Archbishop Nienstedt talks about 13 years as a confessor and the power of the sacrament

Archbishop John Nienstedt
Archbishop John Nienstedt


In a recent series of teachings on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis John C. Nienstedt discussed how sin affects our relationship with God and related his personal experience as a confessor of 13 years.

Justifying the Catholic practice of Penance, he described confession from a priest’s point of view and also warned against the abuse of General Absolution.

“From the very be­ginning of his public ministry, then, Jesus calls all men and women to conversion from sin,” the archbishop wrote in the November 5 issue of the Catholic Spirit.

He then cited paragraphs 386-387 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which note that without Revelation “we cannot recognize sin clearly” and that we try to explain it as “merely a developmental flaw, a psychological weakness, a mistake, or the necessary consequence of an inadequate social struc­ture.”

The Catechism emphasizes that sin “is an abuse of the freedom that God gives to created persons so that they are capable of loving him and loving one another.”

Citing the First Letter of John’s admonition not to deceive ourselves by thinking that we are “free of the guilt of sin,” Archbishop Nienstedt wrote:

“To be truthful, we must all admit that we have sinned. Sin affects both our relationship with God and with our neighbor. But the truly good news is that Jesus came to save us from sin and that he has entrusted the power to absolve sin to his apostles. That power of forgiveness is offered to us in the sacrament of penance, otherwise known as reconciliation.”

The archbishop gave several reasons for the Sacrament of Penance being administered in a verbal confession of sins to a priest.

First, Jesus “always forgave sins in a one-on-one encounter with the penitent.”

Second, human beings generally only apologize with difficulty.

“We can inevitably find all kinds of self-justifying reasons for what we have done or failed to do. Yet, once we have spoken out loud the reality of our guilt, it is often only then that we accept responsibility for what we have done, and only then can we begin to reform our ways,” Archbishop Nienstedt remarked.

Finally, the actions we call sins “very often betray an attitude or an inner disposition that ultimately led us to commit a particular sin,” a disposition which must be addressed.

He also described penance from a confessor’s viewpoint:

“Having taught a penance practicum to seminarians for 13 years, I have learned that there is an art on the part of the confessor in hearing a confession. The priest has to listen closely to what is being said ‘between the lines.’ It is one thing to know that one has been uncharitable, hurtful or unfaithful, but that doesn’t necessarily lead one to know why he or she committed the particular act, i.e., what prompted this action in the mind or heart.”

Archbishop Nienstedt criticized the abuse of General Absolution, noting that two popes, a bishops’ synod, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have never approved its use as a normal practice.

Its regular use, the archbishop said, is “bound to have a negative effect on the spiritual well-being of the penitent because general absolution involves a depersonalized experience of the sacramental grace of forgiveness.”

“Without the one-on-one encounter and an explicit confession of guilt, penitents also risk developing a superficial understanding of their willing participation in the personal evil that is sin.”

He appealed to priests of his diocese to refrain from delivering general absolution, especially during Advent penance services.

He closed his remarks with a prayer, saying:

“Let us pray again and again for the grace of that conversion from sin that Jesus announced so long ago: ‘This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand! Reform your lives and believe in the Gospel!’”

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