I'm really into the confession theme this week. Maybe it's because I need to go!
There is another, more difficult side to the pastoral care of penitents. Sometimes you have to challenge or confront them in uncomfortable ways. Here are some examples:
1. When they come to confess other people's sins. I can't believe how common this is! Folks whose emotional and spiritual lives are very much embedded in their personal or family relationships are the most susceptible. Usually the tendency to confess other people's sins is a sign of the larger problem of taking emotional responsibility for the bad behavior of other people. This is very unhelpful because in almost no cases has the penitent actually been asked by the Holy Spirit to take up the pastoral care of the other party, and taking responsibility for them in this way actually enables the irresponsibility of the other!
With this you have to let the penitent know that perhaps it would be good to talk to someone about the problem, but that it's not appropriate for confession.
2. When something isn't sinful. People come because they feel guilty, but guilt is wider than sin. Just because we feel guilty doesn't mean that we have sinned. A lot of folks come to confession to exorcise their guilt, and there isn't anything intrinsically wrong with this on the emotional level, but it's not the real meaning or use of the sacrament. It's easy to feel guilty about mistakes, misfortunes, or things we have been unable to do, but that doesn't make these sinful.
Missing Sunday Mass is a good example. This is something commonly confessed, but not always a sin. For example, when a penitent is asked why she missed Sunday Mass, she might respond that she had to care for a sick child, or that the person she depends on to help her get there didn't come. These are not sins, but the penitent still feels guilty about it, because she knows that her world has fallen short of the faithfulness to God she desires.
In these sorts of cases it is important to help the penitent understand that the negative emotion of guilt is only there because it derives from the more positive spiritual stance of a desire for faithfulness to God. This is the place out of which he should pray. On a more general level, this is good for all penitents to remember if they are ever overcome by the guilt and shame of sin: they only feel that way because of the more powerful spiritual gift of wanting to serve God well.
3. Shifting the locus of culpability. Sometimes you have to try to get a penitent to look for the locus of moral--not emotional--guilt in a different place. In most versions of the act of contrition, there is a resolution of amendment. So, someone has to to know what such amendment of life might look like in practical terms. The best example is a recurrent habitual sin, often in the area of speech or sexual purity. Many times the pattern of habit is so ingrained that a plan for amendment that takes the form 'quit doing x' is never going to work. A better plan would be to try to rearrange and adjust the rest of one's life in order to eliminate the need for the function of the sin in daily life and reduce its occasions. In other words, the moral guilt of the penitent may lie not in the actual sinful act, but in the failure to address the arrangement of the rest of his life in which the sin fits so comfortably.
4. When someone doesn't believe in forgiveness, or doesn't believe she can be forgiven. In some ways this is the hardest of all. Sometimes the simple question, 'do you believe you can be forgiven?', carries a strong enough charge that it will reduce someone immediately to tears. Those with a strong desire for the devout life can sometimes be confronted on their belief in the forgiveness of sins. 'Don't you believe in the forgiveness of sins, in the sacrifice of Christ?' Those who are more fragile often need to be led little by little to accept that God could love them. Often these kinds of troubles derive from an unwillingness to forgive oneself that derives from self-pity or self-hate, which is then projected onto God. To such as these I often give the Apostles' Creed as a penance, just so the penitent will have to actually pray, "I believe...in the forgiveness of sins."