The other day I received an electronic missive from a parent whose daughter asked her whether priests have to “do something special before Confessions so that they can become Jesus” in the sacramental action of forgiveness. This parent supposed that she was thinking (seriously or otherwise) along the lines of Superman. The question has merit: What do priests do before, during, and after hearing Confessions? I can speak only for myself, though I presume to speak for every priest who performs this awesome and humbling ministry to God’s people.
First bear in mind that every priest is first a penitent: he too must confess his sins to a brother priest with conscientiousness and humility. Otherwise he runs the risk of hypocrisy, telling people to do what he himself fails to do because he is somehow “above the law.” It is easy for priests to neglect this sacrament for some of the same reasons as non-ordained persons do: because we don’t make the time for it, because we may not feel we’ve done anything gravely wrong, or because we are tempted to embarrassment or discouragement over what we have done.
So one of the first things we must do before hearing Confessions is…to go to Confession! Of course I don’t mean that we must go to Confession before each time we hear Confessions; given the many occasions on which we hear them (e.g. weekly offerings at most parishes, assistance in penance services at other parishes, frequent “on-the-spot” requests) this would be impractical and perhaps unnecessary. But our regular examination of conscience must demonstrate itself in the faithful celebration of this saving sacrament. Intervals vary from one priest to the next just as they do for everyone else, but we are mindful of our priestly dignity and responsibility in such a way that it influences our personal spiritual disciplines.
Before “jumping in the box” many priests take a moment to thank the Lord Jesus for making us partakers in His “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). We ask the Holy Spirit to give us what we need to fulfill our office effectively and joyfully: for example, wisdom, compassion, attentiveness, and confidence. We also pray that our penitents may receive what they need: humility to make a thorough self-examination and self-disclosure, sincere sorrow for their sins, as well as courage to "go in peace" and make an honest effort to repair the harms they've done.. It helps everyone involved when we make these petitions an explicit and frequent subject of our prayer.
During the celebration we must be particularly mindful that each penitent who comes to us is a person with his or her own story—the sum total of experiences and reflections that they are expressing as best they can in a few minutes’ time. Whether it’s “the regular” who goes every week or two with the same struggles, “the big fish” who returns after a hiatus of several or many years, or anyone in between, it is Christ Himself—and priests are bound to treat the penitent with the same reverence that we would expect in his or her position. The days of priests yelling at penitents are, please God, long gone. This is not to say that human irritation or exasperation never surfaces, but that it—or rather, the priest himself—is to take second billing to Jesus. Oftentimes priests encounter their own human weaknesses and sins in the very content being presented to them. This can be unsettling and challenging, but at the same time enlightening and inspiring. It helps us to reflect on our own humanity which calls out for the perfection of divine grace; it further moves us to appreciate and shoulder the many crosses that our people bear.
After hearing Confessions, priests also “go in peace” to the next Christ-at-hand. We may for a moment wonder whether we’ve said the right thing to the persons who’ve approached us; we may wonder whether, humanly speaking, we’ve “done them justice.” If we’ve absolved them, that’s more than a good start! But we also pray that our well-chosen words have conveyed the mercy of the Divine Word, whose succinct direction to the penitent woman sent her onward and upward: “Go, and from now on do not sin any more” (John 8:11). And, for your own consolation, be assured that the grace of ordination enables us to encounter penitents outside of the sacrament without personal judgment. Most often, and especially after anonymous Confessions, we encounter you without recalling what was said by whom. Only if a person speaks to us outside the sacrament and explicitly reminds us of what he or she said can we reference the content in future conversations. Never do we mention particular sins of particular persons outside of the sacrament to third parties, in keeping with the inviolable sacramental seal. If we seek direction regarding what someone has said to us or how we ought to handle it, we always refrain from giving even the slightest hint of personal identification. In such circumstances we consult priests who are (1) far enough removed from our situation and (2) seasoned in Church moral teaching and pastoral practice. This kind of consultation is by no means typical “shop talk.” Note that Confession is one of many conversations that is not recorded or monitored for quality assurance; that’s God’s job.
I hope this article helps Catholics to approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation with joyful confidence in the supreme love that moved our Lord to institute it for the good of souls.