Let us return to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It often happens that we priests hear our faithful telling us they have encountered a very “strict” priest in the confessional, or very “generous”, i.e., a rigorist or a laxist. And this is not good. It is normal that there be differences in the style of confessors, but these differences cannot regard the essential, that is, sound moral doctrine and mercy.
Neither the laxist nor the rigorist bears witness to Jesus Christ, for neither the one nor the other takes care of the person he encounters. The rigorist washes his hands of them: in fact, he nails the person to the law, understood in a cold and rigid way; and the laxist also washes his hands of them: he is only apparently merciful, but in reality he does not take seriously the problems of that conscience, by minimizing the sin.
True mercy takes the person into one’s care, listens to him attentively, approaches the situation with respect and truth, and accompanies him on the journey of reconciliation. And this is demanding, yes, certainly. The truly merciful priest behaves like the Good Samaritan... but why does he do it? Because his heart is capable of having compassion, it is the heart of Christ!
We are well aware that neither laxity nor rigorism foster holiness… Neither laxity nor rigorism sanctify the priest, and they do not sanctify the faithful! However, mercy accompanies the journey of holiness, it accompanies it and makes it grow.... Too much work for a parish priest? It is true, too much work!
And how do we accompany and foster the journey of holiness? Through pastoral suffering, which is a form of mercy. What does pastoral suffering mean? It means suffering for and with the person. And this is not easy! To suffer like a father and mother suffer for their children; I venture to say, also with anxious concern....
Tell me: Do you weep? Or have we lost our tears? I remember that in the old Missals, those of another age, there is a most beautiful prayer to ask the gift of tears. The prayer began like this: “Lord, who commanded Moses to strike the rock so that water might gush forth, strike the stone of my heart so that tears…”: the prayer went more or less like this. It was very beautiful.
But, how many of us weep before the suffering of a child, before the breakup of a family, before so many people who do not find the path?... The weeping of a priest.... Do you weep? Or in this presbyterate have we lost all tears?
Pope Francis, Address to the priests of the Diocese of Rome, March 6, 2014
Reflection – Well, I don’t know if this address by Pope Francis is helpful to anyone else, but it sure is helping me, so I’m going to keep blogging about it for a couple more days yet. Thank you for your patience.
The laxist/rigorist dichotomy is one we are all familiar with. As I said a couple days ago, I honestly have had very few if any rigorist priests hear my confession over my 40 years as a Catholic sinner (and I haven’t just done confession in Madonna House – I’ve been all over! But laxism… yes, strictly from my first-hand experience this is the more common fault of priests in North America in our day. And Pope Francis expertly and succinctly shows what is wrong with both of these approaches—neither is really merciful, neither really cares for the person. The rigorist crushes the person under the yoke of the Law; the laxist, under a pretence of being ‘kind’, fails utterly to engage the real spiritual illness of the person, their true need for healing.
At any rate, the Pope is calling us priests here to a very high and challenging level of mercy and generosity. I don’t know if I can say much about this—his call to priests to weep for and with their people. After all, to put it delicately, a good number of ‘my people’ read this blog – I will simply say that it is my heart’s desire to be precisely the kind of priest the pope is describing, and that this reality of ‘pastoral suffering’ as a means of growth in holiness is very real indeed, at the very least a path that is open to any priest who is willing to enter it.
Meanwhile, we all know that priests on the whole are a pretty human bunch of guys—neither the monstrous vampires of anti-Catholic bigotry nor the paragons of virtue and holiness that a naïve faith would imagine them to be. We’re just people, endowed in ourselves with the strengths and weaknesses, folly and smarts that characterize humanity as a whole. Of ourselves, nothing too special, yet for reasons of His own, endowed by Christ with this sacred task and the sacred powers that go with it.
So, pray for your priests, eh? We’re on the cusp of Holy Week here, and parishes the world over are stepping into high gear. I just came back from a parish mission, and am very aware of just how busy and hard-working my parochial confreres are. Pray for them and, if you can, offer an encouraging word to them once in a while. Pray especially that true mercy and compassion can reign in the hearts of all priests, and that the whole Church can become the community of mercy and compassion it is meant to be.