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Distracted, Dishonest, or Insufferable?

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 09, 2024

Occasionally we hear variations on this theme: “I had a run-in with a priest in Confession in 1982, and I haven’t seen the inside of a church since then.” We may wonder: 1) Maybe the priest didn’t have his morning coffee and was grouchy. 2) Maybe the priest had the flu and couldn’t concentrate. 3) Maybe the priest’s mother died, and he was preoccupied. 4) Maybe the priest is just an insufferable jerk.

“Regardless, look at the bright side. You received absolution, correct? No? So tell me, what sin did you commit, and why did you try to justify it?” Confessions, after all, should be sincere.

What should a penitent expect from Jesus and, allowing for human failure, from His priestly instrument and mouthpiece in the confessional when the penitent sincerely seeks forgiveness?

One image is the penitent in the parable of the Prodigal Son (cf. Lk.15:11-32). The wayward son comes to his senses and returns to the father, humbly acknowledging—imperfectly—that he has sinned against heaven and his father. The rest of the story is familiar. The father welcomes him with open arms, and the celebration begins.

But Jesus taught the parable of the Prodigal Son before His Passion. His suffering and death on the Cross reveal the horror of our sins. Our sins not only ruin our lives—as we see in the parable—mysteriously, they wound the body of Jesus and His Mystical Body, the Church. The brother of the Prodigal Son was agitated for good reasons.

Every act of disproportionate impatience, unjust anger, lust, envy, and selfishness—however minor—torments and crucifies Jesus and soils His Church. When we gaze upon that Cross, this great mystery becomes evident and should fill us with dread for our sins.

The Resurrection of Jesus reveals His victory over sin and its consequences. Before He returns to His Father, He returns for a brief time to complete the seminary formation of His disciples. All are sinners who played a part in His crucifixion.

When we endure great evil and suffering, we know how we’re inclined to respond. Movies depict with special effects the gruesome defeat of villains. Michael Corleone settles all scores. The enemies of Clint Eastwood make his day. The adversaries of Bruce Willis fall horribly into the abyss. And we feel a surge of delight with the painful demise of evil characters. But we hope and pray that we do not receive the same punishment we wish unto others when we are guilty.

Unlike those of us who harbor unholy inclinations toward retaliation, when Jesus returns after His glorious Resurrection, He has no desire for vengeance, despite His humiliation on the Cross. During His encounter with Mary Magdalen at the tomb, He revealed His resurrection with one word, “Mary” (Jn. 20:16)—a beautiful reminder that He knows us by name.

Jesus appears to the disciples on the road to Emmaus and conducts a post-resurrection Liturgy of the Word reminiscent of the lengthy Easter Vigil readings. He patiently explains how Moses, the Psalms, and the Prophets promised how a suffering servant was necessary to fulfill the Scriptures (cf. Lk. 24:13-35). “So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight.” (Lk. 24-29-31)

Jesus appears to the frightened Apostles in the Upper Room, conferring His peace and revealing His wounds in His glorified body (cf. Lk. 24:35-48). There will be no acts of vengeance, no humiliation. But there is no time for complacency. And the work He requires of His Apostles is urgent.

He commissions the Apostles to hear Confessions. He breathes on them with the gift of the Holy Spirit and beckons them to forgive sins in His name: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (Jn. 20:22-23) The forgiveness of sins in the Sacrament of Penance destroys the instruments of the crucifixion of Jesus in those modest confessionals in every Catholic church. But forgiveness is not cheap. Accountability for sins forgiven remains, and a residual of reparation is required.

After the Resurrection, awaiting Jesus in Galilee, Peter goes fishing with the other guys, to no avail. Jesus appears on the shore and directs them to cast out their nets (cf. Jn. 21:1-14). The ensuing superabundant catch repeats the miracle He performed when He called His disciples at the beginning of His ministry. Peter does not recoil at the miraculous demonstration of Jesus as he did during his first encounter when he begged, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” This time, Peter—now known for his threefold denial—jubilantly thrashes into the water, returning to the risen Lord.

Jesus continues Peter’s priestly formation. After breakfast, Jesus prompts Peter to atone for his cowardice. But Peter’s reparation would not be in response to God’s wrath; it would be in response to God’s love. “Do you love me more than these?” Jesus asks Peter. If so, “Feed my sheep.” (Jn. 21:15-19) The message is clear to Peter as it is to all of us. Love indeed covers a multitude of sins. After confessing our sins, a holy resolve to increase our love for one another does not humiliate us. It uplifts and purifies.

The precision of verbal articulation of sin undermines psychological rationalization. Jesus wants repentant sinners to hear His words of forgiveness. He directs His priests to receive us in Confession with kindness and compassion. He guides them to delight in our repentance like a good father delighting in the return of a wayward son. Love repairs the damage caused by sins.

Here are a few practical suggestions: Except for a good reason, keep your Confession short. Be precise (feelings aren’t sins unless abused), honest, and sincere. Ditto priests.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. See full bio.

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