Priest Of God, You Embody The Mystery Of Mercy!
Dear Brother Priests,
I hope that you will find this booklet entitled: "Priest of God, you embody the Mystery of Mercy!" useful. It was prepared by this Congregation for World Day of Prayer for the Sanctification of Priests (that is to be celebrated on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus).
This subject is the follow up to the Holy Father's Letter, addressed to us on Holy Thursday, on the Sacrament of Reconciliation as fundamental for sanctification.
His Letter urged us to rediscover our priesthood as a mystery of mercy and this encouraged us to reflect on the centrality of God's mercy. We will do so by commenting on the salient passages of the Holy Father's Letter, in the light of the Word of God and of Christian experience.
Is not the way of merciful love the most direct and simple route to holiness, as countless saints have shown us?
The Great Jubilee impressed on our hearts a deeper desire for reconciliation with the Lord and with one another. This is the most concrete fruit that has been noted even by those who are not believers. Today there is a widespread need to make smooth the lives devastated by conflicts. On all sides we pray for peace; and the Gospel testifies that peace is a fruit of forgiveness, receiving and giving pardon.
The risen Lord brings each one of us the inexhaustible gift of his pardon. He shows us his wounds (cf. Jn 20, 20) to invite us to trust in his indescribable love for us. He spared no efforts to relieve us of our miseries. There are times when each one of us feels like Thomas, Doubting Thomas, but Thomas who becomes an adorer of the Lord God after experiencing his mercy (cf. Jn 20,27-29). A conversion took place in him, which Jesus wants to work in us, in accord with our faith in the great power of his mercy.
In the sacrament of pardon, we find the place par excellence where we can experience divine mercy. This sacrament is entrusted to us so that, as priests, we may have a personal experience of it, imitating the Apostles who meet the Risen Lord in the Upper Room (cf. Jn 20, 19-23).
Let us be renewed, resolving to make our own confession regularly and to show heroic availability in the confessions of others.
Let us be the faithful ones and apostles of confession, well aware that no new evangelization will be possible unless we can make our confessionals flourish anew, for from there flow rivers of regenerating mercy, of peace and love.
The Holy Father's words invite us to do this: "It is wonderful to be able to confess our sins, and to hear as a balm the word which floods us with mercy and sends us on our way again. Only those who have known the Father's tender embrace, as the Gospel describes it in the parable of the Prodigal Son — 'he embraced him and kissed him' (Lk 15, 20) — only they can pass on to others the same warmth, when after receiving pardon themselves they administer it to others" (Letter of John Paul II to Priests for Holy Thursday 2001, n. 10).
It could be said that the vision of how boundless the Father's mercy is, is contained in the Gospel passage of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (cf. Lk 15, 11-32). The extraordinary parable enfolds the whole of humanity, guilty of great sins but consoled with the absolute gratuitousness of divine love, which, in contact with the sin of the world, reveals itself as merciful love.
If, per absurdum, we never had any experience of divine mercy, how could we be in living communion with the Father who is rich in mercy? We would not be living branches, but withered and cut off from the vine (cf. Jn 15, 6).
The priestly vocation thrives like a branch that is firmly attached to the vine that is Christ (cf. Jn 15, 5); that is its essence "alter Christus"! Through this vine flows a life-giving sap: the Father's mercy. Without mercy souls become as parched land on which the desert relentlessly encroaches, devouring hope, and the human heart resembles a lonely and dark cave.
Instead, the risen Jesus wants to enter our lives so that we are all humanly and spiritually imbued with him, he wants to flood us priests with his kindness and compassion. The tombstone was rolled away forever by the Risen One, and the light of his mercy shines in the hearts of those who trust in him.
No one can block out this light; nothing can limit it. It shines on all persons of good will who are humbly open to the power of Jesus' merciful love that issues from his glorious wounds.
Dear priests, it is my hope for you that you may experience more deeply and ever more effectively, the goodness of the Lord who has chosen you and anointed you as his consecrated ones, and that you yourselves may be a haven of mercy for every colleague and for every person!
From the Vatican, 13 May 2001
Dario Card. Castrillon Hoyos, Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy.
Dear Brother priests, in this reflection, we will comment on some paragraphs of John Paul II's Holy Thursday Letter. This will be followed by comments, which are intended to help you meditate on your vocation. You need to see yourselves immersed in divine mercy which brought you forth as priests and which constantly nourishes and sustains your every step towards heaven, to which you guide the souls entrusted to your care.
