A Priest Confesses What It’s Like to Hear People’s Sins

An interview with Msgr. Charles Pope about the Sacrament of Reconciliation

Much has been written about the sacrament of reconciliation — the theology behind it, the scriptural evidence for it, the power and benefits of it for penitents. But what’s it like, experientially, for a priest to hear the sins of others week after week and month after month? Can it be a burden? Does it affect a priest’s spiritual life? Aleteia’s lifestyle editor, Zoe Romanowsky, asked Msgr. Charles Pope about what it’s been like to hear confessions over his 24 years as a priest. 

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington DC. He is a graduate of Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary where he earned a master of divinity and a master of arts in moral theology. Ordained to the priesthood in 1989, he has served in in the Archdiocese of Washington ever since. Msgr. Pope conducted Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and the White House and is currently the dean of the Northeast Deanery, and the archdiocesan coordinator for the Celebration of the Latin Mass. A teacher, retreat leader, spiritual director and published writer, he is a weekly columnist for Our Sunday Visitor and moderates a daily blog for the Archdiocese of Washington.

Msgr. Pope, do you remember hearing your first confession? What was it like? 

I do remember. In the parish setting, anyway — someone may have asked me to hear confession before I got to the parish. But sitting in the confessional for the first time was memorable because there were some problems with the confessional. I was already feeling a bit nervous and someone came in and knelt down and then the screen collapsed and suddenly there was a person’s face staring into mine. She was embarrassed, since she expected an anonymous confession, and I got so nervous I fumbled around trying to find the absolution form, even though I had it memorized. So, it certainly was memorable in that sense!

I was a mere 27 years old when that happened, and some of the things I’d hear during Saturday confessions were rather complicated. I mean, what possible sage advice could I give a 70-year-old man with marital questions, for instance? It’s amazing the trust people put in priests when they come to us. We have to trust that God will work through us.

What has changed about how you heard confessions early in your priesthood and how you hear them now?

The main thing is, I’ve learned to encourage people to go deeper with their confessions. What tends to happen is that people say what they did and didn’t do, and that’s fine; but the deeper question is why? What are the deeper drives? I find I’m more skilled now at being able to listen to the things people tell me and how they are related.

There’s a long list of things I encourage people to reflect on when they’re preparing for confession, or afterwards, like the seven deadly sins, attitudes, arrogance, fury. Doing this helps bring confession alive. Many people get frustrated because they confess the same things all the time … but looking deeper is the key.

What has listening to people’s sins day in and day out taught you about human nature?

It’s taught me to have patience with the human condition. We all have our foibles; our struggles. There is a call to take sin seriously, but most confessions are people dealing with their struggles and I’ve discovered that people’s struggles and their strengths are closely related. Maybe a person is great at getting along with people, but they don’t stand up for things, for example; or maybe they are really passionate and make a difference, but they struggle with chastity. Our struggles and strengths are often related.

I remember a confessor saying to me: “However you solve this, don’t destroy Charlie Pope in the process.” I took it to heart. So often we could resolve our sins in a way that would have us surrender our strengths. But the Lord wants to work out that difference. We don’t want to destroy ourselves, and we need to respect the process.

How has hearing confessions for so many years affected you emotionally and psychologically? 

My first experience when someone comes to confession is relief. They’ve heard the Gospel, and it brings them to repentance, but also to hope and grace. I’m so happy they’re here, and it is a moment to be gentle and to listen to them.

One of the dangers for priests is that we’re a little like doctors. I remember years ago, I went to a family doctor who’d been in practice for years. I didn’t know it, but I’d broken my ribs and thought something must be horribly wrong. The doctor’s attitude was very much like, “You must have broken your ribs, that’s a bummer.” He’d seen things like that a million times, but for me, it was brand new and scary.

As priests, we’ve heard it all and can be a little matter of fact or go on autopilot. We have to fight against that. It’s about trying to be with the person in that moment. It may be confession number 30 for you that day, but it’s not for the person in front of you. Trying to stay in the moment is important. I try to stay mindful of St. John Vianney, who said to be tough in the pulpit but kind in the confessional.

How do you spiritually prepare to hear confessions? Is there anything specific you do when you’re finished that helps you forget what you’ve heard and move on?

I go to confession weekly myself. Priests should go a lot, otherwise we won’t be effective confessors. I take this as important preparation. The rest is mainly what I call “remote” preparation. I’m a blogger and a writer and a lot of my work is on the spiritual and the moral life so I do a lot of spiritual reading. To me, this is a sine qua non for priests, and certainly very important for me. Usually I’m reading a few books at any given time. And I do a Holy Hour every day. There are down times in the confessional and I spend that time feeling grateful for God’s mercy. When people ask me how I am, I like to say, “I’m pretty well blessed for a sinner.”

I know the seal of confession is sacrosanct. Do you ever wish you could share what you’ve heard with someone else, or process what you’ve heard?

The ban isn’t so absolute that you can never speak about it; you just can’t ever share particulars, or any information that could allow someone to be identified. But I can go to a brother priest and run something by him so long as nothing is specific. Every now and again I might use something in a homily too — but again, in a very general way.

I think all priests experience this, but when I was ordained, God blessed me with a poor memory. As a priest, you hear so much that it’s really hard to remember what people tell you. And there is so much you have to keep confidential — the counseling you do, helping people in crises, etc. Within a few years as a priest, generally, you can’t possibly remember what you’ve heard in confession by the end of the day. Poor memory is a grace God gives us.

How has being a confessor changed your spiritual life? 

For me, it’s just the immense gift of doing it. The word that comes to mind is humility. It’s a
remarkable thing, that I’m sitting there doing what St. Paul called the “ministry of reconciliation.” I’m not doing it; it’s really the Lord. And it’s an incredibly humbling thing. Jesus takes up the person of the priest; the priest’s humanity is the substantive bread of the sacrament of Holy Orders. Jesus takes us up and makes use of us. So it does make me think, Wow, what is it about me that I was chosen to do this? It’s humbling. In almost a scary way.

Does hearing confessions affect the way you approach the sacrament yourself and  vice versa?

Sure. For example, if I’m quick to interrupt somebody I try and remember that I don’t like to be interrupted myself in confession. Sometimes you have to, of course, but I try to listen well. I usually go to a regular confessor, but sometimes I may be in a different setting and I’m mindful of the beauty of having someone listen. There is something so powerful about listening; it allows someone to unburden themselves. What I say as a confessor is a minor part — the fact that someone can speak it out loud is powerful. I’ve learned this as a spiritual director too. In letting the person talk it through, they minister to themselves; there is a healing that goes on. Ultimately, I hope I convey that I’m so glad they are here. I want them to feel comfortable speaking.

What makes a great confessor?

Good listening. I tell some of the younger priest I work with that 90 percent is listening — you don’t have to have sage advice at every moment; it’s not the purpose of confession. At the end of the day, the gift of listening with compassion is enough.

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