Steven Rohlfs sets the scene. It’s a Saturday afternoon, and a line has formed outside the church confessional. An elderly woman walks into the screen-divided booth and kneels.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” Rohlfs croaks in his best old-lady voice. “It’s been two weeks since my last confession.”
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?”
“Well, that’s a good thing for a mother to do,” Good says. “You never stop being their mother.”
Good may not know it, but he has just made his first misstep.
Rohlfs, 61, says that if he knows a person’s age and sex, he can guess about 85 percent of the person’s sins.
“I’ve been hearing confessions for 36 years, and I haven’t been surprised for 35 years,” he says.
Through experience, he has learned that “I have a lot of stress” could mean a man cursed at a stranger or cheated on his wife. He has come to expect that some people will count every sin — I yelled at my kids 46 times in two weeks — and others may not recognize that their behavior is wrong.
Rohlfs say he believes that more people are going to confession than they did a decade ago, but not as many as did 50 years ago. Little data exist on confessions, but the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University looked at the rates in 2008. That study found that about 24 percent of Catholics go to confession once or several times a year and that only 2 percent go once a month or more. The rest go less than once a year or never.
The point of the class, titled “The Good Confessor,” is not only to prepare the men to serve those parishioners in the habit of going to confession but also to enable them to draw others to the confessional more often.
Good said he and other seminarians have discussed how when they become priests, they want to extend the hours devoted to hearing confession throughout the year instead of just around major religious holidays. “You know that line — ‘If you build it, they will come?’ ” Good says. “If we sit in the box, before long, they will start coming.”
The mission is a stark change from his previous job, in which he jokes that he was more likely “to cover up sins instead of reveal them.”
Each of the men in Rohlfs’s office had a life before the seminary. Jonathan Slavinskas, 27, of Massachusetts was conflicted about becoming a priest after the child sex abuse scandal rocked the church. But one day, he found himself at Mass, longing to stand at the altar. Ben Green, 28, of Kansas had a “wonderful” college girlfriend, who, to the detriment of their relationship, brought him back to the church. Michael Zimmer, 27, of Nebraska joined the seminary after college and then took time off to work on a political campaign. His candidate won.
“I think a lot of people are afraid of confession because they’re afraid of the priest,” Zimmer says. “The very real fact is that a priest is just happy you are there. He doesn’t think you’re a bad person, because he hears everybody else’s sins. Everybody’s broken.”
When Zimmer’s turn to practice comes, Rohlfs plays a 7-year-old boy who is nervous about his first confession and who becomes confused when the priest appears to deviate from the script.
“May the the Lord be on your lips and your heart to make a good confession,” Zimmer begins.
“You didn’t practice, did you?” Rohlfs says, staying in character.
“Are you a little bit nervous to come in today?” Zimmer asks.
“Well, yes, but you’re supposed to say, ‘In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,’ and I’m supposed to say, ‘Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.’ I’m so upset I don’t know what to say now.”
Before the afternoon is over, Rohlfs will also play a teenage girl who likes to party and a man who is easily frustrated by his wife and children.
After each demonstration, the other seminarians in the room offer their critiques. One man is criticized for using too large a vocabulary and another for quoting too specifically from the Bible, confusing the penitent.
They all agree that Good did well to show patience during the woman’s confession while still moving things along. Where he failed is in encouraging her to chastise her daughters.
“You need to help her see that she needs to change her behavior,” Zimmer says.
“Once a mother has yelled at her daughters on those things, they know the issue,” Rohlfs adds.
As for the woman’s problem with her husband, Rohlfs says, Good will eventually want to help her see that she has not really forgiven him. But there will be time for that later. She’ll probably be back.
“If you’re kind to her, like you were, you can expect she’ll be a regular penitent,” Rohlfs says.
“Always ask yourself: What would the Lord do with this person? Would he sigh? Probably. Would he say, ‘Martha, Martha’? Probably. But he would be kind. There are certain things he would think, but he would keep them to himself.”