A Practical and Theological Description
1. The First Speech
There are not a lot of ceremonies with Absolution. Mostly, you need some canned speeches.
When a penitent comes for the first time he needs to be reassured and reminded that this is a gift from God that actually forgives sins and that all sins die in your ear. Not because of some confidentiality agreement – that is for doctors and lawyers – but because they are genuinely and literally forgiven. They are removed. If the pastor speaks of them again he brings them and damnation on himself. You took an oath to this effect and you do not want to go to Hell. You are aware that Hell is a possibility. It would, in fact, be just and that frightens you. Tell him you are promising that you will not judge him for what he confesses nor will you ever speak of it again in any way. You will never tell anyone what he has confessed – even without his name. In other words, you are not promising merely to never say “John told me . . .” but to never even say, “Someone once told me . . .” You will never speak these sins again even to people that do not know him. You will not use him or his problems as a discussion point in winkel or as a case study for a paper. They are gone. They are put to death with Jesus. They are left in the grave. You will never speak them again in any circumstance or for any reason.
Next you have to warn of a couple of things. Part of making confession is taking the risk, believing this impossible and ridiculous promise of God that He forgives sins through fallible men. Paul calls us earthen vessels. He means “chamber pots.” Making Confession is an act of faith that God will forgive your sins even if men do not, that God’s promise holds true even when it is spoken by lying sinners. Tell him again that you swear you will never tell. Remind him too that you also bear this cross. You too make confession. No one can hear confession unless he makes confession. Don’t ever try it. To do so is really playing with fire! Besides, no one can teach the Small Catechism who does not himself receive Holy Communion, is baptized, and makes confession. Perhaps this sacrament is not compulsory for our people. But it is compulsory for our clergy.
Warn him that it is going to hurt. The fear and uncertainty he feels are legitimate. Making confession is scary and shameful. Don’t try to snow him about this being all Gospel. There is Gospel, to be sure, and that is why he is there. But don’t deny that part of what he feels is the burden of the Law. To do so makes him feel that his faith is lacking, that what he feels is unnatural or wrong since he should be happy because “absolution is the Gospel.” Again, making confession is an act of faith and our faith is not yet perfected. We make confession because God has made a promise. Sometimes it can make us feel better. Sometimes it doesn’t. We are glad for when it does, but the absolution is valid even when it doesn’t. If he is coming to try and feel better, then he is coming for the wrong reason.
You will give this speech in various forms and parts over and over again and throughout the entire event.
2. The Place and the Vestments
The confession should take place in the Church, not your study. When he is ready take him into the Church. Give him a pamphlet or a hymnal with the Rite in it. Make sure he knows how to follow along and what to expect. Tell him to wait there for you and to pray. Give him suggestions for prayer from the Psalter and hymnal. If you print pamphlets for confession, put these suggestions right on it.
The confession should take place at a place where he can kneel and you can sit perpendicular to him. In most churches that is the communion rail. He may not like this because he doesn’t want anyone to see him. Whether he voices that concern or not, tell him that it is private confession and not secret confession. You will ensure that no one hears what he confesses. You will never tell anyone that he came to confession. You do not reveal who your penitents are. But neither will you do anything to protect him from being seen. For there is no shame in making confession. It is what Christians do. He should be no more ashamed to be seen making confession than he is to be seen receiving Christ’s Body and Blood on Sunday morning. First time penitents can be a bit squeamish about this. Be firm. There is no shame in making confession. If it indicates anything about a man’s spiritual state and faith it is that he takes the Gospel seriously.
While he prays and works on his courage, go and vest. Most ideally, wear a cassock and surplice with a violet stole or a stole in the color of the day. If the confession immediately proceeds the Holy Communion you may wear an alb, cincture, and a stole. If you wear an alb, cross the stole because you are a man under authority. This is the way the stole is worn under the chasuble as well. It is crossed by overlapping the ends of the stole, right over left, and securing it with the cincture.
While you are vesting, pray for yourself and for the penitent. What penitents don’t know, and what you should never tell them, is that hearing confession is a more onerous cross than making confession. You should not tell them because it is your burden alone. They are coming to be unburdened and not to hear about your problems. Pray that God would speak through you and comfort this penitent and that He will enable you to keep your word, that you will forget these sins as soon as they are absolved.
