The text of Kevin's letter and my response after the jump.
Hi Fr. Tony:
I'm a practicing catholic and have a question about confession. I go several times a year and always say the same thing: jerk off regularly, watch porn and have sex with guys a couple times a year. I feel like God is saying why do i confess the same thing over and over when the priest absolves it over and over! Should I continue to bring this up or let it go and confess more important stuff? Thanks for any insight you may have.
I must say that actually hearing Confession is one of the few things I miss about the ministry I shed. Not because they were juicy, but because they were so humbling. To be entrusted with the secret grief of folks in search of salvation from pain or guilt or confusion was a responsibility of which no man is worthy. It forced me to be careful with every word I whispered.
When I was a cynical theology student in Rome, the rector of our college imported a seasoned pastor from the states to give us a sense of what parish work would be like. He knew that most of us who had been chosen for Rome could expect specialized work as academics, canon lawyers, diplomats or prelates. He wanted to be sure we knew what the real work was like in the trenches. One day, a dozen of us sat in a casual circle listening to that old bird talk about his forty years of hearing confessions. He talked about building on even the smallest grain of contrition in the heart of the penitent. Guessing that there must be some desire for forgiveness that had brought the person into the confessional, he kept hammering home the idea that we should never forget that they come to confession in order to get the forgiveness of God through the words of absolution.
He waved his hand at us and said "You are all just the tool. Doesn't matter what you say, just don't get in the way, and don't say no."
Well this seemed a little too hearts-and-flowers to me, so I spoke up thinking I could trick him into admitting that sometimes, people without contrition should be denied absolution and that it is not automatic.
"So are you saying that we should never deny absolution?"
Suddenly you could have heard a pin drop. He narrowed his eyes under bushy white brows as he gazed at me probably thinking this cocky punk thinks he's going to expose me as a liberal heretic, and then he said "That's right."
And I said "You mean to say that not once in all your forty years did you ever deny absolution, no matter what the sin or even if they said they didn't feel what they did was wrong and they'd do it again tomorrow?"
"Not once...Not. Once."
And Kevin, for the first time in my life, as I heard those words from that wise old goat of a pastor, I was overwhelmed with the realization that the power of God is in his continuous and unconditional and all-surrounding forgiveness. A forgiveness with no strings or grimaces of disapproval. With no stratification or metering. Everyone gets it one hundred percent. You just have to ask.
After that meeting, I could not talk for the rest of the day, but a week later, I crossed paths with the old goat and I just mumbled "Thanks." He laughed and slapped my back. He knew what he had instilled in me and he was proud of it and gloating. He knew I had gotten the message. He was right. I followed his example entirely during the years of my ministry, and I think I did some good for some people in the process.
So, to answer your question, Kevin. You can either repeat your paltry little sins for the nth time, or you could trot out your secret big'uns. It should not make any difference. It's all in the positioning. The penitent is supplicant to a God he loves but has wronged. The priest is the messenger, the agent and the postage stamp on that tired letter to Santa that you are afraid you're too old to be writing. Don't worry about it. But, be forewarned. Not all priests are as enlightened as I. As a teenager, I confessed having "touched myself impurely" (those were the absurd words we were told to use). The priest asked me how many times. I didn't think the number was significant, but he did. I think I said three times in the one week since my last confession. He slowly shook his head with disgust and tried to make me understand how filthy and degrading my actions were.
For a few seconds I was shocked by his words, and then I was entirely filled with anger. I left the confessional before that shithead was finished with his tirade and avoided confession entirely after that until the day after my ordination, when I was assisting Pope Paul VI at an outdoor papal mass in front of Saint Peter's. A man in the crowd called out for a priest to hear his confession before the Mass started. I was hurrying by with something gold and fancy in my hands and I wasn't supposed to stop, when I got tagged. He confessed in Italian before the assembled thousands of faithful pilgrims. I didn't understand a word he said. I gave him the absolution in Latin and then I shouted out to the crowd "Sono ordinato ieri! E stata la prima volta che io ho sentito un confessione!" ["I'm newly ordained and that was my very first confession!"] I bowed into the applause that rose up from the crowd, and I knew at that moment that nothing - and I mean absolutely nothing - that I would ever do in my life to come, no matter how dirty, filthy, vile, shocking, sleazy, wicked or depraved, would ever separate me from the forgiveness of God. If there is a heaven, I'll be there. And something tells me you will too.
A coda for our non-Catholic friends. You guys, if you're ever feeling bad about yourselves, ought to stop into a Catholic Church on a Saturday afternoon, and say your confession. You start by saying "Bless me Father for I have sinned, It has been XXX days (months, years, whatever. Make it up.) since my last confession." Then you say what's troubling you. Don't even tell the queen behind the curtain that you're not Catholic. It's none of her business. I guarantee you, you'll feel better, and it's free.