An Embarrassing Case of Sacramental Mistaken Identity

December 19, 2011 by  
Filed under Patrick's Blog


One Saturday, many years ago, a friend of mine visits from out of town. Looking for some prayerful encouragement and, probably, a kick in the rear to get himself to confession, he confides painfully to me that he had fallen into a pattern of sexual sin, about which he is understandably distressed and embarrassed. (Let’s just say that the particular sins burdening him went beyond the solitary sort which many men are prone to these days.)

During a frank conversation in which my friend is searingly honest with himself, I offer some advice and encouragement, after which we clamber into my car and drive to a nearby parish so he can receive the sacrament of confession.

His discomfiture at having to confess these sins to another man is palpable.

Promising him the meager benefit of my prayers for courage and trust in the Lord’s mercy, I kneel in a pew at the back of the church while my friend approaches the confessional.

The red light above the door indicates that a priest is waiting for penitents. Aside from my friend and me, the church is completely empty.

15 minutes pass. My friend exits the confessional and scuttles to a back pew in the shadows of the left transept, where he remains motionless in prayer, head bowed, his face covered by remorseful hands.

There are no other penitents.

5 more minutes go by.

The priest exits the confessional and walks toward the back of the church . . . where I happen to be kneeling.

The priest does not notice my friend kneeling in the transept.

The priest does, however, notice me.

The closer he gets, the more clearly I see the abashed look on his face as he recognizes me.

Although this priest and I have only ever exchanged but a few words in passing, he knows who I am.

“Awkward” is not a sufficiently descriptive adjective to describe the look we exchange as he passes by. Panicking, I realize the priest thinks he has just heard my confession.

“Oh, ho!” I imagine the good father thinking to himself. “What a fraud!”

Meanwhile, my friend remains conveniently engrossed in prayer for several minutes more, off in his wonderfully anonymous dark corner, unaware of the unpleasant little drama playing out as the priest whisks by me with that look on his face.

I admit, I am tempted to run after him and explain that he has it all wrong, that I am not that guy, that his new-found view of me is really just a case of mistaken identity. But I stay put.

Why? Because, in a momentary flash of (albeit dim) understanding, I am painfully reminded of my own lifetime-constructed ziggurat of sin and, 2) my savior, Jesus Christ, was wrongly accused of crimes He did not commit but for which He willingly suffered the penalty — for my sake. For my countless sins He suffered so that by His stripes I may be healed.

In the years that have passed since that day, I occasionally see that priest. In truth, I have searched for but never detected even a hint of “that look” on his face when he sees me. Perhaps he forgot what he heard in the confessional minutes later (many priests have assured me that this happens to them — a kind of grace of state that enables them to blank out any lingering memories of what is unburdened to them by penitents). Or maybe he is just a kind and compassionate man who would never even think of betraying the thought that he had been scandalized. I don’t know.

I do know this though: My sins may be different from my friend’s, or yours, or that priest’s, but I am a sinner in grievous need of God’s grace and mercy, just like my friend. Just like you. And I am so grateful to the Lord for his gift of the sacrament of confession. He knows how much and how often I need it.

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26 Responses to “An Embarrassing Case of Sacramental Mistaken Identity”
  1. Tim S. says:

    Patrick- a side issue here is that I am one of those most comfortable with the old school confessional approach where you aren’t sitting down in chat position with your confessor- but the old school mode is rarely available in my parts. I feel that I can go deeper into perhaps darker regions of my soul to speak more directly than when I am confessing with a priest looking straight into my eyes and perhaps struggling with the TMI thoughts that could spill over into personal/professional territory- a real consideration when you work in some capacity for the local church/diocese- as I do.

  2. Tom says:

    I avoid hanging around unless there is a crowd for this very reason. Still, I’ve found that even the worst confessors have the grace to forget everything.

    Once, I was getting badly reprimanded (the priest was obviously weary of all the scandals and was giving me very bad advice about how to deal with one that nearly happened). I stood up and said, “Father, we’re finished…I won’t continue with this; you make me sick.” I slammed the door and walked off.

