No, not what should the penitent say — although a lot of people do google “how to confess masturbation.” I get it, it’s an embarrassing word. You don’t have to say it if you don’t want to. You can say “I committed an impure act, by myself” and the priest will totally know what you mean. On the other hand, you may find that, as with Lord Voldemort, the thing loses some of its morbid power if you just plain say it.
Anyway, a reader, Father R., asks:1
What would be helpful for me to say to a penitent during a Saturday evening confession time and with people in line? [I have to watch the time to be fair to the other penitents.]
I usually say that I understand that it was difficult to say certain things, to remember they are a beloved child of God, the distinction between attraction and action, and that the Church (and Christ for that matter) is not calling them to a loveless life. It will be a life of loving and being loved as Christ teaches (just like for everyone) and according to our state in life [i.e., single, married, clergy, consecrated religious]. I offer to meet with them if they want to talk further (just like with other penitents with complicated situations since my time is limited in the confessional). No penitent has followed up in this way.
I think the most important thing is something you’re already doing: to offer to discuss their situation outside the confessional. I don’t know why nobody’s taken you up on the offer yet — maybe they’re too timid, or maybe they don’t want to bother you, or maybe they already have somebody to talk to about it. Maybe it would be good to frame your offer in terms of a question, something like, “Do you have anybody you can talk to about this?” I think it would be just impossible to deal with the problem without at least one person to talk to, one person who can be turned to when things look darkest.
It occurs to me that it might also be helpful to make sure they know that they are by no means alone in their situation. One hears plenty from dissenting Catholics, and from secular people who are openly gay and see no moral problem with homosexual activity; one hears less from Catholics who deal with same-sex attraction but still aspire to chastity. But there are an awful lot of us out there.
So, I don’t know. Readers, what do you wish you could hear in the confessional? What did you hear that changed your life? What did you hear that made you feel excluded or marginalized? What did you hear that made you feel loved? What have you never heard, but would love to?
And, of course, priests: what approaches have you used in the confessional that gay people have seemed to appreciate? Do you have any recommendations for Father R.?