Today we forget everything far too quickly, even the Magisterium of the Church! Part of this is unavoidable, but we cannot forget the great content, the great intuitions and gifts that have been left to the People of God. And Divine Mercy is one of these. It is a gift which he gave to us, but which comes from above. It is up to us, as ministers of the Church, to keep this message alive, above all through preaching and in our actions, in signs and in pastoral choices, such as the decision to restore priority to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and to the works of mercy. Reconciliation, making peace through the Sacrament, also with words, and with works of mercy…
Let us ask ourselves what mercy means for a priest, allow me to say for us priests. For us, for all of us! Priests are moved to compassion before the sheep, like Jesus, when he saw the people harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus has the “bowels” of God, Isaiah speaks about it very much: he is full of tenderness for the people, especially for those who are excluded, that is, for sinners, for the sick who no one takes care of.... Thus, in the image of the Good Shepherd, the priest is a man of mercy and compassion, close to his people and a servant to all.
This is a pastoral criterion I would like to emphasize strongly: closeness. Closeness and service, but closeness, nearness!... Whoever is wounded in life, in whatever way, can find in him attention and a sympathetic ear.... The priest reveals a heart especially in administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation; he reveals it by his whole attitude, by the manner in which he welcomes, listens, counsels and absolves....
But this comes from how he experiences the Sacrament firsthand, from how he allows himself to be embraced by God the Father in Confession and remains in this embrace.... If one experiences this in one’s own regard, in his own heart, he can also give it to others in his ministry. And I leave you with the question: How do I confess? Do I allow myself to be embraced?
Pope Francis, Address to the priests of the Diocese of Rome, March 6, 2014
Reflection – As I have mentioned, I’m in Orangeville Ontario this week giving a parish mission (thank you, all who are praying for it – it’s going well). My presence here happens to coincide with the archdiocese of Toronto’s ’24 Hours of Reconciliation’ – the day when every parish will be open all day with priests available to hear confessions. So I will actually be spending about four hours today hearing confessions in the church here, along with the parish penance service tomorrow night to close off the mission.
None of which I had in mind when I picked out this talk from Pope Francis for today’s blogging, but all of which goes nicely together. The sacrament of confession is such a beautiful thing, really. People have such odd ideas about it sometimes—I'm thinking not of the truly weird and wacky ideas of anti-Catholic bigots so much, but the normal perceptions of non-Catholics or lapsed Catholics.
I suppose in the latter case people have had bad experiences and this colors their perception. I must say that I’ve been going to confession regularly for 40 years of my life with no lapses, and I have never once been yelled at, sneered at, bullied, shamed, hectored, humiliated—not even remotely. In fact, the only criticism I would make of some of the priests who have heard my confession over the years is that they have been if anything a bit laxist (the pope will explain this shortly).
But for the most part, the priests I have encountered in the confessional have been kind men simply offering me the tangible experience of God’s mercy in this unique sacramental setting. Sometimes they have had a word of wise counsel, more often they have simply given me the sacrament (which is the point of the exercise, after all).
It’s such a beautiful thing. You walk in, kneel down or sit, speak in simple unadorned language the moral failures, the sins, of the past week or month, express contrition, receive some mild penance or other, and then…
And then Jesus, not the man, not the priest, washes you clean. Not because you deserve it, not because you earned it, not because of anything… he just does it. It is a miracle on a par with the raising of Lazarus from the dead. You walk into the confessional burdened in conscience to some greater or lesser degree. You walk out (Lazarus - come out!) as innocent as a newly baptized baby, unbound, alive.
What a gift this is from God in the life of the Church, what a treasure! How is it possible that Catholics have turned away from it, make silly jokes about it, or get angry about it as if it’s some horrible imposition? God, in Jesus, in the life of the Church, in the person of the ordained minister, works here the greatest miracle, the greatest work of power next to his creation of the universe and his raising of Jesus from the dead – he restores life, health, and the grace of divine communion to a human soul who has refused these goods. How on earth can anyone have a problem with this?
So… when’s the last time you went to confession? Uhhh... isn’t it time you went again?