By means of the sacrament of holy orders, Catholic priests have the faculties to hear confessions and grant reconciliation. When a priest hears confessions — or confers any sacrament, for that matter — he is acting as Christ’s representative. The Church refers to this as acting in persona Christi, or in the person of Christ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1548).
All priests should desire to carry out a holy ministry and to confer the sacraments in a way that leads others to Christ. However, sometimes the mix of personalities in the confessional makes it difficult for the one confessing to feel comfortable with the one hearing the confession and vice versa.
In that light, there are some basic rules of thumb that can help you to find the confessor who’s right for you.
"Be sure that your confessor honors Church teaching," said Dan Burke, executive director of the Register and founder of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation. "It’s important that he understands that he’s there to help you to be reconciled with the Church and enter into a deeper union with God. He needs to point you in the right direction so that you can honor God with your life."
Second, Burke said, find a priest who truly listens to you.
"Some priests operate on autopilot in the confessional," he said. "If their responses seem like standard answers rather than ones that really apply to your situation, you might want to interject and see if you can get beyond this issue or find another confessor."
Third, Burke said, rule out feelings and the word "like." If the priest only seems interested in placating your concerns or making you feel good about yourself rather than being honest and charitably yet truthfully leading you to greater spiritual growth, you may have the wrong fit.
"Confession isn’t about feeling good or about feeling bad or ashamed," he said. "It’s about receiving the grace and forgiveness of God and setting your course back on the narrow road."
On the other hand, Burke recommends that penitents reciprocate by being considerate of the priest hearing their confession.
"Be sensitive to the priest’s time," he said. "Make sure you’ve prepared a thorough examination of conscience beforehand and know exactly what you want to confess. Priests can become frustrated by a lack of clarity, and rightfully so."
Confessions, according to Burke, should be brief, lasting a few minutes. He warns against trying to soften the priest by rationalizing your sins and succumbing to vanity. Additionally, don’t use the confessional for spiritual direction. That’s not the place for it, he said.
Mary Blevins, a bank clerk from Bristol, Va., knew immediately that her new pastor was the right fit. She has been confessing regularly to him for a year.
"Father Kevin listens with his ears, mind, soul and heart," she said. "I know he is truly sincere in being in persona Christi in the confessional. He is straightforward and yet gentle. He tells me what I need to hear and gives good guidance. He never makes me feel rushed, and he’s compassionate, yet firm when need be."
No priest has taken the kind of time with Michelle Harris as her current confessor. Harris lives in Wichita, Kan., and was a lapsed Catholic when she read an article in the local Catholic paper about priests and social media. That prompted her to use social media to reach out to a priest she sensed could help her return to the Church, and he reached back.
"I suggest that those looking for a regular confessor pray and be open," she said. "Make an appointment, and be realistic about what you’re looking for. Be honest, which includes, ‘Father, there’s more … but I’m afraid.’ They’re shepherds in persona Christi."
Katie Choudhary is a fitness coach in Romeoville, Ill., who appreciates her confessor because he helps her see things clearly and gives certain ideas more thought, without being judgmental.
"He reminds me that God’s mercy is greater than any sin I could ever commit," she said. During confession, "he answered my questions. It wasn’t an in-and-out [confession], but a conversation that helped me with areas of my heart that were heavy with concern."
Sometimes, the right confessor isn’t one whose personality is in perfect harmony with yours, but, rather, the one with whom you’re paired through circumstances. That’s what happened to middle-school teacher Joy Esguerra of Madison, Wis. Esguerra believes that the ability to go to confession and be absolved of sin is more important than finding a priest who fits your "style."
"God actually knows best what I need," she said. "And he placed us both together so that I would learn to deal with people I take issue with. My priest is a very loving man who wants very much for his flock to get to heaven."
Esguerra also appreciates her confessor for his generosity with his time and his efforts to make confession readily available for anyone who needs it.
In choosing a confessor, the foremost aspect to keep in mind is the fundamental reason for confession: the forgiveness of sins. No difficulty, whether it’s discomfort with the priest or the cost in time or travel, should keep you from the sacrament.
"Never forsake the sacrament of reconciliation because you haven’t found a confessor who suits you," said Burke. "Understand the gravity of this. Don’t let the devil or yourself rob you of the powerful gift of confession."
As Pope Francis reminded the faithful on Feb. 19, "Be courageous, and go to confession. … It’s for healing: healing the soul, healing the heart."
Marge Fenelon writes from Cudahy, Wisconsin.
Dos and Don’ts of Finding a Confessor
- Be objective. Choose a priest who can help you grow spiritually, not one who simply makes you feel good (or bad) about yourself.
- Avoid priests who seem to downplay your sins or dull Church teaching.
- Remember the three goals of the spiritual life: grace, union with God and forming your conscience.
- Do all that you can to help the priest serve you.
- Remember that priests are human, too, and prone to weakness, just as you are.
- Choose a priest who follows the proper formula for the sacrament: hearing your confession, giving penance, requiring an Act of Contrition and giving absolution.
- Pray, and ask God to guide you to the right confessor.
- Be open and honest, with yourself and the priest.
- Make a preliminary appointment so that you can get to know each other.
- Pray for your confessor before you go to confession.
- Always put your need for the sacrament before your preference of confessor.