I didn't foresee hitting on something so big in yesterday's post on folks who randomly ask for confession. As I thought about the post and the comments, though, I realized that perhaps many of us who at least desire a devout life know both the intense disappointment of not being taken seriously in confession and the joy of making progress when we have found the right confessor.
I hesitate a little to say what makes a good confessor, as I have been hearing confessions for less than 22 months. But I have been a regular penitent for 17 years and I think my advice for confessors might be worth something.
It seems to me that to be a good confessor, a priest would need:
1. to be a sinner. Of course this is easy on one level, since all have sinned. But a confessor needs to be conscious of himself both as a sinner and as one who has received God's mercy. He needs to know what it feels like to be miserable on account of the traps of sin, and to have experienced the liberation that God delights to offer him. He needs to be aware of his own tendencies to selfishness and sin and to be contrite about them both in general and particular examinations. A clear conscience is the sure sign of a bad memory.
2. to be a regular penitent. I occasionally deal with angry people in the parish office who do not understand why they can't be a godparent without being confirmed. I tell them that it does not make sense to sponsor someone on a journey--in this case, Christian sacramental initiation--without having bothered to make the journey themselves. When I ask for directions, I look for someone who has actually been to place I want to reach.
The same goes for confession. At the basic emotional and existential level, a priest needs to know what it feels like to be a penitent: the vulnerability, the courage and trust it takes to enumerate embarrassing sins out loud, and the powerful emotional charges of shame and guilt that often go with our own personal histories of failure before God. Beyond that, on the professional and ministerial level, a priest needs a working knowledge of what is helpful and unhelpful to hear from a confessor in his own experience, so that he might be more sensitive to the situation of his own penitents.
3. to be reading the saints and the spiritual writers. Perhaps this will be more important for some confessors than others, depending on the nature of their ministry and the extent of their own experience. Nevertheless, I have found it to be important for me for two reasons.
First, it is possible to offer constructive pastoral advice to most penitents based on one's own experience of the spiritual struggle. However, some will come from states in life and situations that are pretty alien to your own, and so it is good to be aware of other spiritual narratives out of which you can speak to someone very different from yourself.
Second, you will occasionally encounter a penitent who is far more spiritually advanced than yourself. Perhaps this is more a problem for someone like me who is still trying to make a beginning of things, but I'm sure it happens to most priests from time to time. Having not arrived at this penitent's level of spirituality, you will be unable to speak to them from your own experience. In these cases, however, it is possible to diagnose the penitent through the language of the saints and spiritual writers. Here I have found the descriptions of spiritual ascent from writers like John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila very helpful. Then I can at least say, "What you describe sounds a lot like what saint so-and-so calls x, and this is how she says we should work at that stage."