good Men. Why can we not challenge people to go after sanctity, to seek a life of deep, intimate friendship with a loving Lord?
The Sacrament of Reconciliation is not just for getting rid of sin. It wants to restore our union with the Lord, help us grow and transform our life. For this, we can be thankful for what St. Alphonsus reminded the Church.
As he treats the role of the good confessor as teacher, he offers good old fashioned advice on how to get at the cause of the evil of sin: do the exact opposite of your sin, e.g., if you have a violent temper, try to practice acts of kindness; if you have trouble with purity, keep yourself busy and stay away from the people, places and occasions that most tempt you; if you are lazy, get involved in charity or volunteer work. I am sure psychologists can offer us updated suggestions that capture the spirit of what Alphonsus wanted to do for sinners 250 years ago.
To achieve a remedy against sin and to grow in the love of God, the confessor is to use common sense and prudence to size up the circumstances and the person before him and to evaluate the efforts and desire of change on the part of the penitent. That seems so obvious to us, but you would be surprised at how many confessors still have a Jansenist streak and only see the gravity of the sin and the rigor of the law. After all this, Alphonsus the trained lawyer reminds the confessor that he is also a judge!
So what are your thoughts and attitude when you are called to administer the Sacrament of Reconciliation? Is it a chore to be done as quickly as possible? Something to be put up with? A useless, time-consuming practice better left for medieval times?
Or do you see it as one of the high points of your priesthood? A privileged moment to deal face to face with a person seeking God's mercy and pardon? A hungry sheep who looks to you to be fed? TP
FATHER KIRCHNER, C.Ss.R., was ordained a priest in 1966, spent 39 years in the Amazon, has been a pastor many times and also did formation work. He received a degree in Moral Theology in Rome, and is currently working and living at Ligouri, Mo.