Crusade Meditations: Summer 2015
The Priest and the Sacrament of Mercy
“Are they not all ministering spirits sent to serve, for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” (Heb 1:14)
On April 11, 2015, the Feast of Divine Mercy, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, announced an “Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy”. The Holy Year will open on December 8, 2015, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, and close on November 20, 2016, the Solemnity of Christ, the King. In the Bull of Indiction the Holy Father reminds us:
We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. … Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to a hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness. (Misericordiae Vultus, no. 1)
Jesus, the Face of the Father’s Mercy
Mercy, “love’s second name” (John Paul II, Dives in misericordia, n. 7), has many facets. Basically, every good we receive (life, food, shelter, human relationships, our faith etc.) is an outpouring and expression of Divine Mercy. But in its definitive expression, mercy has a face as the title of Pope Francis’ bull Misericordiae vultus [The Face of Mercy] indicates:
Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. … In the “fullness of time” (Gal 4:4), when everything had been arranged according to his plan of salvation, he sent his only Son into the world, born of the Virgin Mary, to reveal his love for us in a definitive way. Whoever sees Jesus sees the Father (cf. Jn 14:9). Jesus of Nazareth, by his words, his actions, and his entire person reveals the mercy of God.
The revelation of the Father’s mercy culminated in the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus, by which He gained for us the forgiveness of our sins. Soon after His resurrection Our Lord appeared to the Apostles in the Upper Room and instituted the Sacrament of Mercy, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit; whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained” (Jn 20:22-23). According to St. Thomas Aquinas, it is above all the forgiveness of sins which demonstrates God’s mercy. St. Thomas quoting St. Augustine states, “for a just man to be made from a sinner [through absolution] is greater than to create heaven and earth, for heaven and earth shall pass away, but the justification of the ungodly shall endure.” (Summa Theologica, I-II, 113, 9).
Nevertheless, the Sacrament by which Jesus absolves us through His priests from our sins is poorly appreciated in our days. In most of the parishes in the Western world the communion lines are long while the confession lines are short or do not exist at all. The confessional is sometimes called the “loneliest place in the Church”. According to a report of a Jesuit superior, from July 1896 through June 1897, seven priests heard a total of 78,000 confessions in a certain parish in New York. That means, in the average one priest heard about thirty confessions a day. What a contrast to today’s situation, where the majority of Catholics do not seem to have need to be absolved from their sins! According to a study in 2008, 45% of Catholics in the US stopped going to confession altogether, about 30% go less than once a year; and only 26% confess their sins to a priest at least once a year.
Pope Francis compares the state of the Church fittingly to a field hospital: “Today we can think of the Church as a ‘field hospital.’ This, excuse me, I repeat, because I see it like this, I feel it so: a ‘field hospital.’ There is need to cure the wounds, so many wounds! So many wounds! There are so many wounded people, by material problems, by scandals, also in the Church … Wounded people by the illusions of the world … We, priests, must be there, close to these people. Mercy means first of all to cure the wounds.” (Address to the clergy of Rome, March 6, 2014). Wounds which cannot heal unless the healing power of God’s mercy is besought in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
One may ask: How could the reception of this so important sacrament decay so radically? Pope Pius XII said in 1946 in an address to the United States Catechetical Congress, “The sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin.” One reason for the loss of the sensitivity to sin is certainly today’s culture and what Pope Benedict XVI calls the “dictatorship of relativism”, that is the claim that knowledge, truth, and morality are not absolute, but can change according to culture, society, or historical context. But another reason weighs maybe more heavily: the neglect to catechize Catholics properly. Especially in the past forty years after the Second Vatican Council, priests and bishops have rarely preached about the reality and consequences of sin; how much it wounds individual souls, the Church and society and how important it is to go frequently to Confession. Thus, people were desensitized in regards to sin, the confession lines and the confession times offered got shorter and shorter. A further point is the degeneration of priestly spirituality. When priests opt for a comfortable life, giving up the pursuit of sanctity, they are certainly not inclined to preach on holiness nor to attend to this pastoral need of the flock. “Self-complacent” pastors abuse the flock, also by neglect.
A final point, why some people abandoned Confession is the immature administration of the Sacrament by some priests. The Holy Father states,
Many times it happens that a person comes and says, “I haven’t confessed for many years, I have this problem, I left Confession because I found a priest and he told me this,” and you see the imprudence, the lack of pastoral love, in what that person says. And they draw away, because of a bad experience in Confession. If there were a wholesome attitude of a father, which issues from the goodness of God, this would never happen. (Address to participants of a “Course on the Internal Forum” on March 27, 2015)
The Pivotal Importance of the Sacrament of Mercy
We must thank God that our Holy Father has the courage and the light to focus the Church’s attention anew on Confession. In fact it is the primary goal of the Year of Mercy to bring people back to confession, “Let us place the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the center once more in such a way that it will enable people to touch the grandeur of God’s mercy with their own hands. For every penitent, it will be a source of true interior peace” (MV, n. 17). There can be no sanctity in the Church nor can we speak of a new evangelization, if Confession does not regain its indispensable place in the lives of the faithful.
