Eucharist And Confession: Set Out Anew From God's Mercy To Rediscover Priestly Identity
by Congregation for the Clergy
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For the World Day of Prayer for the Sanctification of Priests 2002, the Congregation for the Clergy prepared a spiritual reflection on the Holy Father's Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday 2002 on the topic "Eucharist and Confession". The reflection brings together key points of John Paul II's other Letters to Priests for Holy Thursday of 2000 and 2001, which concentrated on these sacraments. The first part of the reflection develops the Holy Father's Letters. In the second part the Congregation has gathered passages from Scripture, the Fathers and the Saints as suggestions for a lectio divina. On the Website (www.clerus.org) on e can find the original Italian text. The bishops are free to reproduce this text as they see fit. The Day for the Sanctification can be celebrated on the date that is best for a diocese or country. Officially, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, Friday, 7 June 2002 was the intended day. That day was chosen because the feast of the Sacred Heart celebrates God's merciful love, that becomes tangible for priests in the Eucharistic Mystery, which they celebrate daily, and in the sacramental pardon, which they administer and receive. As happens now, other groups can join together to pray for the fruitfulness of the Day for the Sanctification including: parish communities, the seminary, cloistered orders, institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life as well as the movements, associations, prayer groups, confraternities and the various ecclesial bodies. Here is an English translation of the Congregation's reflection.
Dear Priest Friends,
The World Day for the Sanctification of Priests 2002 takes its inspiration from the theme of John Paul II's Letters to Priests for Holy Thursday 2000, 2001, and 2002, which have focused our attention on the mystery of the Eucharist and Confession.
These are the two sacraments in which we as ordained ministers experience, in a particular and personal way, the inexpressible, merciful love of God the Father for us and for all of humanity.
Eucharist And Reconciliation
The sacraments of the Eucharist and Confession are truly the heart of our priesthood. In fact, God the Father entrusts himself to priests in a unique way, when through our ministry in the Mass, he gives to us his Son Jesus who gives Himself to all with his Body and Blood: "poured out for you and for all" (Mt 26, 28; Mk 14, 24; Lk 22,20).
How many times in the celebration of the Divine Sacrifice have we pronounced these sacred words, overcome by a certain fearful amazement at the confidence that the Lord has in us, as he calls us to immerse our misery and poverty in his Blood, which daily is "poured out for us and for all".
Return To The Cenacle
We cannot rediscover our priestly identity without returning to its Eucharistic source in the Upper Room, where the priesthood began. During the Great Jubilee the Holy Father reminded us of this: "We must never cease meditating anew on the mystery of that night. We should often return in spirit to this Upper Room, where we priests especially can feel, in a sense, "at home". With regard to the Upper Room, it could be said of us what the Psalmist says of the peoples with regard to Jerusalem: 'In the register of peoples, the Lord will write: These were born here'" (Ps 86, 6) (Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday 2000, n. 3).
In the sacrament of Reconciliation, the Father and the Son give us the Holy Spirit for the remission of sins, and they do so through the action of the Church, by means of the priest. Therefore, in the act of Confession, for the faithful and more so for us, the ministers of Reconciliation, the action of the Spirit of God becomes particularly tangible, calling us to a special intimacy of intention and action with him. The minister of Confession is the representative of divine Forgiveness in the confessional; the extent to which the penitent is able to contemplate the merciful face of Jesus and taste the joy of reconciliation, as the Holy Father points out, depends on him:
In other words and this is a great responsibility God counts on us, on our availability and fidelity, in order to work his wonders in human hearts. In the celebration of this sacrament, perhaps even more than in the others, it is important that the faithful have an intense experience of the face of Christ the Good Shepherd" (Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday 2002, n. 4).
St Paul uses the term "ambassadors" to sum up our wonderful and freely received ministry: "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).
Justice Itself Requires Mercy
Today, the Church and humanity feel the need for mercy, purification and peace. There is a great demand for justice, but justice can never be separated from forgiveness. Justice without mercy would not be the justice of God but only a human justice, which could never resolve the many individual, communal, national, and international conflicts that can only be overcome by a great infusion of mercy.
We priests are among the first to be warmly invited by Christ and his Vicar on earth, the Pope, to go back to drinking deeply at the spring of Divine Mercy, which flows in superabundance from the sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation. "Christ must be our point of departure in rediscovering the source and the profound rationale of our brotherhood: 'As I have loved you, you also must love one another'" (Jn 13,34) (Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday 2001, n. 2).
If for some strange reason we were not to do so, we would find ourselves more deeply immersed in darkness, in an obscure ethical confusion and spiritual impotence in the face of a wave of evil, which could risk overwhelming us if not halted and overcome by the wave of Divine Mercy.