The Gospel commands us, ministers of the Gospel: "Be merciful even as your Father is merciful" (Lk 6,36). This sentence contains all our perfection: become like the heavenly Father! "Be perfect even as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5, 48).
God's mercy is his perfection and must also become our priestly perfection.
"The Church lives an authentic life when she professes and proclaims mercy — the most stupendous attribute of the Creator and of the Redeemer — and when she brings people close to the sources of the Saviour's mercy, of which she is the trustee and dispenser" (Dives in Misericordia, n. 13).
"To bring people close to the sources of the Saviour's mercy": is this not perhaps your sublime task?
May these pages help you to have an ever-deeper desire to glorify God, in glorifying his infinite mercy.
1. Priest: You Are Precious In God's Eyes
"I am also thinking of the work you do every day, work that is often hidden and, without making headlines, causes the kingdom of God to advance in people's minds and hearts. I want you to know of my admiration for this ministry, discreet, tenacious and creative, even if it is sometimes watered by those tears of the soul, which only God sees and 'stores in his bottle' (cf. Ps 56,8). Your ministry is all the more admirable when it is tested by the resistance of a widely secularized environment, which subjects priestly activity to the temptations of fatigue and discouragement. You well know that such daily commitment is precious in the eyes of God" (n. 3).
How precious in the eyes of God is your work: not primarily for what you do, but for what you are. Indeed, as priests we are Christ, truly and forever. This sometimes almost strikes us with fear, the fear of finding ourselves in front of something so great, too great for a mere man. This is why, several times, the Lord offered to the first ones he called the encouragement he offers us: "Take heart, it is I; have no fear" (Mt 14, 27).
"Have no fear, it is I", the Lord's words must penetrate you, especially in times of hardship and discouragement, you must let them live within you until your conscience recognizes that they are addressed to you and not just to the Apostles long ago.
Taking care of your own interiority must always remain your priority. It is the primacy of "being" over "doing".
2. Authenticity Of Witness
"I wish to echo the voice of Christ who continuously calls us to deepen our relationship with him. 'Behold, I stand at the door and knock' (Apoc 3, 20). Chosen to proclaim Christ, we are first of all invited to live in intimacy with him: we cannot give to others what we ourselves do not have! There is a thirst for Christ, which, despite many appearances to the contrary, emerges even in contemporary society; it is present among all the inconsistencies of new forms of spirituality; it can be seen even where, on important ethical issues, the Church's witness becomes a sign of contradiction.
This thirst for Christ — whether conscious or not — cannot be quenched with empty words. Only authentic witnesses can communicate in a credible way the word that saves" (n. 3).
The Apostles had the essential experience of the risen Lord, accepting his merciful love and becoming its witnesses. Like Thomas, you too are invited to "put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless but believing" (cf. Jn 20, 27).
What other source than God's mercy can quench the thirst of a priest's heart?
The image of Christ who sits down beside the well and waits for the Samaritan woman (cf. Jn 4, 6), could also apply to you, who like Christ, are patiently waiting for creatures in order to quench their thirst with him, and at the same time are like the Samaritan woman who goes to Christ to find the water of true happiness, which flows from confidence in the Master's Word.
Only in this personal encounter with Jesus Christ can we priests quench our thirst, and in turn quench the thirst of others: "If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, 'Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water'" (Jn 7, 37-38).
3. Sacramental Reconciliation
"From among the many aspects of this encounter, today I would like to choose for this reflection the theme of sacramental reconciliation" (n. 4).
A great mystic, the first saint to be canonized during the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, the humble Polish sister, St Faustina Kowalska, the "apostle of Divine Mercy", as John Paul II called her, received from the risen Lord an extraordinary and particularly up-to-date message, revealed to her between the two World Wars, which the Holy Father expressly presented to the generation of the new millennium: "the light of divine mercy, which the Lord in a way wished to return to the world through Sr Faustina's charism, will illumine the way for the men and women of the third millennium" (Homily for the beatification of Sr Faustina Kowalska, 30 April 2000).
