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A Stylist Manual for Confessors

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 25, 2022

In His first appearance to His assembled Apostles after the Resurrection, Jesus breathes on them and says, “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) These newly ordained priests, therefore, became His first confessors. Jesus sends them to hear confessions and to forgive sins in His name.

[Can mortal sin be forgiven outside of Confession? St. Thomas teaches that while fear of God’s punishment is praiseworthy, it is insufficient outside the Sacrament of Penance to secure the graces that remove the guilt of mortal sin. Only in response to perfect contrition—sorrow because we have offended an all-loving God—do we receive the necessary graces that blot out the guilt of mortal sin. It is noble to strive for perfect contrition, but we should not presume its attainment. The graces of the Sacrament of Penance elevate imperfect contrition to perfect contrition and provide the certainty of the forgiveness of mortal sin.]

From our point of view, Confession is a somewhat peculiar arrangement: Human instruments—all sinners in their own way also in need of forgiveness—hearing, judging, and forgiving the sins of their brethren. Few priests have the sanctity and wisdom of Saint John Vianney. What type of confessor can we expect?

The Copy Editor Confessor

Editors help us write good [sic]. Confessors may play the part of copy editors, painstakingly correcting the grammar of the spiritual life. This kind of confessor is like an editor with a keen eye for every split infinitive and misplaced modifier. A sin is a deliberate and consensual act of injustice or a failure in charity in thought, word, or deed; a priest in Confession can help us distinguish between a sinful inclination or temptation and a sinful act.

As the penitent confesses his sins, a priest may point out a failure to make necessary distinctions, oversights, and errors. A penitent may feel anger, bitterness, or sorrow without sin. He needs prudence. In times of confusion as to the nature of his transgressions—or spiritual sloth—he may need correction on the finer details of the moral life that promotes a tender conscience, helping him advance in morality.

Pointing out the equivalent of every dangling participle and split infinitive may intimidate rather than console a penitent. Occasionally an editor might respond to a writer who ends a sentence in a preposition with the humor of Winston Churchill: “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.” A wise editor overlooks minor grammatical errors, and so does a priest.

The GPS Confessor

Thinking of ourselves as humble servants who take wrong turns in life here and there, we may desire a confessor who “...leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.” (Psalm 25:9) Perhaps we would prefer, as a confessor, the non-judgmental and soothing style of a GPS navigator. The gentle voice does not accuse us when we take wrong turns. The device merely “recalculates” and calmly announces the new route to bring us to the same destination. The GPS voice never ridicules, never laments a wrong turn. It never loses patience with us and our foibles. (Unless, of course, the factory technicians wire in the voice of comedian Don Rickles: “You took a wrong turn, you hockey puck!”)

The Umpire Confessor

At times we may need a confessor who plays the part of a sports umpire or referee. Except for egregious sins like unnecessary roughness, the referees are coldly objective, measuring the game against the sterile rules of engagement: “Strike one.” “Encroachment.” “You’re out.” Sins clustered around each of the Ten Commandments provide the rulebook. The seven capital sins—pride, anger, lust, gluttony, envy, avarice, and sloth—help refine the details. Meanwhile, coaches and teammates encourage the dejected player to “get back into the game.” This metaphor of a good confessor has many merits given the Lord’s teachings: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (Jn. 14:15).

The Confessor as Observant Spouse

When some people go to Confession, they occasionally claim to have very little to confess. But when the priest gently asks, “What would your husband (or wife) say about you?” the confessional floodgates are opened. Sometimes it is easier to see ourselves through the eyes of the people we love.

Be Blunt, Be Brief, Be Gone

Frequently, a penitent confesses his sins with honesty, precision, and integrity. The priest responds without comment. “Good confession. For your penance….”

A good confessor is a composite of all of the above and more. He is a copy editor, GPS navigator, umpire, observant spouse, and representative of the mercy of Jesus. An old saying—found in traditional confession manuals—directs a priest to be “a lion from the pulpit and a lamb in the confessional.” Above all, he ought to imitate the true Lamb.

After the miraculous catch of fish, St. Peter falls to his knees in the presence of Christ and begs, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” (Lk. 5:8) The Divine Confessor is also the Lamb of God, the Lamb of Mercy. In response to Peter’s humble expression of sorrow for sin, with love, Christ encourages him not only to get back into the game but to be His follower and lead His Church: “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men” (Luke 5:10). Great is the reward for the repentant sinner.

After the institution of the Sacrament of Penance, part of St. Peter’s penance was to hear confessions. When he sat in the early Church equivalent of the confessional, the sins of his penitents reminded him—as they remind every priest—of his own sins. Every absolution he grants assures priest and penitent alike of the mercy and love of Jesus.

The Sacrament of Penance is a gift of God’s love. As we take liberties with correct grammar, this is the sort of love we can, in joy, put up with.

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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