It has been just over six weeks since I was ordained a Catholic priest for the Diocese of Rockford on June 1st, 2019. Since then, I have been able to celebrate over sixty masses, anoint several people, preside over a couple of funerals, and baptize one child.
I also attended two friend’s ordination to the priesthood in Madison, Wisconsin, and Wishaw, Scotland.
While all of these pastoral opportunities have impacted me during my short time as a priest; the most life-changing aspect of priesthood has been the hours I have spent sitting in the confessional. Here I have humbly listened to the people of God as they receive the loving mercy of Jesus Christ through the sacrament of reconciliation.
Growing up, I would say that I had a love/hate relationship with the sacrament of confession. I experienced fear as a child about sharing my weakest moments with a man that I looked up to in my local priest. Over time, I was able to mature and recognize that I was talking to Jesus in this moment of healing.
I realized that for Him to truly heal me, I needed to tell Christ through the priest the wounds in my heart. Upon understanding this, life for me was more joyful when I frequented the sacrament regularly. While attending high school at Boylan Central Catholic in Rockford, Illinois, I was able to go to confession once a week.
This was very important in my spiritual development, and it was primarily due to this that I believe I was able to hear the call and enter seminary at the age of 20 back in 2011.
The Sacrament of Confession is a bit odd.
For the most part, the other sacraments have a communal dimension. We most likely have seen thousands of people receive Our Lord in the Eucharist, we have been to dozens of weddings and experienced many baptisms.
However, going to confession is an intimate and personal experience. We may each have our own private understanding of how we reflect on our moral lives and bring our shortcomings to Jesus in confession. Yet, we understand very little about how our brothers and sisters experience merciful love in this way.
For a young priest, this will change quickly. Between working at a large parish and hearing confessions at summer camps, I have spent many hours hearing confessions. It is in these moments that I have experienced spiritual fatherhood.
I remember the first night I heard confessions for over ninety minutes straight. When there was no one left in line, I didn’t want to leave. I simply wanted to sit in that box and wait for someone to come in and say, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned…”
As a priest, we will never experience being a physical father, but in the sacrament of confession, there is a sense of spiritual fatherhood.
Men have a natural desire to want to help, to serve, to solve problems. However, most of the time, in pastoral situations, when somebody comes to talk to a priest, it is our job to accompany them, to listen to them and pray with them.
It is not very likely to be a quick and easy fix.
So, we entrust them to the Lord, pray for them, guide them a bit, and hopefully, the Holy Spirit can work through us to lay the seeds for a resolution to their situation down the road.
The beauty of sitting in the confessional is that I have a front-row seat to Our Lord healing the wounds of his loved ones. The penitent comes to me as the priest. Obviously, it’s not me, its Jesus, but the priest is the vessel that Jesus uses to lift these burdens.
It is beautiful to be a part of this intimate moment where I can tell them to be at peace, I absolve you, be burdened no more. It is an honor to be proximate to this healing process, and it has been the greatest joy of my priesthood.
There are many people who for whatever reason, have stayed away from this great sacrament. I think of the Prodigal Son’s father, how many thousands of priests are out there sitting in the box, waiting for their children to return so that they can be embraced, healed, and loved.
If it has been a while since you have been to confession, I invite you to return to this sacrament, until then I will be praying and waiting for you in the box.
Photo thanks to Chelsea Evett.