Question: When a priest is hearing confessions, does the Holy Spirit always enlighten him so that he gives his penitents accurate and insightful guidance?
— Peter Tate, Long Beach, California
Answer: The word “always” in your question implies an enlightenment that is too absolute. Certainly, the Holy Spirit assists priests in all their duties, including confession; but priests are not robotically connected such that they are mere oracles. The priest, in the celebration of the sacraments, acts in persona Christi. But the Lord engages the whole person of the priest: his personality, memories, experiences, his will and freedom, his gifts and struggles. This is why some priests are gifted preachers, others have great patience, prudence and counsel as confessors; still others are gifted at administration and organization. Priests also have struggles and weaknesses that weigh in on how effectively they preach, celebrate the sacraments or lead parishes.
As to your specific question, the Holy Spirit certainly offers enlightenment to priests in confession, but priests vary insofar as they are docile to the Spirit. Some are sensitive to the prompting of the Spirit, others less so. Priests also vary in their experience, age, listening skills, patience, holiness and prudence. Sadly a few priests are not always in conformity with Church teaching and give not only poor advice, but erroneous direction.
Regarding the Sacrament of Reconciliation, when it is validly celebrated, absolution is always given since sacraments work of themselves (ex opere operato), regardless of the holiness or qualities of the priest. But in terms of the fruitfulness of the sacrament, that is affected by human factors on the part of the priest and the penitent. Even as the human factors of the priest are noted above, a penitent, too, can be docile or resistant to the Spirit, carefully prepared for confession by a devout examination of conscience or poorly prepared and perfunctory in their recitation of sin.
Thus, your question reminds all of us, priests and all the faithful, to bring a devout and open disposition to the celebration of the sacraments. The sacraments give true and objective graces. But how fruitfully they are received, and the degree of the transformation brought about in a person, does depend on human factors. This variable quality is especially true of ancillary aspects of a sacrament, such as advice given by a confessor or the quality of a penance assigned.
Question: Since we choose the company we keep, can hell be described as a horrible gathering of people who can’t blame God for the company they chose?
— Robert Bonsignore, Brooklyn, New York
Answer: Hell likely has many unpleasant aspects. Without doubt one is the company you describe. To be surrounded by people who have rejected God and/or aspects of the Kingdom such as forgiveness, mercy, chastity, grace, love even of one’s enemies, etc., is going to be an unpleasant place dominated by wrath, vengeance, impurity, selfishness and violence. But there are other aspects of hell that also make it unpleasant. In contrast to your question, loneliness also is a likely aspect since the souls in hell will tend to be turned in on themselves and largely selfish.
But the very worst aspect of hell is to have rejected the one thing necessary for our happiness. We were made for God, and only God really can satisfy our longing. But the souls in hell by their own choice have rejected God and the kingdom he offered them, and they will long and thirst for all eternity, yet still reject the only true answer to their desires. That’s pretty miserable.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.