“Confessions are at 3 pm every Saturday, or by appointment” reads the bulletin in your average American parish. However, a scheduled appointment for this sacrament is a rare thing for most priests.
I am not exactly sure as to why, but when I have given folks some pointers in person, they typically let me know that they have taken said advice, and made an appointment. Below is that advice.
1. Contact the priest by the means he prefers
This may require some trial and error, but if the priest is under 50, he probably prefers email. If he’s over 50 he may still prefer email, but scheduling an appointment through a phone call or through the parish secretary may be a better way for him.
2. Repeat your request, if he does not respond.
We can get a good number of calls, and emails in the course of a week, and at times when we cannot respond right away. So be persistent in asking the priest, if he does not get back to you. You have the right to the sacraments, and he has the responsibility to provide it under canon law. Christ even tells us to be so persistent in Luke Chapter 11. If you are worried that the priest will find you annoying at your persistence for an appointment, don’t be. That’s a him problem, not a you problem.
3. Give him a time window that works for you.
An effective request for an appointment confession reads something like this: “Father, I have lunch break from Noon to 1pm every day this week. Could I come by one of those days to make a confession?”
“Father, I’m unable to make it to confession this Saturday. Could I have my confession heard before either of the Masses on Sunday?”
In both of these examples, the ball is now in my court to come up with a time that works for the both of us. I have several options before me, and I can check it against my schedule. As a pastor of souls I should make the appointment as soon as possible, and should even move moveable matters to accommodate the request, but I’m also not put in a tight box to make this happen at the expense of other appointments.
4. Let him know if you are seeking in-depth counsel, or just a “kind and number” confession.
In addition to what I wrote in #3, the request will also read something like:
“I’m not looking for spiritual direction, but I just need to confess what I did in kind and number.”
“I’m hoping that we can discuss some of what I want to confess at length, and I understand, if this means I will have to wait longer for an appointment.”
If it’s a kind and number confession, I know it will typically not last much more than 10 minutes tops. If someone is looking to make spiritual direction within the sacrament, most priests will want to schedule a good hour for the appointment. Both are valid requests, and being clear as to which one you are looking for helps the priest plan out his time.
I would also recommend that if you are in mortal sin, and want direction, make it clear that you will take a kind and number confession, if Father doesn’t have an hour in the near future to spare. Get absolved, if you are in such a state, and you can always revisit that issue at another appointment down the road.
5. Let him know if others will be going to confession, too.
Many times when individuals have made appointments with me for confession, they will often let their friends know that they did so. The friends will then ask them if they can come too. This is fine, but let the priest know, so he can again check his schedule.
Furthermore, perhaps 3 pm on Saturday doesn’t work for anybody in your family. Schedule an appointment for your entire family keeping with what is written above and below. Again, the priest is required to provide you the sacraments, and if the regular times don’t permit you to go, ask for an appointment for the entire family.
6. Show up early.
7. Respect his reasonable boundaries.
I will not ride alone in a car with a young woman. I will also not visit a family in my parish if the husband is not there. If a single mom wants me to come over to meet her children, I will not go unless another adult male is there as well. These are simple boundaries I keep in prudence. Similarly, I, and many other priests will not meet individually with folks at the office, or elsewhere at certain hours. So, if you are asking for confession at midnight because that is when your shift ends, do not be offended, if Father will not meet at that time. You may need to sacrifice a bit to schedule a time that he deems prudent, and there is merit in that.
8. Special instructions if you desire complete anonymity.
I recommend either a) using a dummy email account to make this appointment, or b) have a trusted friend set it up via phone or email. In this request you will want to let the priest know that you will meet him in the confessional at noon on Thursday, but you would like him to be behind the screen at that time so as to cancel your identity in the full. Hopefully us priests are able to keep to that, but also keep in mind we may make the mistake of being late. If so, wait in a quiet spot in the church. We don’t remember much anything in the confessional, and we really do not want to remember it either. So we are not going to be looking around the church to see what you look like.
I wish it were possible to offer confession times that work for everybody on a regular basis at the parish. Certainly, it is the responsibility of pastors to do their best to make this happens, but the truth is that there are night owls, early birds, third shifters, and nine-to-fivers at every parish. Inevitably a regular schedule will not fit everyone’s needs, and thus appointment times are of high value.