We Must Bring Divine Mercy To The World
On this score, on 30 April 2000, Divine Mercy Sunday, in his homily for the canonization of the Polish sister, St Faustina Kowalska, the Pope quoted from her diary: "Jesus told Sr Faustina: 'Humanity will not find peace until it turns trustfully to divine mercy'" (Diary, 300). In his homily, the Holy Father continued with prophetic foresight: "What will the years ahead bring us? . . . It is certain that in addition to new progress there will unfortunately be no lack of painful experiences. But 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. However, as the Apostles once did, today too humanity must welcome into the upper room of history the risen Christ, who shows the wounds of His Crucifixion and repeats: Peace be with you! Humanity must let itself be touched and pervaded by the Spirit given to it by the risen Christ. It is the Spirit who heals the wounds of the heart, pulls down the barriers that separate us from God and divide us from one another, and at the same time, restores the joy of the Father's love and of fraternal unity" (John Paul II, Homily, 30 April 2000, ORE, 3 May 2000, p. 1).
If we proclaim today Jesus' appeal to "trust in divine mercy", as the Pope so much stresses in our time, then we will realize that it is primarily priests, who are called to allow themselves to be transformed in spirit by the Spirit (of forgiveness) whom the Risen Lord gives us so we can become for all a sign of God's forgiveness (cf. Jn 20,19-23). Without forgiveness, the fruit of mercy, peace would be reduced to being a mere pipedream and, in its place, vengeance and retaliation would ultimately prevail.
Christ's Will For Us: Mercy, Pardon, Reconciliation
Only Christ's commandment: "Love one another as I have loved you" (Jn 13,34) and "love your enemies" (Lk 6,27), is capable of reconciling us to God, or reconciling man with himself and with his neighbour. This is the force of Christianity mercy and forgiveness that no other religion knows as well.
This dynamic and ever active energy that flows from Christ's Redemption is granted to humanity above all through the priestly ministry. Only the priest can celebrate the Eucharist and administer the sacrament of Pardon! Even if, at times, we can be deeply discouraged by the world's indifference, which can even become hostility to the Church, we must not forget that our society thirsts for the forgiveness and peace which the risen Christ has come to bring and which has its source in Him alone. The Holy Father speaks a profound truth in this regard, when he asks us to reflect on the nature of Christ's message:
"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" (Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday 2001, n. 3).
Frequent Confession, Spiritual Retreats, Eucharistic Adoration
How do we obtain the Spirit of Christ, who makes us witnesses of his gift, if we do not return to the frequent and regular practice of individual Confession, and if we do not return to the experienced and lived celebration of the Mass, prolonged in Eucharistic adoration, which must once more have a place and time in our daily schedule?
Eucharistic adoration and frequent Confession nourish the priest spiritually. They can become for him an effective repose, source of deep peace and balm of the soul. In fact, the activity, speeches, or the meetings we have attended will not save us, but the love of the Lord Jesus, whose absolute lordship must stand out in the life of every priest. From the love of the Lord comes the missionary call "omnia instaurare in Christo"! (Restore all things in Christ!). From this love we obtain the zeal that is indispensable!
The Saints of the Church readily understood and lived this spiritual reality; they have given us a written record of their fruitful experience of communion with the Lord Jesus. In his The Introduction to the Devout Life, St Francis de Sales masterfully describes the absolute necessity of regular times of spiritual retreat, for fine-tuning the soul, which he compares to a clock:
"There is no clock, no matter how good it may be, that doesn't need resetting and rewinding twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. In addition, at least once a year it must be taken apart to remove the dirt clogging it, straighten out bent parts, and repair those worn out. In like manner . . . a man who really takes care of his heart . . . at least once a year . . . must take it apart and examine every piece in detail, that is, every affection and passion, in order to repair whatever defects there may be. Again, a watchmaker oils his watch's wheels, springs, and works with delicate oil . . . So also with a devout person. After he has re-examined his heart in order to reform it, he must anoint it with the sacraments of Confession and Holy Eucharist. Such an exercise will restore your strength, which has been impaired by time, warm up your heart, bring new life to your good resolutions, and make your soul's virtues flourish with fresh vigour" (Introduction to the Devout Life, V 1).
Bishops And Priests Need To Spend Time Together In Prayer
This holy Bishop, a cherished teacher of the spiritual life, became an example for his episcopal confreres, who throughout the centuries have applied themselves dutifully to helping their worthy, indispensable collaborators, the priests, calling them "in disparte" (aside), to silence and rest to find themselves and the joy of their ministry. This is what Jesus did, by dedicating so much of his time to the personal care of his apostles, to whom, far from the crowds and work, he often explained the meaning of the Scriptures, preparing them for painful events, consoling them and strengthening their faith (cf. Mt 17,1; 20,17; Mk 10,32; Lk 10,23).
In our time, in which we feel the urgent need to reaffirm our priestly identity and spirituality, there are bishops who consider the personal care of priests as their primary pastoral priority because they realize that it is the indispensable condition for the fruitfulness of their other efforts. Accordingly, they reserve a great amount of time for their priests: for personal conversation and exchange of correspondence, for praying and promoting mutual confidence, for ensuring guidance and counsel, authority and kindness . . . just as Jesus did when he was living with his apostles.
