appreciating God’s mercy in the sacrament of Penance

John Paul II forgives Mehmet Ali Agca

John Paul II forgives his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca

Have you ever showed up at a parish for confession, during the regularly scheduled time, and found that no priest was available in the confessional? It’s happened to me three times – at two different parishes – in the eight months I have lived in the archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Of course, there is no way for me to know for certain the reasons for the priest’s absence. It could be that the priest was called away due to an emergency. In other cases, maybe no one showed up at the scheduled time, but does that mean the priest should simply leave before the end of the scheduled time for confessions?

Regardless of the reasons for the vacant confessional, I will say that the impression it left with this aspiring penitent was that the celebration of the sacrament was not considered to be very important to the priests (and parishioners) at these parishes. When a parish has only two scheduled opportunities for confession each week, and then no one shows up at these times, perhaps we are witnessing a case of mutual “de-evangelization,” in which the indifference of parishioners leads to indifference of priests, and vice versa.

Maybe offering the sacrament more frequently would lead some parishioners to think: “hmm… maybe this sacrament is not just for wanton murderers.” In the Pope’s 2002 letter On Certain Aspects of the Celebration of the Sacrament of Penance, he writes:

All priests with faculties to administer the Sacrament of Penance are always to show themselves wholeheartedly disposed to administer it whenever the faithful make a reasonable request. An unwillingness to welcome the wounded sheep, and even to go out to them in order to bring them back to the fold, would be a sad sign of a lack of pastoral sensibility in those who, by priestly Ordination, must reflect the image of the Good Shepherd….

It is particularly recommended that in places of worship confessors be visibly present at the advertised times, that these times be adapted to the real circumstances of penitents, and that confessions be especially available before Masses, and even during Mass if there are other priests available, in order to meet the needs of the faithful.

The practice of making confessions available before or during Mass is also mentioned in the recent instruction on the Eucharist (Redemptionis Sacramentum, paragraph 76).

Last Friday, the Pope addressed the bishops of California, Nevada, and Hawaii and exhorted them to a renewal of the sacrament of Penance. Among other things, he noted that:

  • we are all called to a profound conversion of heart and mind
  • the credibility of the Church’s proclamation is closely tied to the holiness of her members
  • the loss of the sense of sin urgently needs to be addressed
  • recognizing oneself as a sinner is the “first and essential step in returning to the healing love of God”
  • the priest is to express the mercy of God – rather than “a mere sense of favor” – toward sinners
  • there is a need for priests to give more emphasis to the beauty and power of the sacrament of Penance

Here are some of my favorite passages from last Friday’s address:

The courage to face the crisis of the loss of the sense of sin, to which I alerted the whole Church early in my Pontificate (cf. Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 18), must be addressed today with particular urgency. While the effects of sin abound – greed, dishonesty and corruption, broken relationships and exploitation of persons, pornography and violence – the recognition of individual sinfulness has waned. In its place a disturbing culture of blame and litigiousness has arisen which speaks more of revenge than justice and fails to acknowledge that in every man and woman there is a wound which, in the light of faith, we call original sin (cf. ibid., 2).

Saint John tells us: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 Jn 1:8). Sin is an integral part of the truth about the human person. To recognize oneself as a sinner is the first and essential step in returning to the healing love of God. Given this reality, the Bishop’s duty to indicate the sad and destructive presence of sin, both in individuals and in communities, is in fact a service of hope. Far from being something negative, it strengthens believers to abandon evil and embrace the perfection of love and the fullness of Christian life. Let us boldly announce that indeed we are not the sum total of our weaknesses and failures! We are the sum of the Father’s love for us, and capable of becoming the image of his Son!….

We all can be lured by the temptation to separate ourselves from the Father and thus suffer loss of dignity, humiliation and shame, but equally so we all can have the courage to turn back to the Father who embraces us with a love which, transcending even justice, manifests itself as mercy….

Christ, who reveals the abounding mercy of God, demands the same of us, even when confronted with grievous sin. Indeed mercy “constitutes the fundamental content of the messianic message of Christ and the constitutive power of his mission” (ibid., 6) and thus can never be set aside in the name of pragmatism. It is precisely the father’s fidelity to the merciful love proper to him as a father that sees him restore the filial relationship of his son who “was lost and is found” (Lk 15:32). As pastors of your flock it is with this merciful love – never a mere sense of favor – that you too must “reach down to every prodigal son, to every human misery, and above all to every form of moral misery, to sin” (Dives in Misericordia, 6). In this way you will draw good from evil, restore life from death, revealing anew the authentic face of the Father’s mercy so necessary in our times.

Dear Brothers, I particularly wish to encourage you in your promotion of the Sacrament of Penance. As a divinely instituted means by which the Church offers the pastoral activity of reconciliation, it is “the only ordinary way for the faithful to reconcile themselves with God and the Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1484). Though it cannot be denied that the profound power of this Sacrament is often considered today with indifference it is also the case that young people in particular readily give testimony to the graces and transforming benefits it bestows. Strengthened by this encouraging message I again appeal directly to you and to your priests: arm yourselves with more confidence, creativity and perseverance in presenting it and leading people to appreciate it (cf. Novo Millennio Ineunte, 37). Time spent in the confessional is time spent in service of the spiritual patrimony of the Church and the salvation of souls (cf. Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 29)

As Bishops, it is of special importance for you to have frequent recourse to the Sacrament of Reconciliation in order to obtain the gift of that mercy of which you yourselves have been made ministers (cf. Pastores Gregis, 13 ). Since you are called to show forth the face of the Good Shepherd, and therefore to have the heart of Christ himself, you more than others must make your own the Psalmist’s ardent cry: “A pure heart create for me, O God, put a steadfast spirit within me” (Ps 51:12). Sanctified by the graces received in your regular reception of the sacrament, I am confident that you will encourage your brother priests and indeed all the faithful to discover anew the full beauty of this sacrament.

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