“Is that all?”
My confessor had waited a few moments after I’d stopped speaking to ask that question. I sat in the confessional, my mind beginning to turn. I knew it was customary for priests to wait for a moment after the penitent finishes listing his sins, but with each priest it is different, and even if I hadn’t been the last penitent, even if he hadn’t seen me standing by the confessional as he came out and motioned me to go on in as he returned to his side, I could have discerned from his voice alone that this was the new parish priest, with whom I’d never confessed. “Is he thinking, ‘There’s no way that’s all this guy’s done’?” I wondered. “Should I say something?”
He sat silently for at least ten or fifteen seconds — which felt eternal — before he gently asked, “Is that all?”.
“Is that all?” I asked myself, mildly panicking that all my fears of seconds earlier were coming to fruition. Of course it’s not all. I could never confess all my shortcomings (read: sins), but the Church technically requires only that I confess mortal sins, and while we’re to include as many venial sins as we can remember, they’re just that: venial. I try, but I don’t try to cover them all, else we would be there for hours.
“Yes, Father, that’s all.” A pause. “All the mortal sins, that is.”
But was that all? The yardstick for a sin’s gravity is the Ten Commandments, and by that light, I’ve broken every single one of them, regardless of the actual sin. Whenever I commit a mortal sin, I’m putting my will and desires above God’s and thus making myself my own god, thereby breaking the first commandment. So in that sense, any sin automatically breaks the first commandment and is a mortal sin.
Less is sometimes more in confession, and I resisted the temptation to explain all the theological considerations that had just passed through my thoughts. Another silence.
The first time I went to confession, I requested a face-to-face meeting with the priest. Over the past year, participating in RCIA, I’d come to respect and trust Fr. G, and I knew that I could talk to him face-to-face about my shortcomings and feel comfortable doing so. Well, relatively comfortable: any time you’re talking to someone about the darker side of your soul, I’m sure it’s going to be a somewhat-stressful experience. Still, we met at his parish office and after we engaged in our typical small talk — “What are you reading?” type stuff — he put on his stole, made the sign of the cross and suggested we begin.
“Father, bless me, for I have sinned,” I began. I’d thought long about what to say at the beginning. I knew I technically had two options:
- Father, bless me, for I have sinned.
- Father, forgive me, for I have sinned.
Having grown up in a fairly anti-Catholic denomination and gone to a Protestant private college, I knew I only had one option, though. “Bless me” won out over “forgive me” for all the emotional associations I still had with it. Intellectual consent to the fact that the priest is not in fact forgiving sins of himself but acting in the place of Christ is one thing; dealing with the baggage associated with previous assumptions is quite another.
Fr. G dropped his head, closed his eyes, put his elbows on his knees, clasped his hands together, and listened. I finished. He still listened. There was a lingering silence, then finally he spoke.
“Well,” he began, and soon we were discussing some of the things I confessed, unforeseen and unimagined consequences, and how to avoid them in the future, then he said the formula of absolution:
God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I’d gone the last fifteen years thinking there is no such thing as sin, and I’d gone all my life thinking, “Even if there is sin, I would never confess it to a priest.” And yet when it was done and Fr. G made the sign of the cross during the absolution, I felt strangely more peaceful than I’d ever have expected from something I’d only given intellectual consent to.