A priest absolutely cannot ever reveal anything he hears or says in Confession. If he does, he incurs the penalty of excommunication Latae Sententiae – that’s Latin for ‘you’re out, you’re done, don’t let the church door hit you in the…’ So a priest would never discuss the contents of an actual Confession. But we can consider the more important points of a hypothetical Confession.
The Elements of a Confession That Never Actually Took Place, between a Priest and a Theoretical Notre Dame Students who does not, in fact, exist.
First of all, in a nice churchy confessional, the priest can’t see through the screen, and he doesn’t listen for quality of voice or accent. The penitent is completely anonymous throughout the Confession and remains that way afterward. Priests do not speculate on the identity of penitents.
It always begins the same, simple way.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”
Despite my overwhelming urge to say to every student who enters my confessional, “Well no kidding!” I restrain myself and allow the student to proceed. Formalities completed, we get to what the student thinks was a sin. Let’s try out a few rhetorical sins.
Student: “Well, it’s complicated. Some people, even a couple I knew a little, tricked me into believing they were this girl who was interested in me, and I got interested in her. I only ever met her on-line, but we had a relationship that really felt like love.”
You might think that a priest of a certain age would be so out of touch as to be completely baffled by this. Not so.
Priest: “That old game. It used to be done by letter. There are countless stories about bedazzled young women or men who boarded trains with all their possessions, in order to cross the country and meet – sometimes marry – the person with whom they had been trading letters for a long time. We called these people lonely hearts. It was often nothing more than a terrible deception, and it frequently ended in pain and embarrassment. Maybe you’ve read Cyrano de Bergerac…probably not because this place has gotten soft. At any rate, being tricked is no sin on your part.”
Student: “These people who tricked me into believing this girl was real then told me she was very sick and she died. I was devastated because we had been close in our way. I suppose it seems strange since I never spent time with her in person, but it really hit me hard.”
Priest: “That’s no sin, son. If anything it shows you’re a person of deep compassion.”
Student: “I told people how upset I was that I had lost this girl.”
Priest: “In your mind and in your heart, at that time you truly believed she had been a real person and had actually died. Again, you were deceived, but you only told people what you believed to be true and how you felt. You’re right, it is getting complicated, but you still haven’t sinned.”
Student: “When people heard this story about me and the girl, she started getting called my girlfriend. Maybe I said it first, or someone else said it and I agreed. Maybe I really did think of her as a girlfriend. I don’t know now. But the story of her took on a life of its own and people wanted me to tell the story over and over again, with more details each time. So I did.”
Priest: “If you added details, even little ones, that were not true, then you lied. We’ve moved into sin territory. If other people goaded you into telling these stories, they’re partially at fault, but this is still a sin for you. And if other people told and retold a story that was increasingly full of little, seemingly harmless, lies and you didn’t stop them, that’s also a sin for you. But if you asked other people to lie for you, whether because you were embarrassed about the truth of the matter or because you liked the embellished story better than the real one, then it’s a big problem for you. Yes, we are squarely in sin territory.”
Student: “But other people wanted the story to be true. I let other people add to the story to make it better because they wanted to. It was a good story. People liked it. It helped people.”
Priest: “You believed this girl was real because you wanted that to be true. You believed she was a good person. You liked her. She helped you. And yet she was nothing but one giant lie. And that hurt you terribly. This was very seriously wrong on the part of someone else. But do you see what you did? With this story that got started, you participated in building up a falsehood and made it into a reality for people – it’s rather like what was done to you. Now the reprobates who tricked you are certainly worse, because I believe their intentions were evil. You’re intentions were not evil, but what you did was dangerously similar. You participated in building up a very large and elaborate lie, piece by piece, step by step, and you let people believe it… you told people they could believe it.”
Once all the discussion of what was sinful and not sinful is over, we get to the really important part: The Act of Contrition. Since going to Confession has become about as cool as holding your mom’s hand in the grocery store, students don’t know the Act of Contrition. So let’s work with a prayer you’ll hear at Mass every now and then. It’s called the Confiteor. And since this school has gone soft and no one studies Latin anymore, we’ll take it in English piece by piece.
I confess to almighty God. Now let’s be clear about this, you’re not here telling me what you’ve done and that you’re sorry. You’re telling God. You sinned before God. You need God’s forgiveness above anything and everything else.
And to you, my brothers and sisters. It’s time to admit your sin to your family and friends, your fellow students, and anyone whom you think you hurt by your sin.
That I have greatly sinned. I don’t care if only felt like one or two details or exaggerations. Each was a sin. They were magnified every time they were repeated, every time you told the lies or let the lies be told for you.
In my thoughts and in my words. You know what you said, you know the little lies you told. But why did you do it? You said, to make people feel good – but you also said it was to hide your shame. And did you also do it because you liked the praise and respect it brought you, because it fed your pride? In your thoughts, did you decide to lie because it made you feel good, because it made you more respected, more powerful? Only you can answer that – for yourself and for God.
In what I have done, and in what I have failed to do. You lied. You also didn’t stop people telling lies that benefitted you. You failed to stop people exaggerating the story, or repeating falsehoods.
Through my fault. Say it again
Through my fault. Say it again.
Through my most grievous fault. Right – this is on you. You were tricked, you were hurt, you were sinned against. Then people started putting words in your mouth, and all that. But this is on you. The part you played in this was your fault belongs to no one else. Own it.
Therefore I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin. She’s pretty big around here, as if anyone could fail to notice.
All the Angels and Saints. Just pick a couple – they like the work.
And you my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God. That’s all you can ask of them. You can only ask that they pray for you. Whether they do or don’t is up to them. If they’re Catholic, they better pray hard, because they know very well that they are each and every one a sinner. And the God who knows the secrets of every heart, the Lord who sees in secret, is very well aware of their lies and their sins.
At this point we would discuss a penance. But in our hypothetical Confession, the penitent would be in the midst of an incredibly humiliating process of admitting not only to being made a fool, but also to letting a pack of falsehoods run wild. This would be a period of profound suffering and anguish for him. I don’t think there would be any penance I could assign that could be heavier or, ultimately, of more spiritual value.
Then comes the important part for me. It goes like this:
“Son, I forgive you. It’s over. But I don’t matter. I’m here to give you God’s forgiveness, which is also freely given, because He loves you and He knows how good you are and He knows all the good you have done. You are absolved. This is washed away and gone forever.”
Then after a the formal words and the Sign of the Cross, I would say:
“It will be very hard, son, but try to forgive yourself. And don’t worry about other people. If they know their own sins and their own need for pardon, they will forgive you. If they don’t, that’s very bad for them, not you.”
“And though I’m sure it will be a long time before you’ll ever find it again, try to go in peace, son.”