Priests and Penance: Confession and Confessors

Painting of Christ healing the demoniac of the Gerasenes:
The Swine Driven into the Sea, by James Tissot, 1886-1896.

The Call to Confession

“Let us place the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the center, once more, in such a way that it will enable people to touch the grandeur of God’s mercy with their own hands.”1

This desire of Pope Francis, expressed in his Bull for the Year of Mercy, is a challenge and a task for all the faithful, whatever their vocation within the People of God. For priests, as ministers of sacramental Penance, it has its own particular resonance.

The call to Confession expressed here and elsewhere by the Holy Father echoes the strong encouragement towards this sacrament from his predecessors. St John Paul II offered a sustained teaching on confession and forgiveness. His second encyclical is a deep meditation on God the Father of mercies,2 while his 1984 post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia,3 an outstanding document “on Reconciliation and Penance in the Mission of the Church today,” has lost nothing of its timeliness. St John Paul addressed the subject of sacramental Reconciliation again and again throughout the 27 years of his pontificate. His 2002 apostolic letter, Misericordia Dei, “on certain aspects of the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance,” contained another earnest appeal “to undertake a vigorous revitalization of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.”4

For his part, Benedict XVI repeatedly called for a “rediscovery” of the Sacrament of Confession. During his 2008 visit to Washington, he affirmed: “The liberating power of this sacrament, in which our honest confession of sin is met by God’s merciful word of pardon and peace, needs to be rediscovered and re-appropriated by every Catholic.”5

If the liberating power of this sacrament is to be rediscovered and re-appropriated by every Catholic, if the sacrament is to be vigorously revitalized, if Reconciliation is to be placed at the center, what does all this mean for priests, the ministers of this sacrament?

Without attempting to be exhaustive, the following are five considerations on the relationship between priests and Confession:

1. To be a good confessor, be a good penitent.
On one level, the priest’s relationship to his sacrament is no different to that of any other member of the Church. “All Christians, in any state or walk of life, are called to the fullness of Christian life, and to the perfection of love.”6 The Sacrament of Forgiveness is a powerful means of ongoing sanctification. As Pope Francis put it succinctly: “After confession, we are reborn.”7

On another level, as a minister of divine mercy, the priest’s own experience of the Lord’s forgiveness will naturally lead him to a greater conviction and zeal in promoting Confession. “We become good confessors when, above all, we allow ourselves to be penitents in search of his mercy,” Francis reminds priests.8

The holiness of the priest impacts on the people in his care. In this regard, St John Paul II issued a serious but helpful warning: “The priest’s celebration of the Eucharist, and administration of other Sacraments, his pastoral zeal, his relationship with the faithful, his communion with his brother priests, his collaboration with his Bishop, his life of prayerin a word, the whole of his priestly existencesuffers an inexorable decline if by negligence, or for some other reason, he fails to receive the Sacrament of Penance at regular intervals, and in a spirit of genuine faith and devotion. If a priest were no longer to go to confession, or properly confess his sins, his priestly being, and his priestly action, would feel its effects very soon, and this would be noticed by the community of which he was the pastor.”9

After freeing the demoniac in the country of the Gerasenes, Jesus entrusted him with this mission: “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mk 5:19). Throughout the Gospel, those who receive the mercy of God naturally seek to spread that good news. Thus, the Samaritan woman, after her saving conversation with Christ at the well, “left her water jar, and went away into the city, and said to the people, ‘Come see a man who told me all that I ever did’” (Jn 4:28-29).

There is nothing more natural than to share the “joy of the Gospel” recovered in Confession. By their spirit of penance, priests can heed Pope Francis’ plea in a particular way: “Let us receive mercy and let us give mercy.”10

2. Being merciful means being available

In this sacrament, the priest acts in persona Christi; he acts in the person of Christ the Good Shepherd. As such the confessor is father, doctor, judge, healer and guide. The mercy of God dispensed in Reconciliation is well beyond what we can fully grasp or appreciate. The saints have often grappled with the grandeur of God’s love in this sacrament. St Josemaria, an exemplary penitent and confessor, wrote in The Way (n. 309): “What depths of mercy there are in God’s justice! For, in the judgments of men, he who confesses his fault is punished; and in the judgment of God, he is pardoned. Blessed be the holy Sacrament of Penance!”

In the confessional, priests are called to mediate “the tender mercy of our God” (Lk 1:78). The understanding and love of the Good Shepherd will be reflected in the way the priest celebrates the sacrament, in his demeanor, way of dialoguing with the penitent, faithfulness to the Church’s teaching—since it is the truth alone which gives true freedom (cf. Jn 8:32)—and by how he listens. Pope Francis tells priests that “the manner of listening to the admission of sins must be supernatural: listen in a supernatural way, in a divine manner, respecting the dignity of each one’s personal history, so as to be able to understand what God wants from him or her.”11

At a more basic level, being a merciful confessor means being readily available to hear confessions, and giving time to “being there” for people. To be merciful as a priest means trying to make it easy for people to receive this sacrament. If someone finds it hard to confess, it may not be pastorally helpful if confessions are available only “on request” or “by appointment”; it is easier if it is known that Father is in the confessional every Saturday between such and such a time. Moreover, the fact that Father, who is very busy, spends time in the confessional, faithfully and regularly, is a strong silent proclamation of, and invitation to, this sacrament.

