For many of us Catholics, our relationship with the sacrament of confession can be complicated. The sacrament can bring with it a whole host of emotions: shame, anxiety, even sadness. But there’s always a glimmer of hope at the end when the priest, acting in the person of Christ, gives absolution. The Lord forgives us, even though we don’t deserve it, and our relationship is restored.
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Fr. James Hughes, the pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Vancouver. We had a long conversation about his experience hearing confessions, the beauty of the sacrament, the challenges that arise, and how COVID-19 calls us to take confession seriously, now more than ever.
You’ve been a priest now for over 20 years, and I’m sure you’ve heard thousands of confessions during that time. What makes confession so beautiful for you? What gets you excited about the sacrament?
I can honestly and earnestly say that I’m still excited about seeing the hope that people express by receiving so great and noble a sacrament. Oftentimes in the encounter with a priest, the fact that [penitents] express hope after some time of reflection and prayer is a very big kernel of it. When you look at the bigger picture and you hear of the impact it has on people’s lives, it’s truly wonderful.
How does going to confession help us to grow as Catholics, and grow closer to God?
I think that so often in our world today, people are feeling distant. This can easily be for people who practice the faith and still are struggling. Sometimes the impression is that if you practice the faith, everything should be rosy. But we have to be reminded that the devil is very much at work. If we’re aware of the enemy and how he works, we can distinguish his voice, much like the image that Jesus uses in John 10 of the sheep and the shepherd.
Sheep are very insecure animals, and Jesus was purposely using this image because we as human beings are also insecure. When we acknowledge this, it doesn’t mean that we’re spineless. Sometimes, our bravery and the strength we show forth is to cover up our insecurities. So the more we recognize how we are dependent and how we need the Lord, the Church, and one another, that’s when one can really grow.
That’s such a beautiful reminder – we need Him, and we’re not meant to do this life on our own. There’s definitely grace that comes with going to confession, but I also recognize that sometimes time passes us by and suddenly it’s been weeks, months, or even years since our last confession. Why do you think it’s hard for us to come back to confession when we’ve been gone for so long?
I’ve encountered many people in and out of the church setting who jokingly say, “Father, if I were to go back to confession, it would take you two days to hear all my sins.” But they are looking at their lives as simply sinful—they’ve begun to define themselves according to their sins. I want to help people see the goodness in themselves. And confession is a beautiful way of acknowledging the good precisely because we see our weakness.
The other thing is when confession feels overwhelming. It’s like seeing a house you have to clean up. You try to figure out the famous question: “Where do I begin?” You start in one room, you don’t try to take on the whole house. If we can perceive confession as a way of drawing us to one more specific area of growth and healing, then it can become less overwhelming. All God wants is a response back every morning, every day, and every night time: “I love you. I failed. I’m sorry. Help me continue on this journey.” Every time we go through this pattern, we have to be guarded against indifference, lukewarmness. We need to know that we are not defined by our sins.
Sometimes, I find it almost easier to allow myself to be defined by my sins, but I know that that isn’t how God would see me. What might God have to say to us when we return to confession after a long time?
Well, I actually could quote God! All you have to do is turn to the Gospels and you’ll find it. I believe that God would look at each penitent in confession and would say, “Be not afraid. I love you. I am calling you back to me.” God’s not looking at us with this idea, “Oh, you’re pathetic.” I really feel that the Prodigal Son approach of Luke’s Gospel is precisely what we encounter in confession, and I think that as priests, we have to be like that father who welcomes a son or daughter. We [priests] don’t fold our arms, tap the ground, and say “I told you so.” No, that’s not confession. Confession is “I love you, and I just want you to come back to understand me, the Lord.”
I love that you touched on the priest’s role in this, and the beautiful relationship that priests have as shepherds, acting in the person of Christ, to guide us back to Him.
Absolutely. It’s helping others realize that fundamentally, God loves them and wants a relationship with them. Catechesis is not the objective of the sacrament. We want to draw people to see the sacraments as not simply a moment in our lives, but a web of continuity of living every day with God. So we have a co-redemptive mission as Catholics to not just simply get to heaven ourselves but to help people on this road and journey. And so I think it’s important that we walk with people both in and outside of confession.
And this is challenging enough, going about our daily lives and striving for holiness. But on top of that, we find ourselves in the middle of a global pandemic. How have you seen God move in your parishioners’ relationship to the sacrament of confession during this time of COVID-19?
I think the Lord is speaking profoundly in many ways. COVID-19 presents a way of seeing one’s self more honestly, where pre-COVID it was so busy that often people would be lost in business, lost in their work, lost in a virtual world. And hear me well: I would never wish a pandemic on anyone. I’d never wish suffering on anyone. But suffering can be redemptive, and I see this pandemic as an opportunity.
We had both regularly practicing Catholics and people who had been away from the Church for quite a while all coming to confession. I think that there was something that was expressed, and both my assistant and I could confirm this, that many people at the end of each confession would show gratitude.
Like anything, we can take [confession] for granted—it’s there, we don’t question it. But in light of these times, not knowing what tomorrow will bring... Through this, morality certainly has come to the forefront for many. Because of that, I think the sacrament of confession is vital.
Fr. James, as a last thought, why do you think God desires us to come to confession?
Like I mentioned earlier, the sacrament of confession is vital. It goes to the very living sense of who we are, made in God’s image and likeness, and how honest we need to be. God wants a relationship with us. This is why the Church exists. We’re wounded, we’re fearful, and we need healing. This is why the sacraments exist: they are great outward signs of God’s inward strength that He gives us to persevere.