Regardless of the transgressions involved, Father Patrick Connor views a priest’s role in the confessional as a constant to provide compassion and encouragement.
"I see the confessor as there to reassure the penitents to not be afraid as they bring their sins to the Lord, but to trust in his mercy and love," said Father Connor, pastor of Ss. Isidore and Maria Torribia Parish in central Steuben County.
Citing the Scripture story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11), Father Connor emphasized that "confession is indeed an act of humility, but is not meant to be an act of humiliation. When the Pharisees brought the woman to Jesus to condemn her, they wanted to humiliate her, but Jesus would have none of that. So, too, with confession.”
He added that a priest’s sensitivity is vital because, in his experience, penitents are often quite hard on themselves: “While they believe in God forgiving their sins, they do not forgive themselves. I like to emphasize that to them.”
Father Connor said he often hears in confession of penitents "becoming less kind and having diminished faith" based on the challenges and burdens they encounter in life, and added that the confessional is an ideal place to guide those folks toward recapturing their optimism.
"Confession is not just a list of wrongdoing, but can also be a time to share how one is trying to live the Gospel in one’s life," he said.
Meanwhile, Father Jeff Tunnicliff, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Ithaca, said a frequently cited failing among his penitents has been the inability to shed their anger.
"It’s not that a lot of people are confessing acting out their anger physically. Sometimes, they may have yelled at a person but most often they keep the anger inside them. People will ask how bad these thoughts are. Anger is a natural emotion, but that doesn’t make it OK," said Father Tunnicliff, who details the sacrament of reconciliation in two videos and three booklets available at both the parish website, http://immconch.org/youth-and-family-ministry/adult-faith-formation/video-presentations, and his own website, http://renewaloffaith.org/ls/reconciliation.htm.
Father Tunnicliff said he presents the sacrament of reconciliation to penitents as "God’s gift to help us let go. When we are angry, we often have been hurt and the hurt can be hard to let go of. Admitting our anger and hurt to God helps make letting go possible. We know we need forgiveness and need to forgive others."
Father Connor pointed out that priests are certainly not above the imperfections that plague their penitents and, thus, can relate to their struggles.
"I am conscious of my own humanness and sinfulness, and am blessed with good confessors in my own life,” he remarked. "I feel very honored and humbled to be a confessor. I always know that the Holy Spirit is with me to guide me."
During a January 2013 parish presentation about his personal faith journey, Father Tunnicliff recalled that during the late 1990s he told a priest that he hadn’t been to confession in 16 years while he was away from the church. He said the priest replied, "That’s OK, we’ll help you through it," and proceeded to spend 40 minutes in the confessional with him.
"He just made it totally comfortable, nonthreatening — just totally happy I had come back to church," Father Tunnicliff said.