For this reason a bishop must make clear, courageous choices that allow for greater time for prayer and fraternal sharing with the priests. For example, some have suggested there be a special house for priests in the diocese a place where they would feel welcome and could go when they need time for spiritual retreat and physical rest. There are also real experiences of priestly life in common, both among the priests and between priests and their bishop. In the future these forms of priestly community life in dioceses may well become necessary, where there is a strong danger of isolation in which some priests feel at risk who are left on their own with too little help, overloaded with work, geographical distances, difficulties and misunderstanding.
Some bishops move from parish to parish in order to spend a few days with the parish priest, to be at his side, sharing his life, taking stock of his ministry so as to obtain a realistic appreciation of his own body of priests.
No one can imagine how beneficial the time is that bishops and priests spend together as friends! It is a great help both for the priests and for the bishops, who, bearing primary responsibility for their priests, share their joys and sorrows. Did not the Lord Jesus do the same? The bishop cannot shirk the mission of knowing his priests personally, and they cannot do without their bishop's fatherly care and genuine guidance.
Return To The 'Upper Room' For Experience Of Communion
Today there are many pastoral demands on a bishop, but without personal attention for the priests and the seminary, everything will come to nothing.
Indeed, we continue to realize how important shared prayer is, especially before the Blessed Sacrament, for strengthening the bonds of ecclesial communion in every community. Yes, the work is overwhelming and the challenges ever greater, but it is for this reason we must go to the essential, to the soul of the apostolate, to the divine intimacy and to the communal unity at the heart of the Mystical Body.
This applies especially to the bishop and his priests, who form the heart of the entire diocesan community. In the first Christian communities, as reported in the Acts of the Apostles, this communion was very much alive. In them, there was a strong acceptance of the words pronounced by Jesus as his Testament at the Last Supper "You must also love one another as I have loved you" (Jn 13,34); the distinctive sign of the authenticity of their Christianity, was this: "all will know you are my disciples, if you love one another" (Jn 13,35).
The two sacraments of the merciful love of God, the Eucharist and Confession, are given to us by the Lord to consolidate our union with him and, accordingly, union among all the brethren. These have been given to us in the context of a great spiritual friendship; both flow from the Upper Room, where the Lord Jesus called his followers friends: giving us the Eucharist before the Resurrection and instituting the Sacrament of Penance immediately after the Resurrection. The "Do this in memory of me" (Lk 22,19) of the Sacrament of Orders that enabled the first apostles and all of us to perpetuate the Eucharistic Sacrifice through the centuries, was lived in the Upper Room in a spirit of intense trust and prayer. This is why the Holy Father has told us that we too must feel "at home" in the Upper Room, the place of our birth.
We constantly need to go back to this "place", the birthplace of our priestly ministry, in the midst of our many commitments and concerns. Like the early apostles, priests must be led there by a special pastoral intention because it requires strongly motivated dedication, and great concentration adequately to prepare the content of reflection, the climate that fosters prayer and fraternal sharing, as the Lord and his disciples did.
This "place" also requires periods of unbroken time, which are needed in order to create the spiritual atmosphere of mutual esteem, both between priests and between the bishop and priest, that produces a Eucharistic celebration that takes place in a harmonious unity of intentions. Moreover, individual confessions, exchanged by brothers in the priesthood, must become more frequent and regular:
"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" (Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday 2001, n. 11).
I address you as a brother in the Lord on the day dedicated to our sanctification, aware, as St Paul says that "we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcended power belongs to God and not to us" (II Cor 4,7). For this reason we must be all the more convinced that God the Father assists us with such effective means of grace that "where sin increased, grace abounded all the more" (Rom 5,20).
Above all, it is absolutely necessary for us to abandon ourselves with confidence into the arms of divine mercy, according to the example of the Mother of God and following in her footsteps.
Mary, Mother Of Mercy
I wish to entrust these reflections to Mary, in order that all her priestly sons who read them might understand the present urgency of daily conversion, to become what they are called to be by virtue of their vocation. Let us strive to prefer nothing to the love of Christ, to rediscover for ourselves and for the faithful the richness of the sacrament and the virtue of penance, to recover the wisdom of ecclesiastical discipline, with the pastoral fruitfulness that comes from observing it in a heartfelt way.
Discouragement should not find a home in the heart of the "Lord's anointed", for "with God nothing is impossible" (Lk 1,37). God reveals Himself to a simple and humble heart.
Our heavenly Mother reminds us in the "Magnificat" that the Lord "has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the humble" (Lk 1,52) that he did this through his mercy, which "is from generation to generation on those who fear him" (Lk 1,50). With her let us ever repeat: "Jesus, I trust in You".
From the Vatican, 8 May 2002.
Card. Dario Castrillon Hoyos, Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy
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