    He didn’t follow me out (to do so would be to break the seal)
    Nevertheless, when I returned two months later to apologize, he remembered nothing.

  3. Joseph says:

    …which is why I never looked at any penitent when I was going in to hear confessions or coming out afterwards.

  4. Brother Rolf says:

    What you don’t know Patrick is that the priest confessed to the penitent that he has the same problem, now he thinks that you know.

  5. JoAnn in CO says:

    Wonderful! Thank you for sharing. Sharing on FB. This will help many others!

  6. Leslie K. says:

    this brought me back to my childhood….as a wee Catholic at Christ the King Parish in Pleasant Hill, California, us children were taken to Confession once a month. Many of us would try to disguise our voice, so that Msgr. James Wade (may he rest in eternal peace) would not know who it was confessing to sassing back to Mom ONE MORE TIME. Inevitably, after listening patiently, he would say in the Irish brogue I am sure even Angels use when they speak, “Now, Leslie..didn’t we discuss this sin LAST MONTH”.

    Oh JEEPERS

  7. Chardin says:

    As an aside, is it wrong to wax nostalgic for those days when there were no lines for confession? ugh. I do it all the time ;]

    • Keith Wood says:

      Our local Cathedral – you may be encouraged to hear – ALWAYS has lines of people going round the corner – thankfully it is a beautiful cathedral so one can lose oneself in the architecture while awaiting absolution.

  8. Lee Anne says:

    Patrick…good for you for remaining silent and not permitting your pride to take hold.

    I had a priest forget to turn off his microphone during my confession…the church was not empty, but full of adorers … The banging on the door to the confessional alerted Father…who denied his mic. was on.

    I now have no reason to be prideful after my public, so to write, confession.

    It was in some ways, the best confession I ever made. To God be the glory.

  9. Jim says:

    Now, if only MORE people really knew the tremendous gift that GOD has bestowed on us! I have been to two parishes other than my own, lately, and
    there was some long lines to the confessional.

    THANKS BE TO GOD! ! ! !

  10. MPatrick says:

    Patrick, when you thought the priest thought “fraud!” don’t you think that it is possible that he saw a man who because he struggles with a great thorn in his side is trying to become more holy? He might have thought: Boy that Patrick….man! He does such wonderful work for the faithful! Now I know why. Then he thought to himself a quote from Luke 7:46 I.E… “Wherefore, I say to you: Many sins are forgiven her, because she has loved much. But to whom less is forgiven, he loves less.”

    My reaction would have been your reaction. But maybe we would of both been wrong.

    • Yes, indeed. I agree with you. And maybe he did. But in the moment, my interpretation of the look on his face was of the paranoid variety. Further evidence of my own sinfulness!

      • Jose says:

        In one sense my brothers sins are “my sins”; my brothers shame is my shame (1 Cor. 12:26). So, Glory to God if a priest mistakes someone elses sins as mine

  11. Anonreader says:

    Posting anon. for this one. Was a student at Franciscan University. Raised in strict Catholic family; practiced chastity. Was moved one cold evening to spend some minutes in prayer at the Tomb of the Unborn outside the little Portiuncula chapel despite having forgotten my coat. Some visitors passed by and entered the chapel–one of them, a young man, paused and draped his coat over my shoulders without saying a word. I realized by certain signs that he thought I must be a post-abortive woman grieving a loss, and rejected my first embarrassed inclination to explain that I wasn’t. When he and his group left the chapel I returned his coat to him with my thanks, though he kindly offered to let me keep it. Upon reflection later, was glad and thanked the Lord to have had this chance to be spiritually united in solidarity with women who had aborted and then regretted that decision.

  12. Bender says:

    Maybe he forgot, or maybe he never had “the look” on his face or the thoughts that you “realized” that he had when he came out of the confessional five minutes after your friend.

    If your friend had not (wrongly) told you all about what his sins were, what he was going to confess, and you were totally ignorant of what the priest had heard, would you still believe that he had that look or those thoughts? No, you would have no basis or reason upon which to feel “guilty.” And there is no real basis or reason here to attribute those thoughts to the priest, other than because of your coloring the event with your own subjective thoughts.

