Dear Seminarian, find a confessor. Not a saint, necessarily, but one whom you can trust. G.K. Chesterton’s fictional crime-solving priest, Father Brown, once quipped that people think priests don’t understand sin. On the contrary, priests understand sin very well. It was his way of explaining how he could solve mysteries, because he had insight into human nature. It’s another way of saying that priests see a lot of stuff.
Clergy find themselves interacting with people in some degree of crisis fairly often. Hospital rooms and funeral homes are common haunts. People don’t normally have time to clean up before a heart attack. You intersect the family as they really are.
If you are in a tradition that practices confession, you have a particular burden to bear. Even those without formal confession can still find a lot being revealed to them. Addictions, sins, abuse, and all the other warped ways a soul can be burdened. It’s ugly. And let’s be honest; you are not immune. We all have sin. We all have a history.
You will need someone to unload to and you shouldn’t expect your spouse to carry this burden alone. There are some messes of which the details don’t need to be shared. There will be interactions with parishioners your wife knows. You can’t share everything, both because of the seal of confession and for propriety’s sake. Not to mention you don’t need to burden your wife with some things.
It is not easy to find and keep a confessor. They will come and go through your life. Cherish them when you have them. It is best for it to be another priest as it is good to be able to “talk shop.” Ideally, your confessor would be your bishop, but in practicality, it probably won’t be. They have too many priests to look after over too big of a geographical area. A fellow priest will do.
A word of caution, though, if your confessor is a peer. It can become too much about talking shop and not enough about self-care. Gallows humor and jadedness are not becoming for a priest, though it will be tempting at times. You will find yourself in the midst of some Jerry Springer-esque situations. Even so, they are situations that require mercy, grace, and love.
This should be a person you can be open to about your sins and struggles—or those things you ought to be truly struggling with. This is not exactly an “accountability partner.” It is more of a trusted and wise ear. The relationship may not be reciprocal. It may be best if it isn’t.
Call them a mentor, a spiritual director, a confessor, a guide, or a friend. But find one if you can, and hold on to them and cherish them while you have them. They are a rare breed in our culture.
Finally, after you have had the blessing of receiving counsel and comfort, perform this service for others. And not just in your pastoral role, though that is significant. Be open to the opportunity to be the sounding board for others.