Inside the Confessional

Sacramental Insights From 4 Priests

Confessors relate the mercy found in the sacraments.
Confessors relate the mercy found in the sacraments. (photo: Unsplash)

Returning to God with your whole heart in the sacrament of reconciliation is especially meaningful during Lent, a time of renewal in anticipation of the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Four priests recently shared their perspectives on this vital sacrament with the Register.

“The sacrament of confession is a greater miracle than raising Lazarus from the dead,” according to Father Roger Landry, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, the national chaplain for Catholic Voices USA, and a writer for many Catholic publications, including the Register. In 2015, he was also appointed by Pope Francis as one of a thousand “missionaries of mercy” during the Jubilee Year of Mercy. 

“God restores our soul to its baptismal beauty in confession,” Father Landry said. “To be a dispenser of it is mind-blowing. Knowing oneself to be a sinner yet loved by God is one of the greatest experiences one can ever have.” He explained that Pope St. John Paul II taught that becoming a regular penitent is the greatest way to spiritual maturity because it is an invitation to let God in and open the window to self-knowledge. 

Father Landry spoke of the joy of having a prodigal Catholic return to the confessional after many years away. “The first thing I say is, ‘Welcome back. God has waited a long time, and he’s really happy you’re back.’” Their return, he said, is often a witness to the power of a good homily, or illumination of the death of a loved one, or the influence of friends. 

“It is such a great joy,” he said. “I’ve cried myself and have seen many penitents cry. I tell them that Jesus said [Luke 15:7] that heaven rejoices more over your coming back today than anything else.”

Given the seal of the confessional, Father Landry noted that priests are willing to lay down their lives rather than reveal what is confessed. “That is something that should give every Catholic confidence, that hearing your confession is more important to a priest than his life.”


Sacred Ground

“In the confessional, the priest is ipse Christus — Christ himself,” explained Father John Paul Mary Zeller of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word, who serves as the EWTN chaplain. He, too, was appointed a “missionary of mercy” by Pope Francis. “Confession is an encounter with God,” he said. “To think that I in some way facilitate that encounter between a penitent and God is awe-striking.” 

All the sacraments flow from the Eucharist, he explained, and lead back to the Blessed Sacrament. “The sacrament of penance is meant to increase charity and to help the penitent to enter more fully into the Eucharistic mystery.”

There’s always a direct personal encounter with the person and Jesus, not just for the penitent, but for the priest, too, Father John Paul explained. “I can sense the Holy Spirit at work; he is tangibly there. I don’t say this lightly, but it’s almost like the heart of Jesus is beating — I would say pounding. Sometimes I have a sense of that … of Christ’s presence. The penitent coming into the confessional is on holy ground and encountering the living Person of Jesus Christ and the mercy flowing from his heart.” 


Victory Over Evil

Father Frederick Miller is an adjunct professor of systematic theology at Immaculate Conception Seminary and author of the book The Grace of Ars: Reflections on the Life and Spirituality of St. John Vianney. He often gives out a pamphlet he wrote, “A Primer for Confession,” which explains confession and how to examine one’s conscience. 

The power of confession, Father Miller explained, comes through the Crucifixion. “Jesus dying for our sins empowers us to be truly contrite. My sorrow for sin could never be equal to the sorrow of Jesus on the cross, presenting it to the Father for us. His willingness to do penance for us is perfect.”

In his book, Father Miller wrote that, during the last decade of St. John Vianney’s life (1786-1859), tens of thousands of penitents came to him every year for absolution. It was normal for him to spend 12 to 15 hours a day in the confessional. “Although the parish priest often did battle in his room at night with Satan,” Father Miller wrote, “he understood that the real battle with the evil one and the victory over him took place whenever he raised his hands over his penitents and said the words: I absolve you from your sins. The priest came to understand that violent diabolical attacks often signaled the approach of a penitent who desperately needed forgiveness.”

According to Father Miller, “Through the acts of the penitent, namely, contrition, humble confession, and willingness to make satisfaction for the sins committed, the Holy Spirit causes a personal and intimate configuration to Christ in his passion. In fact, it is precisely this representation of the Paschal Mystery in the depths of the human heart that restores the penitent who has committed grave sin to friendship with God and reopens the way to integral participation in the Eucharistic sacrifice. The sacrament of penance also empowers the penitent who confesses venial sins, to offer the sacrifice of the Mass more fruitfully and with greater love.”


Into the Soul

Msgr. John Esseff is a priest and exorcist in the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania. He was ordained on May 30, 1953. He served as a retreat director and confessor to St. Teresa of Calcutta and the Missionaries of Charity. He met St. Pio (Padre Pio) in 1959; the saint was a spiritual father to him. He credited these two saints with being the two biggest influences in his priesthood.  

“Padre Pio influenced me with the sacrament of confession,” Msgr. Esseff said. “I could preach a sermon at the drop of a hat but found it difficult to hear confessions. I was fearful that I would give the wrong advice for a soul.”

As a young priest, Msgr. Esseff had worked with disadvantaged boys, and one had committed suicide after being rejected by both his parents.

Msgr. Esseff earned another degree after the suicide because he wanted to be able to read these kinds of behaviors better. 

“I earned a counseling degree to better understand, but still I felt the need to know more deeply the human soul,” he said. “Confessions demand a wisdom that it is deeper. The spirit of God takes us into the soul.” 

Msgr. Esseff met Padre Pio when the saint served in San Giovanni Rotondo. 

“I felt I was responsible for this little boy who I was not able to read,” he said. “I heard that [Padre Pio] could read souls. He told me, ‘I will help you.’ It was a tremendous encounter. He said to me ‘If you will send your guardian angel to me whenever you have a difficult case, I will come and help you.’ He died in 1968, but I have felt he has helped me; and even now I can call on him, and he will help.”

This encounter with Padre Pio, Msgr. Esseff said, had a profound effect on him and his own encounter with others in the confessional.

“People have told me that I have that gift of reading souls,” he told the Register.

Msgr. Esseff described the sacrament of confession for priests: “Jesus ... gave us the power to forgive sins. In this magnificent area, God has invited us into the human heart to direct and care for souls.”