“The Sacrament of God’s Mercy”

Questions Answered: A Rhode Island Catholic Interview with Rev. Ryan Connors, S.T.D.


Rhode Island Catholic recently interviewed Father Ryan Connors about the Sacrament of Penance. Father Connors serves as Professor of Moral Theology at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome.

Sometimes non-Catholics and even some Catholics don’t understand Confession. What is it and what is it for?

Confession is a great gift Jesus entrusts to His Church. The Sacrament of Penance is where we meet the mercy of God. The Lord knows our weakness and so instituted the Sacrament of Penance to forgive grave sins committed after Baptism and give us the strength to live united to Him. In Confession, we receive an infusion of God’s grace, the infused virtues, and a help that comes from nowhere else to live in God’s friendship.

What is the role of the priest confessor in this Sacrament?

The priest stands in so people can hear they are really forgiven. Christ entrusted to His apostles — the first priests and bishops of the Church — the duty of forgiving sins (John 20:23). Priests stand as the instruments of God’s reconciling power to restore sinners to friendship with God in His Church. Through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, priests uniquely stand in the person of Christ to effectively forgive sins.

What are people supposed to say in Confession?

What people often don’t understand about Confession is that it is not so much about forgiving this or that sin as much as it is restoring a person to God’s friendship. Confession reconciles sinners to God. For that reason, it means that one cannot get one sin forgiven but still cling to some other sin. For the dynamics of the Sacrament to function it requires that a person be open to the riches of God’s mercy, confessing all grave post-baptismal sins not yet brought to Confession.

What happens when people don’t really know how to do this?

In such a case, a priest might assist them to make what we call an integral Confession. Integral just means that a person confess every grave sin he or she has committed since the last Confession. People should confess their sins in kind and number, that is, as best as people can remember the number of serious sins and in its species, that is, what is the nature of this particular sin. Lying about how old you are is not the same as lying in a court of law. Stealing an apple is not the same as grand theft auto. Sometimes assisting a person to make an integral Confession might involve helping people to recall the basic duties of the Christian life. This often involves reviewing the Ten Commandments. It is true that guiding penitents to make an integral confession occurs principally outside of the confessional, either in a prior examination of conscience or more broadly in catechetical instruction.

All this sounds technical. Isn’t Confession about the mercy of God?

Absolutely. That is the beauty of it really. God doesn’t forgive us in some vague or generic way. Rather, He really does forgive our sins and restore us to His friendship. Really opening ourselves to His mercy in every nook and cranny of our soul is the foundation for a good Confession. We can’t give Him some of our sins and keep others back. Of course, it is God’s grace that makes all this possible. He moves us to ask His forgiveness and gives us the help to seek His mercy.
As the Holy Father often says, the confessional isn’t supposed to be a torture chamber. People should come away knowing God’s mercy. Even in the rare instances when a priest cannot give absolution (for example, if a person says that he or she isn’t willing even to try to live differently), still, even in this case, the priest should make clear that God’s mercy remains available to a person when, through God’s grace, they cease clinging to their sins.

What is the seal of confession?

The seal of Confession means a priest can never reveal under any circumstance the sins someone told him in Confession. Without the seal, no one would go to Confession. It is intrinsic to the sacrament. People need to know they are meeting the Lord in the sacrament and the priest slips in, as it were, to give God a voice for us to hear His forgiveness.

Can you say something more about the priest hearing Confessions?

Priests want people to know the mercy of God. They want to help people know God’s love. Confessors should remind penitents that they cannot be reduced to their sins. People really are more than they think they are. Confession helps us to realize our full potential as Christians. It transforms sinners into saints. In our lives as priests, if ever in our zeal to share the truths of Catholic faith, we have failed to reflect the gentleness of God’s mercy, we deeply regret that. In every interaction — especially in the confessional — people should come away knowing of the mercy and love of God.

Is Confession something just for the most serious kind of sins and is it something every Catholic should receive regularly?

Benedict XVI said, “The New Evangelization begins in the Confessional.” God’s mercy awaits us there. As every missalette in every pew of every church in America points out, the Church recommends that every Catholic regularly receive this sacrament. Who wouldn’t want to experience the Good News of God’s forgiveness?