The Rest of the Week
Saturday, 3:15 p.m.
It is hot in here!” That is what I remember most as I recall teetering on the edge of passing out. As I sat there in the darkness, I looked in vain for a way out. My heart raced as my mind struggled to remain calm and fixed on the mission at hand. The summer heat that blazed outside was surpassed by something worse, the confines a small hot airless room whose walls seemed to close in on me as I struggled to breathe.
My first summer of priesthood was a beautiful time in my life, filled with many graces and blessings, but it was also one filled with great challenges. Years of study and preparation had given way to the sudden reality that priesthood was no longer something one prepared for, but rather something one lived. There is no easing one’s way into priesthood; one must dive in head first. No warm up lap, no slowed start. And nothing brings this reality home like a very warm confessional.
There are two sides to every confessional, two sides to the screen that separates the penitent from the priest; the soul seeking forgiveness and the priest standing in the person of Christ. There are two experiences, two encounters, two movements of the human heart. For the penitent and the priest the confessional is a place to encounter the mercy of God, the healing power of the sacrament, and to experience the fullness of redemption and freedom. The confessional is not a place to be feared, but a place where hope reigns, and where hope is, where God is. God waits for us in hope.
Each Saturday afternoon I would dutifully file into church and walk to the small confessional that waited in the back. Once inside I would turn on the lights, sit down and gently kiss the stole that hung over my shoulders. The stole was small and lightweight, but at times it felt heavy as I struggled to find words of encouragement and freedom for the burdened souls on the other side of the screen. At first I would worry about what to say, but over time I came to more fully realize that the important words offered were never mine but rather Christ’s. After carefully preparing the confessional my last step was always to turn on the small fan on the floor to drown out the hushed whispers inside for those waiting in line on the outside.
As I turned on the fan that 97 degree summer afternoon, I patiently waited for whoever God would send my way. One by one people trickled in, each bearing their own burden, some big, some small, but each intensely personal. God’s mercy is real and the sacrament of reconciliation is not only powerful, it is transformative and freeing. As penitents continued streaming in, I became increasingly uncomfortable as I began to sweat profusely. My handkerchief was soaked and I felt like I was getting smothered by the heat, the walls, by life.
Finally, I snapped. I broke the rhythm of my prayer and counsel and asked the gentlemen on the other side of the screen, “Is it me or is it one thousand degrees in here?” The gentlemen replied, “Father I thought it was just me, I am nervous. It has been awhile.” It was at that moment as I watched a bead of sweat fall from my face to the floor that I made my discovery. The fan that I was using to drown out the sound of the penitents sins was no fan at all. It was a space heater.
The fear, nervousness, and apprehension we can have about going to confession are more often than not caused by ourselves, for God’s mercy is not only unending, it is freeing. Sometimes the refreshing feeling we have when we leave the confessional is because we have allowed our hearts to be transformed by a God who loves us and takes away our sins. Other times it may just be because we are departing a sacramental hotbox where the priest accidentally had the space heater on inside.
Father Andrew Nelson is the pastor of St. Ignatius of Loyola Parish, Somersworth, and St. Mary Parish, Rollinsford.