Being a priest shifts one's relationship to the sacraments in ways that go way beyond simply coming into a new role or function in the sacramental encounter. (Some of those who talk about priests as "presiders" at Mass wish to flatten this sacramental reality by making the priesthood into a mere function or the priest into a facilitator.) Even though these graces have come to be revealed to me in mysterious and sometimes unexpected ways, I have found them to be consistently encouraging and confirming of my vocation.
One of the most practical set of shifts comes in confession. I have found that trying to be a thoughtful and thorough penitent is the best way to try to become a thoughtful and attentive confessor. Being a confessor, in turn, has helped me to become a better penitent.
I was thinking about this yesterday after I received a simple but challenging penance. The priest gave me a decade of the rosary. There's nothing unusual about that. But then he said that I should reflect on which of the mysteries of the rosary suited my spiritual condition, or which one best spoke to the graces I was seeking. I was then to offer that particular decade of the rosary as my penance.
I liked the idea, so now I will probably use it myself. Not that you can give every penitent a whole decade of the rosary, but some would really appreciate it. That's another of the funny things about imposing penances; sometimes people think that the "size" of the penance corresponds to the gravity of the confession. Therefore, when I say that the biggest penance I ever received was to 'say fifteen Our Fathers and then go home and say Evening Prayer with great devotion' those to whom I tell this story presume that my confession must have been pretty serious. But this is not always the case. I think that the most objectively grave confession I ever made got me a single Hail Mary.
For me, the amount of penance I give to a penitent depends on what I can guess about his or her spiritual condition. Sometimes I give the most religious people the smallest penances as an opportunity to combat spiritual pride or Pelagianism. Sometimes I give the least devout a larger penance so as to get them to sit still for a moment and perhaps listen to the Holy Spirit. I often ask penitents not just to say prayers, but to offer them for someone. Many times I ask them to pray for the victims of the sort of sin they have confessed, particularly in the cases of sins that are wrongly viewed by the world as victimless. In this, though, one has to be careful. For example, someone who confesses to having procured or performed an abortion may not be emotionally ready to pray for the dead child, particularly if the penitent is the mother. In other cases such an invitation may be exactly what the penitent needs to release emotion and hurt and begin to repair the relationship with the deceased. So you have to be careful. But as every penitent knows, the inspired confessor who gives us just the right penance is a great spiritual gift, so I pray for the graces I need to be that guy when I can.