During the Year for Priests, Benedict XVI issued a request to priests to not only “return to the confessional as a place in which to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but also as a place in which ‘to dwell’ more often, so that the faithful may find compassion, advice, and comfort, feel they are loved and understood by God, and experience the presence of Divine Mercy beside the Real Presence in the Eucharist.”12

3. Confession means ongoing formation

Commitment to the Sacrament of Penance is deeply formative for penitents and confessors alike. As a powerful means of sanctification, frequent and regular confession keeps the faithful’s efforts to grow in holiness fresh.

For priests, says Pope Francis, “how much we can learn from the conversion and repentance of our brothers and sisters! They urge us, too, to perform an examination of conscience.”13 Benedict XVI too spoke of this “pedagogical value of sacramental Confession,” and pointed out how the example of penitents affirms the faith of confessors: “Basically, hearing confession means witnessing as many professiones fidei as there are penitents.”14

Being a good confessor also implies being willing to improve one’s theological and pastoral formation, and in recent years, the Holy See has provided a number of helpful aids to priests in this regard.15

The priest can also deepen his own formation, and help catechise others, by the way in which he preaches about this sacrament. For example, given heightened individualism and subjectivism in many places, it may be helpful to explain why there is need to confess to a priest, and not directly and privately to God. By dealing with such catechetical challenges, the priest hones his own grasp and expression of the sacrament.

One must confess to a priest since this is how the Lord instituted the sacrament (cf. Jn 20:22-23); because Christ, who forgives our sins, is inseparable from his Church; because our sins also offend our brothers and sisters and, hence, we need to confess to a sacred minister who is our brother; sacramental Confession helps us grow in humility, and humility leads to holiness.

There are also good human reasons: it does us a lot of good to articulate what we have done wrong; it benefits us psychologically to articulate our sins and, thus, let go of them; the external word of pardon received in absolution is an assurance that the Lord has forgiven us. Moreover, the sincere confession of our sins is a powerful antidote to superficiality, to which we are always prey and, perhaps, especially so in an ever more “virtual” world. Confession faces us squarely with our strengths and weaknesses, and is a powerful spur towards human and spiritual maturity.

Pope Francis deals with our typical human difficulties with confessing in an affectionate and incisive way. “Do not be afraid of Confession! When one is in line to go to Confession, one feels all these things, even shame, but then when one finishes Confession, one leaves free, grand, beautiful, forgiven, candid, happy. This is the beauty of Confession! I would like to ask you—but don’t say it aloud, everyone responds in his heart: when was the last time you made your confession? Everyone think about it … Two days, two weeks, two years, twenty years, forty years? Everyone count, everyone say ‘when was the last time I went to confession?’ And if much time has passed, do not lose another day. Go, the priest will be good. Jesus is there, and Jesus is more benevolent than priests; Jesus receives you, he receives you with so much love. Be courageous and go to Confession!”16

4. Hearing confessions and priestly identity

The priest benefits from hearing confessions also because his fundamental identity as “another Christ” (alter Christus) is reaffirmed in a particular way by exercising this ministry. This is an invaluable strengthening of the priest at the deepest level. Perhaps, this explains why priests feel a deep satisfaction and joy, even if they are tired, after hearing many confessions. As Benedict XVI put it, “the celebration of the sacrament of Penance … nourishes within the priest an awareness of his sacramental identity.”17 Hearing confessions is spiritually very healthy for priests.

The ministry of confession can be a great protection against the typical temptations of the priest: activism, weariness, or getting bogged down in organization or administration. Confession constantly reminds us of the primacy and power of grace, of God’s action. Moreover, the living contact with redemption, which is at the heart of this sacrament, sheds a powerful light on the mystery of the Mass as the saving sacrifice from which divine mercy flows. The Eucharist is illumined by Confession, and vice versa, and in a way that enhances the priest’s understanding of his fundamental identity in Christ.

It is not surprising that model confessors that recent Popes have held up to priests have also been icons of priestly identity: St Jean Marie Vianney, St Pius of Pietrelcina, St Joseph Cafasso, St Leopold Mandic, St Josemaría Escrivá …

5. Confession and Evangelization

The Sacrament of Reconciliation is a powerful moment of evangelization. Experience shows that where there is a healthy “culture of Confession,” there is vibrant Christian life, and an apostolic spirit that seeks to spread the joy of the Gospel. Confessions mean conversions, growth in holiness, the building up of marriages and family life, the discerning and sustaining of vocations of all kinds. Indeed, the very possibility of hearing the call of the Lord, and responding to it faithfully, requires the ongoing grace and purification of this sacrament. Besides, the celebration of Penance is often an opportunity for spiritual direction.

