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.