In this message, Jesus speaks to St Faustina of the miracle of divine mercy, which takes place in the sacrament of Reconciliation: "Write, speak of my mercy. Tell souls where they are to look for solace; that is, in the Tribunal of Mercy. There the greatest miracles take place [and] are constantly repeated. To avail oneself of this miracle, it is not necessary to go on a great pilgrimage or to carry out some external ceremony; it suffices to come with faith to the feet of my representative and to reveal to him one's misery, and the miracle of Divine Mercy will be fully demonstrated. Were a soul like a decaying corpse so that humanly there would be no [hope of] restoration and everything would already be lost, it is not so with God. The miracle of Divine Mercy restores that soul in full. Oh, how miserable are those who do not take advantage of the miracle of God's mercy! You will call out in vain but it will be too late", (Diary, Notebook V, n. 1448).
In the Letter on which we are reflecting, the Pope does not conceal the fact that this sacrament has undergone a certain crisis in recent decades. However, during the Great Jubilee there were encouraging signs of the revival of the practice of confession. The Holy Father invites you to understand its pastoral importance, but his attention does not stop here at your action, as a pastor among God's flock entrusted to your care; he places the emphasis on your being, on your personal sanctification, and invites you to see in the sacrament of Reconciliation the royal way for you to be clothed with the holiness of Christ's priesthood, a holiness of which you feel unworthy but which in fact belongs to you!
4. The Priest, A Mystery Of Mercy
"So, as we gaze upon Christ at the Last Supper, as he becomes for us the 'bread that is broken', as he stoops down in humble service at the feet of the Apostles, how can we not experience, together with Peter, the same feeling of unworthiness in the face of the greatness of the gift received? 'You shall never wash my feet' (Jn 13, 8). Peter was wrong to reject Christ's gesture. But he was right to feel unworthy of it. It is important, on this day of love par excellence, that we should feel the grace of the priesthood as a superabundance of mercy.
Mercy is the absolutely free initiative by which God has chosen us: 'You did not choose me but I chose you' (Jn 15, 16).
Mercy is his deigning to call us to act as his representatives, though he knows that we are sinners.
Mercy is the forgiveness, which he never refuses us, as he did not refuse it to Peter after his betrayal. The avowal that 'there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance' (Lk 15, 7) also holds true for us" (n. 6).
The Priesthood is the indescribable mystery of divine mercy! How often the Apostles must have meditated upon it, remembering their Master, his words and parables, his gestures and prayer for them . . . and the new commandment: "Even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (Jn 13, 34-35).
God's mercy must flood your life, beginning with your thoughts, and the interior attitudes that give rise to the exterior ones. To be able to say with St Paul "We have the mind of Christ" (I Cor 2, 16), means being merciful in one's own thoughts, intentions and actions, in one's words and in one's deeds. In the words of the Gospel, it means being converted to Christ, like children (cf. Mt 18, 3).
5. The Spiritual Attitude Of Peter
"Let us then rediscover our vocation as a 'mystery of mercy'. In the Gospel we find that Peter receives his special ministry with precisely this spiritual attitude. His experience is indicative for all those who have received the apostolic task in the different grades of the sacrament of Orders" (n. 7).
Peter, like Paul and the other Apostles, was the perfect work of God's infinite mercy. He himself understood well the mystery of mercy of his priestly vocation, which inspired him to write words like these:
"So put away all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and all slander. Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation; for you have tasted the kindness of the Lord" (I Pt 2, 1-3).
If in truth we have tasted the Lord's kindness, then we will grow and we will overflow with mercy, as the Holy Father never tires of pointing out to us.
6. 'On The Words Of Jesus'
"Our thoughts turn to the scene of the miraculous catch of fish as described in the Gospel of Luke (5,1-11). Jesus asks Peter for an act of trust in his word, inviting him to put out into the deep for a catch. A disconcerting request, humanly speaking: after a sleepless and exhausting night spent casting the nets with no result, how could one believe him? But trying again, 'at Jesus' word', changes everything. The fish arrive in such quantities as to tear the nets. The Word reveals his power. The result is wonder, but also fear and trembling, as when we are unexpectedly struck by an intense beam of light, which lays bare all our personal limits. Peter exclaims: 'Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord' (Lk 5,8). But scarcely has he uttered his admission when the Master's mercy becomes for him the beginning of new life: 'Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men' (Lk 5,10). The 'sinner' becomes a minister of mercy. From a fisher of fish to a 'fisher of men'!" (n. 7).
