Dr. John Zmirak, author of the riotessly funner 'Bad Catholic's Guide to ....' series, has an article over at Inside Catholic: 'In a State of Grace? Thank a Priest!'
His second paragraph, after talking about the joys priests have in celebrating the Eucharist, states:
I cannot imagine taking the same satisfaction in hearing confessions. In the church where I go to be shriven here in New Hampshire -- no, it's not my parish . . . I don't evacuate where I eat -- the priest who faithfully staffs the booth each Saturday sounds like he's in his 70s. His old voice creaks through the grille, gentle but serious, and on my way out after penance I find myself wondering about the man. What path drew him to this place? Is he sick at heart, after all these years, of hearing week in and week out how stubborn and irreformable are our hearts? How is his health? And then, more selfishly: What will we do without him?
Truthfully, this is one of the hardest things for laity to understand. Until you sit 'in the box' and hear Confessions, you can never know how you will react, and the graces that flow directly in front of your eyes during these moments. Many priests, this humble scribe included, report never feeling more like a priest than when sitting in the box, 'shriving' the faithful.
Why is this? First, as mentioned, grace is palpable in this Sacrament. Hearts open up before you, not because of any particular talent or gift you may have as a priest, but simply because you are a priest. It is in the Confessional that the priest is truly called to be an 'Icon of Christ,' merely a bridge between this person and the saving grace of Our Lord on the Cross. It is humbling that some will tell me their deepest, darkest sins and fears, faults and failings, not for me to hear, but for Christ to hear. To offer a bit of counseling, at which I often feel very inadequate, and to echo the prayer of Absolution. I tell you, I can often feel the power of Christ channeling through.
Does this mean that every Confession is like this? Unfortunately not. Some, one can tell, are reciting the same laundry list of sins since their First Confession. Yes, they are there, but as a priest, I want to work with them to get at the heart of those sins that they might not fall back into the same traps. Some, I can tell (and I do not have the gift of reading hearts, that would be very scary!) only mention a few minor things, and I wonder what else is there. (Six months between Confessions, and all you've done is look cross-eyed once?!?! Should I start the canonization process now?) It happens infrequently, but does happen that some confesses something but does not have firm purpose of amendment to change their ways, and yes I have refused absolution, but only very rarely and never lightly, as a way of trying to help bring about the conversion. I hope and pray I was right in these situations.
One last point: anonymity and 'remembering' the sin. As priests, there are particular graces that do help priests forget the sins, whether face to face or behind the screen. Plus, I know I make a conscious effort not to remember, but when I am finished with my 'session' in the box, try to say a short prayer before the Blessed Sacrament: 'Lord, these were offered to you, I place them at your feet that you might take them all and forgive these sins offered in hope.'
It helps me, and I imagine other priests have their own way of coping, too.
That, and we hear so many confessions, it is hard to remember what went with who. In the box, you're not that important, Jesus is.