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What is the best gift you can give this Christmas?

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Pope Francis hears the confession of a pilgrim at World Youth Day 2023. PHOTO: OSV News

It’s the night before Christmas. Didn’t that Advent go quickly? Here we are at the manger three weeks later, and it’s time to give gifts.

The most beautiful gift you can give the birthday boy this Christmas season is to make a good sacramental confession and then receive Holy Communion.

I cannot think of any birthday gift more environmentally friendly and sustainable, with zero net carbon emissions, and eternally useful and effective. You will have no regrets, and neither will Jesus.

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I’m going to focus on confession because it’s the sacrament most of us are slackest about. And yet a good sacramental confession is the gift that keeps on giving, in time and in eternity.

It heals and strengthens you. It makes you more receptive to the Holy Spirit. It repairs the church itself and makes it stronger.

There’s also someone else who gets a gift when you make a sincere sacramental confession. That’s the priest who hears it.

Some time back, I said in this column that I had no idea what it felt like to be a priest who hears a confession. People do tell me things in confidence, and I think I am both kind and unshockable, but that’s not quite the same.

In response, Monsignor Bill Mullins (who died last month) sent me an extract from a book he’d written where he reflects on how he became a confessor—a priest who hears confessions—and the rewards he’d gotten from it.

Rather than give you lengthy quotes, I’m going to summarise what he said here, because there was a lot of wisdom in it. The first thing I learned from him was that priests generally don’t leave the seminary with all the skills they need for this role.

A priest actually has to learn how to hear confessions really well, and to be a more effective vehicle for the Holy Spirit. It takes time and attention to develop what Monsignor Mullins calls “confessional competence.”

A priest has to learn to listen carefully to the penitent, and then enter into brief dialogue with them—brief being the operative word, because this is a sacrament, not a counselling session.

Brevity and focus allow a real heart-to-heart connection which can open the penitent up to receiving the Holy Spirit more deeply.

Monsignor Mullins was also very clear about the need for the penitent to speak and the priest to listen. Yes, it’s a struggle for many of us to say our sins out loud.

But again, it gives the Holy Spirit room to move. Have you ever found yourself saying the oddest things in confession, quite different from your carefully prepared speech? I have.
Most of us also don’t realise that we’re doing the priest a lot of good. Good priests are deeply humbled by hearing confessions.

They have to go to confession themselves, and they know what a struggle it is for some of us to go there weekly or monthly. Monsignor Mullins noted that it was important for a priest not just to show understanding, but also to offer encouragement.

This is so true. It’s all very well for the priest to say he understands, but what the penitent needs to hear is some word from the Lord that she’s on the right track, and that one day she will overcome this with God’s help.

The part that really struck me was Monsignor Mullins’ admission that sometimes he would be moved to tears in the confessional.

He would also be spiritually very uplifted by the exchanges he had with some of his regular penitents who were struggling with big problems but were determined not to let them win.

Monsignor Mullins used also give brief spiritual direction to regular penitents. This is absolutely something that you can set up with a reliable and regular confessor if you are struggling to find a spiritual director.

Many of us suffer because we are the penitent who’s there every week with the same sins. For Monsignor Mullins, the key thing for the priest is to convey the mercy and compassion of Jesus to these penitents – Jesus is always so ready to forgive.

Here’s the most important bit from Monsignor Mullins, and I’ll quote it directly. “The reconciliation ministry enlivened my faith; the penitents enlightened me very often more than they ever imagined.”

May God rest his kind soul. And this Christmas season, you can give Jesus, the church, yourself, and a good priest the same wonderful gift, all at the same time: go to confession, and then go to Holy Communion.

Merry Christmas!

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