Which of us has not recognized himself at least once in Peter's all too human act? The one who has primacy in governing the Church, must also enjoy the primacy in mercy. Jesus makes him experience this in a mysterious way; he allows Peter, the first of the Apostles, to deny him (cf. Lk 22, 54-62).
The Apostle who has received the Lord's greatest confidence is also the one who publicly denies this confidence and goes through the painful experience of sin. He had just been consecrated by Christ and already he was unfaithful to him.
How can we not see in Peter our own misery, which the omnipotence of God wants to convert into virtue through his mercy? Human pride, which separates us from God with sin, once it is confessed and given over to Jesus, is repaired by him: "where sin increased, grace abounded all the more" (Rom 5, 20).
7. 'Lord, You Know Everything; You Know That I Love You'
"Dear priests, this is a great mystery: Christ was not afraid to choose his ministers from among sinners. Is not this our own experience? It is Peter once again who will become more aware of this in his touching dialogue with Jesus after the Resurrection. Before entrusting him with the mandate to care for the flock, the Master asks the embarrassing question: 'Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?' (Jn 21, 15). The one being questioned is the very man who a few days earlier had denied him three times. It is easy to understand the humble tone of his reply: 'Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you' (Jn 21, 17). And it is on the basis of this love, which knows all too well its own frailty, a love professed with both trust and hesitation, that Peter receives the commission: 'Feed my lambs', 'feed my sheep' (Jn 21, 15.16.17). It will be on the basis of this love, strengthened by the fire of Pentecost, that Peter will be able to accomplish the ministry entrusted to him" (n. 8).
What courage do we not gain from Peter's weakness, which makes the splendour of God's mercy shine all the more and does not disappoint man, who is otherwise tempted to believe that he could manage on his own. "Without me you can do nothing" (Jn 15, 5); the Lord also repeats this to you today; he offers you the fullness of his mercy, so that you may be a fruitful branch grafted onto him who is the vine, to bear fruit in abundance.
"Our attention focuses on the gesture of the Master, who transmits to the fearful, astounded disciples the mission of being ministers of divine Mercy. He shows them his hands and his side, which bear the marks of the Passion, and tells them: 'As the Father has sent me, even so I send you' (Jn 20,21). Immediately afterwards 'he breathed on them, and said to them, <<Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained>>' (Jn 20, 22-23). Jesus entrusted to them the gift of 'forgiving sins', a gift that flows from the wounds in his hands, his feet, and especially from his pierced side. From there a wave of mercy is poured out over all humanity . . . Today the Lord also shows us his glorious wounds and his heart, an inexhaustible source of light and truth, of love and forgiveness" (John Paul II, Homily for the Second Sunday of Easter, 22 April 2001).
The Holy Father spoke so movingly in the homily he gave on 22 April 2001, the Second Sunday of Easter, celebrated as the "feast of Divine Mercy" (Regina Coeli, 22 April 2001). John Paul II had in fact proclaimed the Second Sunday of Easter as "Divine Mercy Sunday" for the entire Church (Homily of 30 April 2000). In his message to St Faustina Kowalska, Jesus promised for this Sunday that: "on that day the very depths of my tender mercy are open. I pour out a whole ocean of graces upon those souls who approach the fount of my mercy. The soul that will go to Confession and receive Holy Communion shall obtain complete pardon of sins and punishment. On that day all the divine floodgates through which grace flows are opened. Let no soul fear to draw near to me, even though its sins be scarlet" (Diary, Notebook II, n. 699).
From the pierced side of Christ there flowed blood and water (cf. Jn 19, 34). It was in contemplating this overwhelming torrent of mercy that John found the strength to remain faithful to the Lord. This is why he believed in the Lord's Resurrection before Peter (cf. Jn 20, 8), and later recognized him on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, saying "it is the Lord", when he could make him out in the distance (cf. Jn 21, 7).
John, imitating the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Jesus, let himself be conquered by Christ's merciful love, which he had not resisted. John had learned to trust in the word of the Master, his attitude had become childlike, just as the Lord had asked his followers: "unless you are converted and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 18, 3).
The same thing also happens to us. Those whose hearts are filled with trust in the Lord will rapidly penetrate God's heart, discern with simplicity the countless signs of his love and presence, perceive his wishes and fulfil them, with him. Others, even though they experience human frailty, do not know how to confess their love to the Lord with trust and trembling, but remain excluded from it. For them it is as if Christ had never left the tomb, had never risen and could not enclose them with the power of his Resurrection. Today too, history repeats itself: Christ reveals the power of his mercy only to those who abandon themselves unconditionally to him.
