This weekend I traveled to my favorite Saturday afternoon confession spot, only to find signs posted on all the doors of the church: “No confessions or Mass this Saturday.” Undeterred, I referenced masstimes.org and found a parish a mere mile away offering confession at the same time.
Upon my arrival, I was struck by the beautiful altar, the bright stained glass, and the prominent Polish flags. It was unclear which confessional was going to be used, and as I stood in the aisle indecisively, an old priest in a Roman collar and blue sweater came out from the sacristy. I knew him from reputation–the oldest active pastor in our archdiocese. At a spry 90 years old, he kept telling the archbishop he wasn’t finished being a pastor yet, and the folks at the chancery let him stay on long past his mandatory retirement date.
He welcomed me back to his confessional, where I saw two chairs nearly touching each other, an open Bible, and a card with a Scripture verse printed on it. We sat down, knee to knee, and he started by asking me a little about myself. I shared my age, my marital status, my number of children, and he nodded his head and said, “Okay, that’s enough to go on. Let’s begin.” I confessed and he counseled me at length–about my duties as a husband and father, about my prayer life. He asked me how much time I spent in silence each day, and whether or not I set aside time for “God to speak and tell you He loves you.”
Right before he absolved me, the priest asked if I would look him in the eye. I did, raising my head to match his gaze as he slowly stood, joints creaking. The priest placed his hands on my head, and he intoned the words of absolution. His was a merciful and loving gaze, as though there were no place he would rather be than in this confessional, absolving me of my sins. And when he finished, he simply said, “God is looking at you, John, and He is not ashamed of you.”
His words didn’t hit me like a bolt of lightning; instead, they slowly wound their way to my heart like sunlight working through February snow. I experienced the slow spread of warmth through my body, and I couldn’t do anything but nod and say, “Okay. Okay.” The priest gave me a hug and said, “That’s it. You’re done. Go forth! Go forth!”
I’m a traditional man. I prefer to have my confession heard with the screen between me and the priest. But I had forgotten how powerful the laying on of hands can be. This priest definitely knew the power of human touch. His request that I look him in the eye during absolution was an act in personae christi. He not only called on the power Christ meted out to his Apostles to forgive sins, he dared me to look into his face and see Jesus’ love for me. It was a courageous and tender act on the priest’s part, and I will always be thankful to him for it. I hope, in my most difficult moments, I recall his face, and the love of God beaming forth from it like sunshine.