Some time ago I was speaking at a large Catholic conference and the organizers had put some time for confession into the program, so I joined with the other priests and spent a couple of hours hearing confessions.

There were nearly a thousand people signed up for the conference so all around the room there were long lines of ordinary people waiting to make their confession.

In seeing this I thought of the sheer practicality, dignity and grace of this beautiful sacrament.

Here were probably five or six hundred people who had the opportunity for someone to listen to them. They were able to see a professional career at no cost. They were able to consult with (hopefully) a wise, cheerful, well trained man who even for a couple of minutes would give them his undivided attention, help them see things more clearly, point the way through the thicket of their problems and assure them that they were loved and accepted for who they are.

This was not some sort of shallow self-help pep rally, but a down-to-earth, dignified, simple and personal connection for ordinary people. They don’t need umpteen sessions of psychoanalysis. They don’t need expensive treatments. They just need a bit of help, a bit of guidance, a bit of forgiveness, a bit of attention, a bit of love.

These were ordinary people with ordinary broken hearts, broken marriages, broken relationships, broken lives and broken hopes. These were ordinary folks who wouldn’t normally run to see someone with their problems full of self-pity. Instead they were doing the best they can, seeking God, seeking holiness, seeking happiness, seeking all that is beautiful, good and true.

But of course, confession is more than therapy for people with low self-esteem.

On the contrary, these were not humiliated people groveling before a fearsome God. They were people with great dignity and maturity, for one of the most dignified and fully human things you can do is to admit you are not totally together and you need help. It is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength and self-reliance and true self-respect to say, “I can do better than that.” It is a full human and mature thing to say, “I am better than that, and I’m going to find forgiveness and pick myself up and try again and if I need to — to get some help.”

Everybody who has ever become great and done great things has come to that point. 

What each person also got was a sacrament. The sacraments, remember, are a physical means of grace. They got a pat on the back, a quiet word, a smile, a gently hug, a bit of encouragement from another human being — Jesus in the form of a priest.

The ordinariness of this sacrament is therefore a most beautiful and simple thing. God coming to us in the form of Jesus in that priest. So I looked around at my fellow priests. They were there with me for over two hours. They were patient and kind. They were attentive and listening. I spotted one fellow wiping his brow. It’s hard work. I saw another check his watch. “Yes, you really have been here for over an hour and the lines are still long.”

An attendant sidled up and asked if I needed a bottle of water. I said, “Could I have a bottle of whiskey instead?”

The folks in the line heard me and laughter all around.

So this is not the gloomy, dark and guilt-ridden sacrament lapsed Catholics so often complain about. This was God’s people meeting God together.

For remember — grace is given. Grace is given not only for forgiveness, but for the power to overcome the sin. Grace is given that we might move ever upward to “grow up into the full humanity of Jesus Christ.”

This was heaven come down to earth, with forgiveness in its wings.

This was children talking to their Fathers.

This was prodigal sons and daughters on the journey home.