(Editor's note: Deacon Daniel Quinn has been helping to write the monthly "seminarian's diary" column for two years. Having finished his studies at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, he will be ordained to the priesthood for the Albany Diocese June 9.)

I am in my final semester of seminary formation. My teachers have saved for this semester all the practicalities of priestly life.

We have completed all the philosophical, theoretical and theological courses on what we do as Catholic Christians. Now, we start practicing it: namely, the Mass and the sacrament of reconciliation.

I didn't have a lot of fear about practicing the Mass. We had studied it; I had the understanding in my head and the words in the book in front of me. All I needed to do was to add my heart.

I had to pray it - as a priest this time, no longer as a layperson. This was the biggest switch, but one I was prepared for, because I have been praying more and more like a priest each year in seminary. Those practices went very well and I feel well-prepared to pray the Mass regularly with and for the Church.

What I had most feared about this final semester was practicing the sacrament of reconciliation. It seemed intimidating for two reasons: first, I feared what I would hear; and second, I feared what I would say.

I think many would agree that they would not want to hear the worst - or even the most minor - of other people's sins. It feels like an invasion into the most vulnerable parts of a person. Sins are actions which people have looked back upon with great shame.

Perhaps the shame is not even public, but that private shame that comes from the person's own judgment of their actions, informed by God's will and expectations of us.

The workings of a person's conscience are private, between the individual, God and any person to whom they entrust the deepest secrets of their soul, like a spouse, counselor or spiritual director.

Now I am going to be one of those to whom they entrust their conscience. Doctors often have other people's lives in their hands, but people will be coming to me for the health of their conscience, of their soul. They expect that I give helpful advice - but, more importantly, that I make known for them the mercy and forgiveness of God.

How do I prepare for this most sacred and perhaps terrifying of duties? Being a person who goes to confession, I know what I expect to hear and what is helpful. In class, we were also given a few ground rules:

• Do not break the seal of confession. Tell no one what is said. (Did you know that this applies also to anyone who helps translate or even overhears another person's confession?)

• Do not act shocked or surprised at what they say. This will not put the penitent at ease.

• Assume nothing of the penitent: that they regularly come, know the rite or even know the Rosary.

• Always consider the reason this person is coming this day, and try to speak to that need.

• Help the penitent to pray.

What do I say? I'm not expected to have all the answers for the people who come to me for reconciliation; it's not my job to fix their problems or give them a solution which will fix it so they will sin no more.

It is my job to help the penitent to see their life, their actions and their sins in the context of their life as a child of God. I need to help them to see the good and to journey toward it.

It's my job to give them a penance to help them to move forward on that journey. How do I decide an appropriate penance? I'm concerned about getting this right, because I don't want to be too harsh.

It helps to remember that there is no formula which dictates what penance must be done for each sin. Though in the past there were manuals which dictated a certain "punishment" for each "crime," reconciliation is not meant to be a legal proceeding. It is meant to be sacramental, an encounter of the human with the divine, wherein forgiveness is received as a gift and we accept that no amount of our work could make up for our sins.

Our sins have already been made up for by Christ. Penance is simply an action which aids in our continued conversion and which shows a willingness to repair the damage done by our sin.

It's suggested that whatever we give as penance be clear, quantifiable and with a definite end point. In class, we would take turns playing the priest as our teacher played various penitents of different ages and states in life and confessed everything from the mundane to the bizarre. Not only did we have to think on our feet and provide sound theological counsel, we also needed to weed out what was not a sin and what needed more professional help that we could not provide.

Then we had to prescribe a penance. My class tended toward the Rosary (or decades of it) as penances, but some suggested more creative penances in line with the sins confessed.

Some of my classmates handed out penances which seemed to be too harsh, others too light, and still others too vague or ambiguous. Our teacher or the class would often voice opinions in these matters, and so we helped each other to become more aware of what would be beneficial to the penitent.

Priests everywhere have told me not to worry too much about celebrating this sacrament, because God gives such great graces to help us celebrate it. He will guide us with each penitent.

Also, we are not expected to be carriers of people's sins. They have been released from them, and the priest doesn't have to carry them. If fact, priests usually don't even remember what people say.

I do look forward to celebrating this sacrament now, as I look forward to many aspects of priestly life. And, at the end of my time in seminary, I thank my teachers for having prepared me for this and for my whole life as a priest.