Making a long overdue confession at St. Peter’s Basilica

During our trip to Rome earlier this year, Kathryn and I recognized how long it had been since we’d last received the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or Confession, or Penance, or whatever the Church is calling it this year. Far too long. The gift of the Holy Father’s blessing at the General Audience earlier in the week, and the possibility we would receive it again after praying the Angelus on Sunday, increased our desire to receive the sacrament as soon as possible.

Fortunately, there is a rather large area set aside for confessions at St. Peter’s Basilica. The area itself is bigger than most churches I’ve ever been in, and it’s cordoned off to keep the tourists out. Priests are available to hear confessions in an impressive number of languages almost all day long. We showed up just after their lunch break. There was a line for priests who spoke English, but it was relatively short.

The area reserved for confessions at St. Peter’s Basilica.

The area reserved for confessions at St. Peter’s Basilica.

For some reason, Kathryn always make me go first when we go to confession together. Maybe she thinks I’ll soften the blow. In any event, we both ended up confessing to the same priest, an 89-year-old Irish Conventual Franciscan. Without elaborating on any specific sins, I’ll tell you my impression of receiving the sacrament from this priest in this place. Kathryn assures me her experience was nearly the same.

My feet and backpack sticking out of the confessional. Notice the sign indicating the priest speaks English.

My feet and backpack sticking out of the confessional. Notice the sign indicating the priest speaks English.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous right from the start. First of all, Italian confessionals seem to be designed differently from the ones commonly found in the U.S. I’m used to going into a room and shutting a door behind me, with a priest listening on the other side of a screen. There’s a screen in Italy, but there’s no door. I’ve attached a picture to give you an idea. Also, the priest greeted me in Italian, even though the primary language posted on his confessional was English. Mostly, though, it was my own fault. I hadn’t spent the time to properly examine my conscience.

It turns out it didn’t matter. With the priest’s help — and God’s, obviously — this was the best confession either of us has ever made.

I started my confession as I usually do. Sign of the cross, length of time since my last confession, and so forth. I’m used to having a priest who doesn’t seem to be listening, who’s just waiting for me to finish listing my sins so he can move on, so I started in. After rattling off a couple sins, the priest said, “Whoa, slow down!” And then it became a lengthy question and answer session, with the priest asking the questions. “You’re American, right?” he asked. “Are you married?” With a few questions, he seemed to know every sin before I could confess it. He explained the difference between mortal and venial sin, how often we need to confess, and what our Easter duty is. Meanwhile, Kathryn was waiting her turn patiently and couldn’t figure out what was taking so long.

After what seemed like an hour, but was probably only about five minutes, the priest assigned me a penance that was proportionate and reasonable, offered absolution, and asked me to make an act of contrition. This was possibly the most embarrassing moment for me, because I realized that I’d never memorized one. So it was questions and answers again. Suffice it to say I’ve memorized one since then.

As I left, the priest asked me to come to the front of the confessional. He kept himself hidden and handed me a Miraculous Medal. It was a small token, but I wasn’t expecting a gift. Kathryn received one after her confession, too.

There were pews set up near the confessionals where we could reflect and pray and say our penance, so we took advantage of that. The experience left a profound impression on me. I spent much of the rest of the week reflecting on what I’d heard and learned there. I left with a lot of respect for the priests called to this ministry. Hearing confessions all day clearly makes them good at it.

Now that I’m home, I’m receiving the sacrament more often.