Undefeatable joy

One of the things I most looked forward to as part of the Christ Renews His Parish retreat the other weekend was simply the opportunity for a leisurely confession. There are always so many people in line at our parish’s confessional that the priests have little time for extra spiritual direction. For weeks I’d been eager to have the opportunity to chat with a priest at the retreat and get his insights on some things I’d been struggling with.

But when the big moment finally came, I was wiped out.

It had been a grueling past few weeks, I’d been up since 5:30 in the morning, and I was tired almost to the point of physical collapse by all the activity involved in the retreat. Then, when the priests first started arriving, one of them gathered us to make an announcement: one of the men who was supposed to be there, a priest named Fr. Francis whom I had heard good things about, would not be able to come because he’d just found out that both his niece and his nephew had been killed in a horrible car accident.

The news of that level of tragedy was the final blow to my morale. It triggered one of those “the world is such a terrible place” moments where I felt overwhelmed by all the potential for suffering and loss that exists in the human life. I waited for my confession in a mournful daze.

When my time finally came I walked down a hall to see that they’d closed the women’s bathroom so that the tiny space outside could be made into a makeshift confessional. The priest was a kindly Pakistani man who said little as I settled into the chair across from him, next to a plastic table with a Bible and some Kleenex. We greeted one another in the name of Christ, and my confession began.

After I recounted my sins he began to give me advice, and all my pent-up stress started to rush out of me as if I’d taken some sort of medication. The Holy Spirit couldn’t have been more palpable if he’d pulled up a chair and sat down next to us. I could barely resist jumping to my feet and shouting my thanks to God for this amazing experience. It was partially because the priest’s words had a surgeon’s accuracy in terms of their healing effect on my soul, but, mostly, it was simply his joy. He just had some something, some essence that is impossible to put into words, a kind of mighty, unshakable joy that permeated all his actions down to his smallest mannerisms. The slow, confident way he reacted to things; the timeless wisdom of his advice; the ease of his smile; the love in his words, especially when he talked about God — it all spoke of the sort of rock-solid peace that would have given me pause if I’d encountered it when I was an atheist.

After the confession I turned around to look at the sign on the wall outside his confessional, wanting to know the name of this man whose love of God was so contagious that it had infected me despite myself. I stopped in my tracks when I saw the hand-written letters: Fr. Francis.

I grabbed one of the coordinators and asked her if there were two priests schedule to be here with that name. She said that there were not. This was the priest who had just lost his niece and nephew. He had made time to stop by our retreat and hear confessions before he went to the airport to go be with his family.

One of the reasons it’s taken me more than a week to write about this is simply because I knew there was no way I could ever convey what I felt when I realized that the priest whom I had spoken to was Fr. Francis. It will have to suffice to say that I didn’t even respond to the coordinator; I just turned around, went to the candlelit Adoration chapel, slid into a pew, and began to sob.

And I kept sobbing, even after almost everyone else had left to go back into the main room.

A few of the other women came to check on me, each putting an arm around me and saying, “It’s okay.” I wasn’t really in a position to explain it at the time, but that was actually why I was crying — because it was okay. My tears were tears of overwhelming relief and gratitude, the sort of tears you might cry if someone to whom you owed a lot of money not only forgave your debt but handed you a million dollars. I had been given a priceless reminder, in the form a priest filled with love in the midst of his own hour of suffering, that while the grief we feel at the tragedies of this world is legitimate, we should never forget that the truth of the Gospel is essentially the truth that the sad saga of this world has a happy ending — in fact, it’s the happiest ending imaginable.

I’m not suggesting that the kind priest was in a great mood or didn’t feel horrendous sorrow at the loss of his loved-ones. I doubt he was “happy” in the sense of experiencing an emotion. But what I did witness, there in that most ordinary setting under fluorescent lights in the makeshift confessional by the bathroom, was something far more powerful than happiness: the deep-rooted, undefeatable joy that can only come from an encounter with God.


NOTE: I changed the name of the priest in this post in case there are any privacy concerns.

Like this post?

Sign up for my updates and you'll never miss another post.


  1. Karinann says

    What an a grace-filled experience. That is one special priest! Past this I am speechless; I can understand why you were sobbing afterwards. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  2. Aleeta says

    Thank you for this post. I usually check your blog during lunch and today I felt a need to "look in" around 3:00. I had tears running down my face while reading it. I truly enjoy your site.

  3. Angela Williams Duea says

    What a beautiful, amazing experience. I can only hope that I'll develop that kind of unshakeable peace and love, even in the most horrible of situations. You're blessed to know him.

  4. Anonymous says

    I think this post might have helped me. I am struggling with continuing confession with a priest who says nothing, gives no advice or guidance
    unless asked point blank, has a terrible hair trigger temper ( not in confession however) I don't know whether to just stay the course with him and offer it up or go to a more joyful priest at another parish
    who makes you feel that you have been heard. Is it self seeking to want a more congenial and rewarding confession experience?
    Do you have any thoughts on this? I would appreciate it greatly.

  5. Anonymous says

    Wow…I'm praying for that God-loving man. It reminds me of the verse in the Bible(I'm paraphrasing) "How beautiful are the feet that carry the good news". God bless

  6. beck'sthree says

    Thanks for sharing this. I pray that God will help me be the kind of person whose joy and peace are that evident to those around me no matter my circumstances.