3. The Conduct of the Rite
Do not greet him when you come into the Church. Go straight to your seat. You may genuflect or bow to the Altar on the way, but there are no other ceremonies. You simply go and sit down. He should be sitting in the front pew near where he will kneel if he is not already kneeling there. When you are situated, indicate that he may kneel. He is to begin the rite. If he doesn’t you’ll have to tell him to start but don’t rush him. You remain seated, looking forward, facing either the liturgical North or South. He faces the Altar, perpendicular to you, and makes confession in your ear.
Catechesis is an important part of confession. You need to teach him how to make confession. You need to draw the confession out. This is done by asking questions. The most basic question is “What commandment does this break?” Sometimes you need to ask, “How is this a sin?” Be clear when non-sins are confessed that you will not hear them and will not absolve them. It is not a sin, for instance, to be angry about the incompetence of a superior. It is a sin to be disobedient and to not honor a superior. Nor is it a sin to be a victim. Remind him that Jesus died also for shame. Shame is real and it needs to be forgiven. It is forgiven, along with guilt, in the absolution. But shame is not confessed. Sins are. Shame is a form of false guilt. Sins are defined most precisely by the ten commandments and our station in life. Ask him how what he says violates his marriage, abuses his children, his co-workers or employer, etc. Force him to consider his station in life. Do not answer the questions for him unless you have to. Sometimes you have to. Sometimes, especially when people are new, they don’t know how to examine their lives by the ten commandments. They feel guilty and desire absolution but don’t know exactly why. You have to help them see the connection of God’s Word and Law to the particulars of their lives. Wait as long as possible. Don’t rush. Let him consider how something he has confessed might be a sin or what commandment he has broken or the possibility that it is no sin at all. Under no circumstances talk about yourself! You and your life are not examples in the confessional. You are there to listen, to draw out the confession, and then to absolve. Do your best to not react no matter what he says. Sometimes it is hard. The closer you are to the penitent the more difficult this is. Listen as passively as possible. Do not allow yourself to become emotionally involved. Finally, and always, direct him to the Word.
To absolve, stand up and put both your hands on his head. Exert some pressure. Let him feel your hands on him. As you say the words you may trace a cross with your right thumb on his forehead. Remain standing after the absolution and offer some counsel. Always offer some counsel beyond the absolution itself. This usually means reading or reciting some passage from the Scriptures. It should have some preaching, some application, as well, but never of the Law. That part is over and should not be revisited. Preach the Gospel as powerfully, purely, and directly as possible. Tell him how much God loves him, assure him that the absolution is valid and real. Point him to the objective things. Encourage him to come soon to the Altar for the Body and Blood, to not be hesitant in His prayers or for God’s Word, for these things too are gifts of God and for his good. At last, pronounce the blessing and leave, or dismiss him if you have other penitents. Do not engage in conversation about what he has confessed. If he wants that, and sometimes they do, if at all possible, it should take place in your study afterwards. It is almost never necessary.
4. The Aftermath
At that point, your burden begins in earnest. Hearing sins somehow makes them partially your own. They will haunt you. You will be occasionally shocked, often saddened, but you can’t let on, and you can’t share it with anyone else. You have to bear it alone. That is why you pray when vesting, the entire time while hearing confession, and afterwards. You, too, have to live by faith. You, too, have to believe that this forgiveness is God’s forgiveness and is perfect and complete. It is a very humbling thing to have men confess to you and to be the mouthpiece for God. It is also a burden unlike any other and part of the necessary suffering that God demands of His preachers.
5. Father-Confessors, Penitents, and Family
There are some people who are, or should be, disqualified from being your penitents. You should not hear the confession of your father-confessor except in the case of an extreme emergency or due to impossible physical limitations. It taints and spoils the relationship. If you did end up hearing your father-confessor’s confession for some reason, then you need to find a new father-confessor. I also do not think that you should hear the confession of your wife and children. Ideally, they should make confession to your father-confessor. That way you all have the same pastor. Your relationship of husband and father trumps pastor and takes precedence. It is true that they have to endure your preaching and teaching, but so also do you. After all, you preach to and for yourself and communicate yourself as well, but you can’t hear your own confession and neither should you then hear theirs. Again, this is part of the burden that God places upon His preachers.