Pope Francis has told how the discovery of his vocation is linked with this sacrament. In his “Message for World Youth Day 2016,” he recounts: “When I was seventeen years old, it happened one day that, as I was about to go out with friends, I decided to stop into a church first. I met a priest there who inspired great confidence, and I felt the desire to open my heart in Confession. That meeting changed my life!”18

Biographers of the Pope state that the date of that confession was September 21, the feast of St. Matthew. In his Bull for the Year of Mercy, Francis writes that:

… the calling of Matthew is presented within the context of mercy. Passing by the tax-collector’s booth, Jesus looked intently at Matthew. It was a look full of mercy that forgave the sins of that man, a sinner and a tax collector … St. Bede the Venerable, commenting on this Gospel passage wrote that Jesus looked upon Matthew with merciful love, and chose him: miserando atque eligendo. This expression impressed me so much that I chose it for my episcopal motto”.19

The Holy Father’s preaching on Confession contains a strong element of personal witness. This may help us, also, in our apostolate of Confession to encourage others by example, and to speak simply about the help we receive from this sacrament.

Above all a grace, a gift

Commitment to confession is before all else a grace. “The power to confess our sins is a gift from God, it is a gift, it is ‘his work’ (Eph 2:8-10).”20 To increase our own love of this sacrament, and to promote it among others, prayer and sacrifice are the best and surest way since it is a question of obtaining the grace of conversion.

In this effort, Mary the Mother of Mercy is the most powerful intercessor since she, better than anyone else, comprehends “what is the breadth and length and height and depth … {of} the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3:18-19). As Mother of the Redeemer, and of the redeemed, she encourages us towards her Son, urging us to trust him, and to do whatever he tells us (cf. Jn 2:5).

  1. Francis, Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, Misericordiae Vultus, 11 April {Divine Mercy Sunday}, 2015, 17.
  2. St. John Paul II, Encyclical Dives in Misericordia,   November 30, 1980.
  3. St. John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Renconciliatio et Paenitentia,  December 2, 1984.
  4. St. John Paul II, Apostolic Letter in the form of motu proprio, Misericordia Dei,  April 7, 2002.
  5. Benedict XVI, Homily {Washington},  April 17, 2008.
  6. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, 40.
  7. Francis, Homily, Communal Reconciliation Service with Individual Confession and Absolution, March 13,  2015.
  8. Francis, Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, Misericordiae Vultus,  April 11 {Divine Mercy Sunday}, 2015, 17.
  9. St. John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, December 2, 1984, 31, VI.
  10. Francis, Homily, Communal Reconciliation Service with Individual Confession and Absolution, March 28, 2014.
  11. Francis, Address,  March 12, 2015, 3.
  12. Benedict XVI, Address, March 11, 2010.
  13. Francis, Address,  March 12, 2015.
  14. Benedict XVI, Address, March 25, 2011.
  15. Cf. Congregation for the Clergy, “The Priest, Minister of Divine Mercy. An Aid to Confessors and Spiritual Directors,” March 9, 2011, and  Pontifical Council for the Family, “Vademecum for Confessors concerning some Aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life,”  February 12, 1997.
  16. Francis, Audience, February 19, 2014.
  17. Benedict XVI, Address, March 25, 2011.
  18. Francis, Message for World Youth Day 2016, August 15, 2015, 2.
  19. Francis, Bull of “Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, Misericordiae Vultus,” April 11 {Divine Mercy Sunday}, 2015, 8.
  20. Francis, Homily, Communal Reconciliation Service with Individual Confession and Absolution, March 13, 2015.
Fr. Donncha O hAodha About Fr. Donncha O hAodha

Fr. Donncha O hAodha is a native of County Galway in Ireland. After studying liberal arts at the National University of Ireland in Galway and Dublin, he worked as a secondary school teacher for a few years, before obtaining a doctorate in theology at Santa Croce University in Rome and being ordained for the Opus Dei Prelature in 2001. He lives and works in Dublin, Ireland.


  1. Avatar Rev. John R. Evans says:

    I have just read this article, and write this comment, from within my confessional, in between penitents, of course! I couldn’t agree more!
    As a priest who often gets time to read in the confessional, Pope Benedict’s invitation to priests (to “dwell” in the confessional) rings loudly in my heart. But the old saying is true. If you sit there, they will come!

  2. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Francis encourages confession by being a witness in confessing to another himself and being a confessor to others. He is a simple pastor. His example is a powerful example for us all. Your suggestions are great, and will encourage good confessors to be better. There are priests who consider themselves “bad as confessors”. I wonder what is there response to what you write. There are others who are so rigid in their views of what it means to be Catholic, that people will not go to them for fear of being judged. In my experience working with Catholics, one of the most powerful walls between themselves and a merciful forgiving God is the experience of being judged. So many people describe the church as judgmental and therefore make no attempt to get near a Catholic Church. Francis has opened the door of mercy, we have a lot of work to do to make our communities of faith welcoming centers of God’s mercy and love.

  3. Lord have mercy on me a sinner…