  7. MaryLouise says

    I expect New Advent, at least, will pick this up.
    You experienced Christ!
    Fr. Frances, God bless his soul, seems to be a shining example of a man living through/with his call to priesthood.

  8. Jason (semperjase) says

    This story is especially noteworthy during this Year For Priests.

    It made me pause to remember and be thankful for the men who dedicate themselves to God in service to others.

  9. Bethany Hudson says

    Your Fr. Francis puts me in mind of St. Therese of Lisieux, whom almost no one knew suffered the "dark night of the soul," since she was the very soul of compassion and joy to all who knew her, yet her inner life was marked by suffering and turmoil. Thank you for sharing this story.

  10. Roxane B. Salonen says

    I was not expecting that ending, Jennifer. You caught me on that one and I'm still thinking about it and will continue to. I don't think I would have had that kind of grace to keep going with what needed to be done despite my grief. That's amazing. I can understand all the reasons for your tears.

  11. Alyson says

    A very special blessing. Thanks for sharing this Jen.
    I do think it's important to be able to be yourself and chat freely with your confessor, feel as though you ve been heard and understood, and receive spiritual guidance. It's like choosing a Dr. for your soul. Would you go to a GP that 's unresponsive an uncommunicative 'Anonymous' ? I think not. I'd look for someone I feel 'at home with'.

  12. Anne says

    Wow! Amazing! I will be going to confession today and I know that your story will be in the back of my mind. You are so very tremendously blessed to have had this experience, but then again, we are all tremendously blessed to be able to receive the joy of forgiveness from our sins. Praise be to God!

  13. Kacie says

    how beautiful. I wish that all the people of God were as peace-filled as he was! We would transform the world.

  14. Anonymous says

    thank you,Lana and Alyson, for your help.
    I realized AFTER I hit publish that
    this particular Jen entry was NOT the place to bring up a personal question about confession. Thank you, however, for your kind and generous response.
    Jen's blog is the only one besides the Anchoress I read every day. Your responses are obviously one reason why:)

  15. MELISSA6 says


  16. Wendy C. says

    Wow, sitting at work with tears welling up in my eyes. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story about the most wonderful sacrament and its power. I needed to hear this today!

  17. Michelle says

    wow what a blessing! it's people like fr. francis that us going in this world. this post has given me so much hope, so thank you!

  18. NancyinAbq says

    2Cor.1:3-5. "Blessed be God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, The Father or mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulations, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. for as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ." Amen and thanks for sharing your experiences.

  19. Susanne Barrett says

    Practically in tears here just reading this, Jennifer. Wow. God does mindblowing things! That priest's love and concern and wisdom were incredible, a glimpse of God's unbounded love for us.

    Thanks be to God for His wondrous Spirit reflected in His Saints.

  20. Laura says

    Thank you for this story. And thank God for the consolation of tears — so very, very real and true. God bless –

  21. Agnes Regina says

    And anyone notice his name? "Francis." The ever-joyful Little Poor Man of Assissi must have been smiling at this namesake of his the whole time – and giving him a helping hand. What a beautiful story.

  22. Andrea Frazer - Pass the Zoloft says

    You totally totally rock. I appreciate it so much whenever I come here. I really really do. Thank you.


  23. Anonymous says

    Being a convert from Protestantism, confession has been more of a stumbling block for me. Thanks for this encouraging message!

    Jen G

  24. Ali says

    I am an Orthodox Christian, and I attend a small parish. My priest knows me very well–and he is truly my spiritual father. I could not imagine going to Confession with a priest I don't know. I think I would have a problem with that. I believe it is good to get guidance from someone who knows you well and who has seen you struggle. I know the grace of the Holy Spirit is with a priest when he hears a Confession, but I also believe my priest (as a person) is there to guide me as well. It is also nice for him to be able to pray for me with some ongoing struggles that I have.

  25. ABBEY says

    What a beautiful story. It was a very generous gift for you to share it with us. I am touched by this amazing experience; it strengthens my faith. Blessed be Fr. Francis. I am imagining that fulfilling is role in receiving the confessions of others somehow lifted his sorrowful burden just a little. How much closer to God can one be?

    It is a very beautiful and moving story. Thank you again for sharing it.


  26. Angie @ Many Little Blessings says

    Just beautiful! I wanted to cry right with you. (And I actually started to.) Thank you for sharing the story!

  27. 'Becca says

    How wonderful!!

    In addition to appreciating this as an example of selflessness, think about how it may have benefited Fr. Francis. (I don't know if this is true for him, of course; I'm just speculating.) Perhaps he's learned from experience that when he is feeling low, the best thing he can do is hear other people's confessions–to inspire gratitude for the problems he DOESN'T have, to give him a way to feel useful when his life seems to be spiraling out of control, or something like that. You may have helped him as much as he helped you!

  28. Stefanie says

    Jennifer — I had a similar experience via a priest who has ended his time with us in the States and will return to Africa. During his evening farewell celebration last night, there was a monitor playing clips of the filmed farewell greetings of our parishioners. I was astonished at how often they mentioned the amazing confessions they experienced with FatherG. I thought it was just me!
    You write it so very well — for all of us. And just in time for tomorrow night's RCIA on the Sacrament of Penance…thanks!

  29. Just Me says

    What a blessing to experience such an example of God's joy and peace.

    Amazing story – gives you something to think on when going through my own trials.