This is why, for some of us, it is so difficult to have the transforming experience of God's mercy, which the Apostles had of the Risen Christ. This great and authentic experience, which the Apostles had of the Risen Christ, if it has not become yours, must become your own experience.
8. Enfolded In Mercy
"And is it not within an experience of mercy that Paul's vocation too is born? No one experienced the gratuitousness of Christ's choice as vividly as he did. His past as a ferocious persecutor of the Church seared itself deep into his soul: 'I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God' (I Cor 15, 9). Yet, far from stifling his enthusiasm, this memory made it soar. The more he was embraced by mercy, the more Paul felt the need to bear witness to it and to let it shine forth in his life" (n. 9).
Mercy is not something, but Someone: Jesus Christ, as John Paul II says (cf. Redemptor hominis, n. 9). You can understand mercy only if you experience him in your life. This experience, as it was for Peter and Paul, is primarily called "reconciliation", "pardon". Christ is the Door, since he is the Father's mercy incarnate, to introduce us into the mystery of the kingdom of God.
As did Peter and Paul, God also wants us to soar on the wings of enthusiasm for the extraordinary ministry of reconciliation that has been entrusted to us, with sacramental confession, not by virtue of our merits, but by virtue of the overflowing charity of Christ's heart.
How precious, above all for us priests, are Jesus' words: "Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. 'Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back'" (Lk 6, 36-38).
9. All Is Grace!
"Dear priests, the witness of Peter and Paul contains valuable pointers for us. Their lives invite us to live the gift of the ministry with a sense of endless thanksgiving: nothing is due to our merits, all is grace! The experience of the two Apostles prompts us to abandon ourselves to the mercy of God, to give over to him in sincere repentance our frailties, and with his grace to set out again on our journey to holiness" (n. 10).
Perhaps we have neglected prayer, the fundamental part, even the supporting structure of our being and acting. Prayer becomes adoration, thanksgiving, invocation, meditation, examination of conscience, praise to God for all the benefits received, benefits that are forgotten if the songs of praise and blessing do not live on in our hearts. The Psalms overflow with them, such as those written by David, another apostle of God's mercy who praised him in these words:
"Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, 0 my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's . . . The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love . . . He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us . . . " (Ps 103 , 1-5.8.10-13).
Could not David have been lost forever, after his great sin? Was it not because he rediscovered divine mercy that he returned to God repentant like the prodigal son?
Dear brother priests, you must take heart, the Pope is repeating to you in the name of Christ, "do not be afraid". Learn to look at your infidelities in the perspective of God's mercy, because it is only in confidence and in the acceptance of his forgiveness that you will find the strength to fall no longer into the same sins. In this way, the words of the Apostle John will be perfectly fulfilled in your lives: "You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins" (I Jn 3, 5-6).
Does not abiding in him mean always trusting in his merciful love?
"So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. In this is love perfected with us, that we may have confidence . . . " (I Jn 4, 16-17).
10. Rediscovering The Sacrament Of Reconciliation
"In Novo Millennio ineunte I indicated the commitment to holiness as the first element of all wise pastoral 'planning'. It is the basic task of all believers, so how much more must it be for us (cf. nn. 30-31)! For this very reason it is important for us to rediscover the sacrament of Reconciliation as a fundamental means of our sanctification. Approaching a brother priest in order to ask for the absolution that we so often give to the faithful enables us to live the great and consoling truth that, before being ministers, we are all members of the same people, a 'saved' people" (n. 10).
Sometimes, even we priests travel far to seek solutions to existential problems, which instead are within our reach. Is not the "problem" of becoming holy an existential one?
The Holy Father gives us the priceless gift of confirming us in the faith for all that concerns the sacrament of Reconciliation, which, as he says, is "a fundamental means for our sanctification".
What is more simple than receiving Jesus' gratuitous forgiveness and making it overflow in our priestly life? The Pope invites us to seek it frequently in sacramental confession, for which, at times, either we do not have time or we reduce to something we do superficially, improperly prepared, just like many of the routine confessions we hear.
