Q: Do priests go to confession? Can they give themselves absolution? How often do they have to go?
A: It sounds like a good idea: a priest sitting in a corner by himself, whispering into his own ear, “Bless me, me, for I have sinned.” Because if a priest could confess to himself then, “Can’t we all just tell our sins straight to God?” These questions get to the heart of the sacrament of penance.
Because our sins hurt others—and more importantly because God intends us to encounter Him in the sacrament of confession—there must be another person present. We need to speak and be heard. We need to hear and receive. This is humbling…even humiliating.
Confession is not about power. Power to forgive sins, given to the apostles and so to priests, is still God’s power. The priest is as much in need of that forgiveness as anyone who receives absolution from him. Reconciliation is first and foremost about an encounter with the Living God whose very nature is love. The power is Love (God) conquering sin. The power is Christ acting in the midst of the two gathered in His Name.
Priests have to go to confession only as often as everyone else in the Church. The precept of the Church says that we must confess once a year before receiving our annual communion during Easter. This is like saying, “I take a bath once a year, whether I need it or not.”
The person who takes a bath only once a year stinks, and everybody knows it except perhaps the person who has gotten used to their own stench. Going to confession infrequently for a priest is like working at a fine restaurant and neither bathing nor washing hands while serving food. Priests touch what is precious, what is holy. We serve the Body of Christ to the Body of Christ
in word and sacrament, in presence and prayer. Reconciliation once a year is only enough to keep us from going septic
. A priest has to go to confession enough to touch the wounded, to feed the hungry, and to allow the odor of sanctity to predominate.
Pope Francis, who goes to confession every two weeks, is a good example of a priest. Recently, people were surprised to see him kneel at a confessional. The Holy Father knows he needs the sacrament; he almost never stops speaking about it. He knows that, since penance is an encounter with the Living God, absolution can’t be a lonely act in a corner
by himself. And, as a good priest, Pope Francis knows that frequent reconciliation connects him with God, who is Love.
Priests are constantly confronted with the presence of God, just as husbands and wives are constantly confronted with the presence of their spouse. If they try to hide themselves or mute their affections, they will be found out. Love commands loving deeds and requires reparation when they are lacking. Priests, like spouses, want to love. So if priests are to be in right relationship with God, they have to go to confession.
Fr. Streifel is pastor of the Church of St. Joseph in Dickinson.
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