LONDON, ONTARIO - When I was accepted into the Roman Catholic Church, I heard from a number of lifelong Catholics who told me they envied me my fresh apprehensions of the glories of a Church which, through long habituation, they feared they sometimes took for granted. And there certainly were times during my months of study and preparation when I was all but overwhelmed by the blessings and the significance and the implications of the relationship I was entering into.
Nothing stands out quite so vividly from the many impressions of that time as the memory of my first marathon confession when, shaking like the proverbial leaf as butterflies waged thermonuclear war in my guts, I was able to set down nearly 32 years’ worth of regrets and remorse at the feet of Our Lord and receive His absolution. The buildup to my first participation in that Sacrament had been a knotted tangle of fear and self-recrimination and I anticipated that once I got through it, I would want to drag myself off to some dark corner and go to sleep for a week. Instead, I practically levitated out of that confession room, infused with an energy and hope and sense of gratitude that I hadn’t felt in years.
My first confessor who had also helped prepare me to enter the Church, died about one year later. I was not only saddened to lose someone who knew me very well, I didn’t know who to turn to for my next confession. I shopped around for the next few years, confessing to priests I didn’t really know at different missions, retreats and penance celebrations laid on during Advent and Lent. At first, some of these felt almost demeaning because of their brevity, the lack of background knowledge and the in-and-out curtness of our exchange. At their worst these confessions reminded of going to see Santa Claus at the department store as a kid. ‘Here’s my list of sins / desired gifts. Can I have absolution / a candy cane now?’
I don’t know if my sampling of random priests suddenly improved or if I just grew up a little but I soon grew to appreciate this less indulgent approach to confession and the craftsman-like efficiency with which my confessors conducted themselves. I reflected that while there might be some overlap, confession is not psychoanalysis. I was not taking part in this sacrament because my grubby little sins were loaded with scintillating nuances demanding hours of lavish exploration. I was here to acknowledge those sins, to unload them and atone for them and seek God’s help going forward in resisting them.
Once you’ve ‘cleared the deck’ with a good confession, the next time you are tempted to recommit some tired old sin, it suddenly stands forth with a wonderful clarity. Do you really want to go down this sad road again? And then have to confess it again? Regularly confessing with the same priest who knows something of your background adds a layer of armour to your will in resisting repeat offenses.
For about the last decade I’ve been confessing to Fr. Michael Prieur who taught moral and sacramental theology for almost 50 years at St. Peter’s Seminary in London and has now gathered up what he’s learned from a lifetime of hearing confessions and teaching the practice into a 250 page ‘vademecum’ for seminarians and priests called, The Art of the Confessor.
“I have always loved to hear confessions,” Fr. Prieur writes. “Next to the celebration of the Eucharist, I feel most a priest when I am hearing confessions. When a penitent opens the door to his or her most inner sanctuary, the ‘garden of the soul’, as the mystics say, it is holy ground. I am amazed at how often and immediately the Holy Spirit inspires what I say to their amazing disclosures and questions.”
It is fascinating to have a priest’s eye view of the sacrament of confession, to learn how a conscientious priest must also go through considerable preparations himself to carry out his half of the encounter and to minister most efficaciously so as to bring the penitent into right relationship with God. “Come, Holy Spirit,” is perhaps the most frequently repeated exhortation in this entire handbook; a reminder that in the confessional the priest is acting not as a man or a judge but in Persona Christi.
In a section on suggested penances, Fr. Prieur writes: “The penance is not some kind of “just remuneration” for sins committed, but a symbolic action to help us to appreciate God’s mercy and to continue the process of our conversion of heart. In all of this, we need to remember that God is not a “divine bookkeeper” looking to “get us” with some minute detail of our sinfulness in order to condemn us. The confessor is not “God’s gatekeeper,” with some kind of checklist for the penitent. God truly knows everything, and is full of infinite mercy and forgiveness. He wants us to have peace of mind.”
The Art of the Confessor is itself an artfully twofold title. Each of its 13 chapters kicks off with a full colour reproduction of a religiously themed painting or sculpture or stained glass window on which Fr. Prieur provides some commentary. Regarding these artworks as “visual catechisms” which can impart their insights more directly than a windy explanation, he recommends the use of these and similar images in the confessional as aids to prayer and contemplation.
Though directed specifically to priests and seminarians, The Art of the Confessor has helped this converted layman to expand his understanding of and appreciation for this most powerfully healing of sacraments. And it’s also given me an opening for my next confession: “Forgive me, Father, for I have reviewed your book.”
Fr. Prieur’s The Art of the Confessor is available exclusively by e-mailing: Prieurpublications@gmail.com
Herman Goodden is a writer, journalist and playwright based in London, Ontario. His latest books are Speakable Acts, a collection of his six plays, and Three Artists which examines the lives and work of William Kurelek, Jack Chambers and Greg Curnoe.