11. The Tenderness Of The Father's Embrace
"It is wonderful to be able to confess our sins, and to hear as a balm the word which floods us with mercy and sends us on our way again. Only those who have known the Father's tender embrace, as the Gospel describes it in the parable of the Prodigal Son — 'he embraced him and kissed him' (Lk 15, 20) — only they can pass on to others the same warmth, when after receiving pardon themselves they administer it to others" (n. 10).
It certainly cannot happen for us priests to become like the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son; he was always in the Father's House, served him and made the effort to carry out the orders he was given, but had no experience of the Father's goodness. He was sceptical, he could not believe that the Father was so good, of an incredible goodness (cf. Lk 15, 28-29). Yet he had always lived with him and was under the illusion that he knew him!
One day Jesus would say to just such an "elder brother": "Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little" (Lk 7, 44-47).
12. With The Heart Of Christ Himself
"Dear priests, let us make regular use of this sacrament, that the Lord may constantly purify our hearts and make us less unworthy of the mysteries which we celebrate. Since we are called to show forth the face of the Good Shepherd, and therefore to have the heart of Christ himself, we more than others must make our own the Psalmist's ardent cry: 'A pure heart create for me, O God, put a steadfast spirit within me' (Ps 51, 12). The sacrament of Reconciliation, essential for every Christian life, is especially a source of support, guidance and healing for the priestly life" (n. 11).
Priest of God, you embody the mystery of mercy! You are an expert of the Gospel, become an expert in the overflowing forgiveness it reveals!
"The priest who fully experiences the joy of sacramental reconciliation will find it altogether normal to repeat to his brothers and sisters the words of Paul: 'So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God' (II Cor 5, 20)" (n. 12).
Continuing his Letter, after recalling the crisis that confession is going through which is due to many factors, the first of which is a diminished sense of sin, the Holy Father extends an invitation to us:
* * *
"Perhaps we should also recognize that another factor sometimes working against the sacrament has been a certain dwindling of our own enthusiasm and availability for the exercise of this delicate and demanding ministry. Conversely, now more than ever the People of God must be helped to rediscover the sacrament. We need to declare with firmness and conviction that the sacrament of Penance is the ordinary means of obtaining pardon and the remission of grave sins committed after Baptism. We ought to celebrate the sacrament in the best possible way, according to the forms laid down by liturgical law, so that it may lose none of its character as the celebration of God's mercy" (n. 12).
To celebrate of God's mercy! What a beautiful way of describing what happens in the secrecy of every confessional. How often you will have experienced it, either in administering the sacrament of Reconciliation or in receiving it yourselves, from the hands of a fellow priest. The remission of sins cannot be obtained by any human institution. Only the Church, founded by Christ on Peter, the rock, hence of divine institution, has the power to forgive sins. The list of those who have defended the divine prerogative of the sacrament of Reconciliation down the ages, even at the cost of their life, is a very long one. We have martyrs of the Eucharist and those of Confession, such as, for example, St John Nepomuc.
Unfortunately, secularization and religious indifference also seek to undermine the foundations of this sacrament. As the Vicar of Christ himself reminds us, at times there is a temptation to diminish it, causing it to lose its primary and fundamental transcendental dimension: to confess one's sins as a repentant sinner, to receive pardon from the Lord and with his pardon, sanctifying grace. Being reconciled to God in order to live reconciled to our brothers and sisters, to have interior peace in order to become peacemakers ourselves.
13. Minister Of Reconciliation
"Obviously sacramental confession is not to be confused with a support system or with psychotherapy. But neither should we underestimate the fact that the sacrament of Reconciliation, when correctly celebrated, also has a 'humanizing' effect, which is in perfect harmony with its primary purpose of reconciling the individual with God and the Church (n. 13).
Here too, it is important that the minister of reconciliation should fulfill his role correctly. His ability to be welcoming, to be a good listener and to engage in dialogue, together with his ready accessibility, is essential if the ministry of reconciliation is to be seen in all its value" (n. 13).
Of course, dear priest friends, it is true that much is asked of you. You need great patience, attention, discretion and above all infinite compassion and goodness. But is it not true that Jesus' recompense is superabundant? How often you have experienced it in the confessional! At every absolution the Lord also gives you who are administering it in his name a share in the joy for every sinner who is converted that wells up from his heart (cf. Lk 15, 10).
