Friday, December 16, 2016 - Updated: 6:00 am
QUESTION: It strikes me that some people are in the confessional for a very long time and others are in and out. Why is that? I ask only because I wonder if I might be doing it wrong.
ANSWER: There are no formal time limits on the sacrament of mercy and forgiveness. But there are some guidelines on how the sacrament should be celebrated. These are based on the purpose of the sacrament and common sense.
The sacrament of reconciliation essentially begins with the confession of sins. But the key elements are that one tells one’s own sins and just sins.
Younger children and some adults have the habit of adding addenda to their sins. For example, “I hit my brother because …” or “I am impatient with my spouse because …” Following the “because” is a revelation of the faults (sins) of another person. Unless diverted by an attentive priest that revelation can be detailed and takes a lot of time. That revelation of the sins of another is not envisioned as part of the sacrament.
The first part of one’s confession involves sin. That does not include one’s opinions on the Catholic faith, one’s doubts about theological matters or comments on the current culture. The focus has to be on sin, and one’s own sins at that.
When these two elements are neglected, a confession can take a long time. That is particularly noticeable when there are 20 people lined up behind you and it is two days before Christmas. Some think that since they waited a half-hour they should take all the time they want. Common sense should help us to appreciate that we all want the same thing — mercy and forgiveness — and to get on with our lives, which are especially complex and busy this time of year.
This is not to say that the priest is uninterested in your opinions or comments, but that they can and should be shared at some other time. Also, the priest is interested in the context of your life and your sins, but they need not be given in the form of a novel. The briefest possible context is more than enough for the average priest. And remember it is just sin that is essential here.
It is also important for priests to remember that while they may have all the insights and noble advice on a particular topic, they need not share it all with every penitent, especially before Christmas or Easter. It is, after all, God who forgives through the church. There is little need for extensive commentary beyond the power of the sacrament in the words of absolution.
Priests are more than happy to discuss spiritual matters with parishioners, but that best takes place at a time other than in the sacrament of reconciliation. In that context there is a limited time, and often the concerns of parishioners are very complex and cannot be sorted out so easily.
We all have to remember that the sacrament of God’s mercy is such a tremendous gift, and it is meant for humans and is conveyed through the instrumentality of humans.
Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.