Doctors and pilots aren’t the only ones who practice before leaping into high-stakes vocations. So, too, do priests.
This weekend is the holiest of the year for the nation’s more than 65 million Catholics, drawing both the devout and the casual attendee to church. Many will also use the occasion to step into a confessional and divulge all manner of wrongdoing.
For penitents, it can be an intimidating encounter, even in an age when misdeeds often take the form of unapologetic status updates. But they may not be alone in their fears. For a priest, at least at the beginning, hearing confessions can be a nerve-racking task — which is why four men about to be ordained gather in Monsignor Rohlfs’s office on a recent afternoon to practice.
“You wouldn’t want to throw anyone in without any experience,” says Rohlfs, who has been rector of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary since 2005. “It would be like going to the emergency room and the doctor says, ‘I’ve never seen a patient.’ ”
Most seminaries offer confession training, but the one in rural Emmitsburg, Md., has an expansive program that lasts a year and culminates in a series of mock confessions.
In the next few months, the men will go from being deacons to ordained priests and return to their parishes. But for now, they take turns offering absolution to whatever character Rohlfs conjures from his imagination.
At the moment, he is an 88-year-old woman who seems intent on blaming everyone but herself for her sins.
“I get angry a lot, mostly with my daughters,” Rohlfs says. “Not a blessed one of them practices their faith. I’m very disappointed with my daughters, and I tell them that on regular occasion.”
Mark Good nods. At 46, he is the oldest seminarian in the room. Before deciding he wanted to be a priest, he worked as a lawyer for a tobacco company.
“My husband is no help,” Rohlfs says. “He’s 92. I lose my patience with him all the time. Excuse me, Father, but he’s just a pig. He’s been a pig for years. Forty years ago, he was unfaithful to me, and I caught him. And I forgave him for the sake of the kids, but I told him any wifely duties were done.”
Rohlfs goes on and on. The woman is also angry with a neighbor who borrows her jewelry: “And she doesn’t look good in it. You know what I mean?”
“Let me just stop you here,” Good says in a gentle voice. “It sounds like you have a lot of stress in your life.
. . .
Getting angry is actually normal. . . . But it’s the things we do when we’re angry that can lead us into trouble. Can you think of anything else besides yelling at your husband that you have done that may have offended God?”
“Well, I yell at my daughters, as I said. And I think God is angry with them, too. I tell them: ‘Wait until you get up there. God is not going to be pleased with you.’ Shouldn’t I tell them that?”