    And I do say that the friend was wrong to tell you, apparently in substantial depth and detail, what his sins were. We laymen are not confessors, and such information should not be shared with us. What one desires to confess is between the penitent, the priest, and God — friends and family and confidents have no place there.

    • Nope. I was there. The priest did have “that look” on his face.

      Stop coloring the events with your own subjective thoughts. Mkay?

      If my friend had not asked me for advice and encouragement before going to confession, it is true that I would have been none the wiser as to what the priest may have thought as he passed me by, but that doesn’t change the fact that he would have had the same reaction. I would just have been unaware of it.

      As for your condemnation of my friend telling me his sins, I can only shake my head in astonishment at your negativity and lack of understanding. Of course laymen are not confessors. The fact that I encouraged my friend to go to confession to a priest should have been a sufficient enough clue for you that neither he nor I think that laymen are “confessors.”

      Maybe you’ve never had the experience of a friend asking you for advice and encouragement when he’s struggling with sin. But if ever you do, I hope, for your friend’s sake, that you don’t take the same dismissive and peremptory (not to mention theologically erroneous) approach to him as you have here.

      • CheezHeadChick says:

        To follow-up on your point Patrick – While I don’t know the actual situation any better than Bender does, it may have been your guidance and charitable response that got your friend into the confessional in the first place. Maybe he was “trying it out” to see if you would be appalled or if he would be too embarrassed. If that was the case, the fact that he did disclose his sin to you may very well have been the reason that he is back in the grace of God.

    • Red Tory says:

      Really sad, Bender. Has nobody ever come to you seeking advice or guidance on an ethical or moral matter? I have six Godchildren or Confirmandi, aged 18 to 25, and I am very touched that they can come to me when a difficult question arises about our walk with Christ. Since I have the reputation for being “orthodox but understanding,” several of them told me that our conversations led to the Confessional and a change of behavior. Take Care.

  13. Whiskey Mike says:

    Patrick, I loved this blog! I laughed outloud partly out of discomfort from feeling your embarrassment and partly just because this scene you described was sooo funny. Humor is what gets me through humiliating and other uncomfortable situations. Recently, I was tasked to give a short reflection on the reading in the Liturgy of the Hours during our deacon formation day training. I blurted out what I thought were some pretty good and heartfelt words. Afterwards, the formation team gave me some feedback. They in essence said that my reflection was too long, not relevant, boring, and hard to understand. Other than that they said it was “pretty well received!” I caught the humor and that let me out from under the weight of my pride. You drew a lesson from your experience but I am guessing that first you had at least a chuckle… May God continue to bless the work of your hands!

  14. David says:

    Thanks so much for this post AND for sharing how you handled it. Been there and done that before and it has made me leave in haste post-confession many times (when what i really wanted to do was stay and pray). As for a confessor forgetting sins heard in confession: I have an elderly relative, a best friend, and a son who are all priests and ALL have told me that they too forget what they have heard confessed. Interesting, huh?

  15. Rochelle says:

    Your silence was absolutely golden!
    I’ve shared this post on my blog, and, via
    my blog, on Facebook and Twitter.
    God bless you.

  16. Catechist Kevin says:

    Sorry, Patrick. :(

    I believe the correct quote is: “If you aren’t being humbled you aren’t growing in holiness.”

    A bit of a difference there, I think. :)

    Sorry again.

    Catechist Kevin

  17. Catechist Kevin says:

    Patrick, when I read this I thought of something (among *many*) that Fr. John Hardon used to say:

    “If you aren’t being humiliated you aren’t growing in holiness.”

    Well, Patrick, you grew in holiness, yes? :)

    (I had a nice dose of humiliation just last week – ugh!)

    I pray for you daily. Yours is an important apostolate.

    Catechist Kevin

  18. Pamela says:

    Just thinking…when the priest saw you…did you consider what Jesus must have felt like to be falsely condemned?? Your humility was courageous!

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