I had been a priest for a very short time when I was in the old-style confessional on a Saturday afternoon. A young family came in and the mother and the father went into the two side doors. Their young son, who had received his first Communion recently, not knowing quite what the procedure was, opened the middle door. And there I was! We began the ritual, and I was overwhelmed by his childlike innocence and complete trust in God’s mercy and love. That child opened my heart to love this sacrament more than ever.
The Father invites us to come, sit in his lap, and experience his love and mercy. As a priest, I am there not to judge or to reprimand, but to forgive in God’s name and on behalf of the Church. When I am in the confessional, I experience peace as penitents are reconciled. It fills my heart with joy. Some come to confession carrying heavy burdens of sin and guilt. In the words of absolution all that melts away. The words, “I absolve you from your sins” are powerful and affirming. There is nothing else like it.
I am humbled by the power bestowed on me in my priesthood ordination. I can still feel the coolness of the marble at the Cathedral as I lay prostrated during the Litany of Saints. I still feel the strong hands of Bishop Joseph McNicholas on my head. I still can smell the sweetness of the sacred chrism as my hands were anointed for service. I still feel the warmth of the embraces as my fellow priests welcomed me. But most of all I remember were the tears that flowed for three days as my heart was so full of joy that I thought it would burst. I was a priest! I had the privilege and the power to be able to stand at the altar for the rest of my life as I would take bread in my hands and say, “This is my body,” and take the cup of wine and say, “This is my blood.” I had the privilege and the power to welcome sinners and declare, “I absolve you.”
The gift of being able to confect the Eucharist and to absolve sins as an alter Christi, another Christ, still brings tears to my eyes. The ability to hold in my hands the very body and blood of Jesus and to extend my hands over a penitent in absolution continues to make me shudder at the power of God working through me. I stand in awe!
I know that it is hard to admit that I am a sinner, especially to another person. Frequent confession and a regular confessor have helped me. Several years ago, I received a young woman into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil. She is a dentist and told me, “You know Father, confession is like flossing your teeth. You hate to do it, but afterward you feel so much better.” She is my dentist to this very day. Such insight!
Someone asked me one time if hearing all these sins depressed me or if it changed the way I viewed someone. I told them that I focus not on the sins, but rather on the mercy and love of God. I listen to the sins since there might be something that we need to discuss, but what I really listen for is sorrow for sin, and what I experience again and again is the overwhelming power of Divine Mercy.
A couple of years ago I was sitting at the bedside of a dear friend as she was dying. She was surrounded by family and friends. At one point she asked them all to leave so that she could talk to me privately. When she asked me to hear her confession the tears started as I realized that I was in a grace filled moment of a death bed confession. I was overwhelmed by her childlike innocence and her complete trust in God’s mercy and love. A few hours later she breathed her last, at peace with God. It is very humbling to be able to be part of such incredible moments.
The incredible moments continue to happen as people come with their burdens trusting in God. I always give thanks to God for his love as I stand in awe before such a powerful and beautiful sacrament. The grace given on that first Easter Sunday in the upper room when Jesus said, “Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven,” continues to give life to the Church.
Father Donald Wolford is pastor at Holy Angels Parish in Wood River.