Fr. Peter Gruber
Before I was ordained, I was asked what I looked forward to most about being a priest. My answer happened to be the same thing that filled me with the greatest uncertainty: hearing confessions.
Everything else about being a priest seemed somehow already familiar – daily Mass had made me accustomed to the priest’s role, diaconate ordination acclimated me to preaching, I had already adjusted to our primary ministry to the students at our universities.
However, hearing confessions was an entirely new experience. Sure, I had grown used to being on the penitent side of the screen, but the idea of encountering other people in what seems their most personal details had given me pause. Would I have anything to offer?
But upon being ordained, I quickly found hearing confessions the most impactful and formative aspect of being a priest of Jesus Christ.
I’m a priest of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri and hearing confessions is a particularly Oratorian thing to do – St. Philip Neri did the bulk of his pastoral care within the sacrament of Penance. Even the time spent waiting for the next penitent has become a new facet of my spiritual life. More than any other time do I get to practice what Blessed John Henry Newman would call (in his Advent sermon of the same name) “watching.” I pray that I may have the same zeal as St. Philip, who would go throughout the streets of Rome to attract people to the confessional early in his priesthood, and later would “attract souls as a magnet draws iron.” To support such zeal, I all the more have to be rooted in intimacy with Christ in prayer, as St. Philip was.
In one of our confessionals, we have a small statue of St. Padre Pio. A few years ago, while I was still in college, I found Padre Pio’s Prayer after Communion, and since then, St. Pio has accompanied me through this prayer with every communion. And now, he accompanies me as a priest. I’m reminded when I see him there how his advice in the confessional was short but filled with insight, and I pray that I may have something of his depth or brevity in my counsel.
As a mediator of Christ, it is His mercy that I dispense. Behind that screen, at the intersection of God’s love and human misery, I have to make real the words of John the Baptist, “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). It’s His cross, His sacrifice, that I witness to, and I pray that I do not get in the way of his outpouring mercy.
More than anything, I have found that sins do not make us who we are. The priest does not see our deepest selves when he hears our confession; he sees our deepest selves when he gives us absolution. “We are not the sum of our faults,” St. John Paul II says, “we are the sum of the Father’s love for us.”