Its Centrality in the Priest’s own Life
But how to begin? Pope Francis stresses, that priests themselves must appreciate and make frequent use of this sacrament. Their own souls ought to resonate deeply St. Peter’s sentiments, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Lk 5:8). They must deeply experience their own need for God’s mercy and receive it often; only then can they be men of mercy and compassion towards the faithful. John Paul II. expressed it in these drastic words,
The priest’s spiritual and pastoral life, … his priestly existence, suffers an inexorable decline if by negligence or for some other reason he fails to receive the sacrament of penance at regular intervals and in a spirit of genuine faith and devotion. If a priest were no longer to go to confession or properly confess his sins, his priestly being and his priestly action would feel its effects very soon, and this would also be noticed by the community of which he was the pastor. (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, n. 31)
In the same line Pope Francis speaking on March 6, 2014, to the clergy of Rome stated,
the priest shows the depths of mercy in administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation; his whole attitude demonstrates it, in the way he welcomes, listens, advises, absolves … However, this stems from the way that he himself lives the Sacrament personally, that he lets himself be embraced by God the Father in Confession, and he stays in this embrace … If one lives this oneself, in one’s heart, one can also give it to others in the ministry. And I leave you with the question: How do I confess? Do I allow myself to be embraced?
Merciful Administration of the Sacrament to the Faithful
In his sermons, addresses and speeches the Holy Father does not grow weary of pointing out to priests the qualities of a good confessor and what must be avoided. He stresses more than any prior Pope the merciful approach in administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
He welcomes penitents not with the attitude of a judge, not even with that of a simple man, but with the charity of God, with the love of a father who sees the son returning and goes to meet him, [with the love] of the shepherd who has found the lost sheep. The heart of the priest is a heart that knows how to be moved, not by sentimentality or mere emotion, but by the “tender mercy” of the Lord! If it is true that tradition points out the dual role of doctor and judge for confessors, we must never forget that as a doctor he is called to heal and as a judge, to absolve. (Address to participants of a “Course on the Internal Forum” on March 27, 2015)
May confessors not ask useless questions, but like the father in the parable, interrupt the speech prepared ahead of time by the prodigal son, so that confessors will learn to accept the plea for help and mercy pouring from the heart of every penitent. In short, confessors are called to be a sign of the primacy of mercy always, everywhere, and in every situation, no matter what. (MV, 17)
On the other hand a priest must not confuse mercy with leniency. “Taking both God and the penitent seriously”, the Holy Father explained to seminarians, “means not pretending that nothing the person confesses is really a sin. Too often people confuse being merciful with being lenient. Saying ‘Oh, go on, that’s not a sin’ is just as bad as insisting over and over, ‘but the law says this’. … Neither response takes the penitent by the hand and accompanies him or her on the journey of conversion.”
In regards to offering Confession, the Holy Father stressed strongly the importance that Confession be generously and faithfully offered to the people and take preference over other activities:
If Reconciliation transmits the new life of the Risen Lord and renews baptismal grace, then your task is to give it generously to others. A priest who does not attend to this part of his ministry, both in the amount of time spent and in the spiritual quality, is like a shepherd who does not take care of the sheep that were lost; he is like a father who forgets the lost son and neglects waiting for him. But mercy is the heart of the Gospel! Don’t forget this: mercy is the heart of the Gospel! It is the good news that God loves us that He always loves the sinner, and with this love draws him to Himself and invites him to conversion. (Address to participants of a “Course on the Internal Forum” on March 27, 2015)
Let us pray in this Year of Mercy…
As Popes John Paul II and Francis state: the time in which we live is a time of mercy! But let us be clear: the mercy of God must find open and contrite hearts. Without a renewal of the frequent practice of confession, the faithful will not be able to be light and salt in the world, but will rather become a further insipid part of the world. All the efforts of bishop conferences, committees and activities of the faithful undertaken without sincere conversion will render to nothing.
In this Holy Year of Mercy we ask our readers and participants in the Crusade for Priests program, to pray especially that priests heed the Holy Father’s appeal to rediscover and experience the beauty of Sacrament of Mercy in their own lives. Let’s pray that immature priests may learn to embrace their penitents with the truly merciful heart of the Good Shepherd being neither rigid nor lax. Let us pray that they do not get discouraged when the confession lines are short, but pray fervently for the conversion of their parishioners and continue to make themselves generously available in spite of their busy schedules. We pray also that bishops and priests be not afraid to speak out to the faithful about the seriousness of sin and that it ought not to be trivialized.
Let us pray for all the faithful that they, too, may regain a strong sense and horror of sin and humbly rediscover the greatness and beauty of being forgiven in the Sacrament of Mercy. Let us pray that we ourselves may also encounter profoundly the Mercy of God thus finding the peace of mind and soul which the Sacrament of Confession imparts and for which there is no substitute. And, finally, let us never forget to pray for and to thank our own confessors!
Fr. Wolfgang Seitz
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