How often were you yourselves helped in the effort of conversion precisely by hearing the confessions of your penitents? Or what solace to your priestly heart to hear the confession of children, even those who are preparing to receive First Communion. One feels the same heartfelt joy that Jesus felt before their innocence.
"Let the children come to me, do not hinder them" (Mk 10, 14); this also applies for the confession of children, which impresses on their clear consciences, the gentleness of God's mercy, and enables them to taste the joy of forgiveness, for which they too feel the need.
14. Reconciliation, Mystery Of Christ And Of The Church
"The liturgical form of the sacrament also needs to be given due attention. The sacrament forms part of the structure of communion, which is the mark of the Church. Sin itself cannot be properly understood if it is viewed in a purely 'private' way, forgetting that it inevitably affects the entire community and lowers the level of holiness within it. Moreover, the offer of forgiveness expresses a mystery of supernatural solidarity, since its sacramental significance rests on the profound union between Christ the Head and the members of his Body (n. 14).
It is extremely important to help people recover this 'community' aspect of the sacrament, also by means of community penance services, which conclude with individual confession and absolution. This manner of celebration enables the faithful to appreciate better the twofold dimension of reconciliation, and commits them more effectively to following the penitential path in all its revitalizing richness" (n. 14).
Penance services which you yourselves have organized in preparation for individual absolution and confession are a great enrichment for the community of the faithful, precisely because of their "community aspect" as the Holy Father teaches us. One more effort that is asked of everyone, and especially of you, but then the fruit is so very visible!
What a great gift it is for the whole society to have communities that are reconciled to God and in themselves. Indeed, the gift of peace flows from pardon. Where pardon is not taught, sooner or later wars break out.
15. Reconciliation And The Gospel Message
"Then there is also the fundamental problem of catechetical teaching about the moral conscience and about sin, so that people can have a clearer idea of the radical demands of the Gospel. Unfortunately, there exists a minimalist tendency, which prevents the sacrament from producing all the benefits that we might hope for. Many of the faithful have an idea of sin that is not based on the Gospel but on common convention, on what is socially 'acceptable'. This makes them feel not particularly responsible for things that 'everybody does', and all the more so if these things are permitted by civil law.
Evangelization in the third millennium must come to grips with the urgent need for a presentation of the Gospel message, which is dynamic, complete and demanding. The Christian life to be aimed at cannot be reduced to a mediocre commitment to 'goodness' as society defines it; it must be a true quest for holiness" (n. 15).
The Gospel must become once again the one yardstick by which to measure our intentions and actions. Only in this way will the holiness that the Holy Father so strongly promotes in his tireless apostolic ministry, flourish among Christians and through his beatifications and canonizations.
Only the Gospel gives us the exact ratio between sin and grace, sin and forgiveness. Indeed, Jesus came into the world to forgive our sins.
Perhaps once, in certain quarters, God's punishment was feared, and people remained distant from his mercy, since they did not fully believe in it. Today, instead, sin is trivialized and people remain distant from God's forgiveness, because they feel no need to receive it. We are all contaminated by this mentality and Paul's words apply to us: "Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Rom 12, 2),
Fear and indifference are two temptations that weaken our confidence in divine mercy. May the Lord help us not to fall into these terrible temptations that frustrate the Blood of Christ! Even the Apostles were not spared this temptation: they were sometimes afraid or remained indifferent to Jesus' love for them. This is why, then as now, we must approach confidently the merciful Heart of God from which flows unceasingly the stream of his mercy and in front of the pierced side of Christ we can pray: "O Blood and Water, which flowed from the Heart of Jesus as a source of mercy for us, I trust in you" (St Faustina Kowalska).
16. In The Joy Of Our Ministry
"Dear Brother Priests, let us go forward in the joy of our ministry, knowing that we have at our side the One who called us and does not abandon us" (n. 16).
"What shall I render to the Lord for all that he has given to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. O Lord, I am your servant; I am your servant, the son of your handmaid. You have loosed my bonds. I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of the Lord, in your midst, O Jerusalem" (Ps 116 ,12-19).
© L'Osservatore Romano, Editorial and Management Offices, Via del Pellegrino, 00120, Vatican City, Europe, Telephone 39/6/698.99.390.
© L'Osservatore Romano, Editorial and Management Offices, Via del Pellegrino, 00120, Vatican City, Europe, Telephone 39/6/698.99.390.
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