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The Priest and the Sacrament of Penance

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The subject of the present conference is the priest and the sacrament of penance.

It is remarkable how much publicity the sacrament of Penance is getting these days. A whole stadium filled with people is assembled, and in an elaborate ceremony are given general absolution. In other cases, several thousand people are brought together in response to massive publicity to be given general absolution before Christmas.

The newspapers give these spectacles large coverage, and the media make heroes of reconciliation of the bishops who sponsor these, quote, "rallies of mercy." All the while, Catholics are confused. They have been taught to believe that auricular confession – that’s by word of mouth to word of ear – that auricular confession to a priest privately and confidentially was necessary. What happened and what's the future going to be?

At the same time, reports from one diocese after another are generally the same the people are just not coming to Confession the way they used to. I remember one Saturday evening during the announced Confession time making my holy hour and saying my office in a large parish church. During the hour and half that a priest sat in the confessional waiting for penitents. I was the only penitent who went to confession. He was lucky I went.

Again, what has happened? What are we to make of all of this? In order to cover as much ground as possible in the short time at our disposal, let me ask a few questions and then try to give an answer.

  1. What is the Church's official and defined doctrine about the role of the priest and the role of the faithful in the sacrament of Penance.

  2. Why has there been such a lessening of the use of the sacrament among the Catholic people?

  3. What does the Church expect of her priests so they might be what they should be administrators of this sacrament?

The Church's Doctrine on the Sacrament of Penance

The Church's doctrine, believe me, I could speak exhortative and, I trust, with a certain amount of feeling about this very important subject. I want to make sure before we turn on the feeling that we know what the faith is.

The list of the Church's solemn definitions at the Council of Trent when all of the sacraments – but with special virulence this one – were attacked by the so-called reformers. When the Church had to take stock of her God-given faith and for all future ages, including ours – tell the faithful, including bishops and priests, what the sacraments are.

The list of the Church's definitions on the sacrament of Penance is long and detailed. There are no less than fifteen such definitions and they would all be useful to be recalled these days. Where there is so much that is odd being said and done in the name of compassion, but sometimes in contradiction to the expressed teaching of the Church's Infallible Magisterium.

Let me read just four of these fifteen definitions that are especially pertinent to our reflection. Each of these is in the form of a canon, which means a solemn declaration closing with a condemnation for heresy of anyone who denies this article of the Catholic faith.

If anyone says that in the Catholic Church penance is not truly and properly a sacrament instituted by Christ our Lord to reconcile faithful with God as often as they fall into sin after baptism, let him be anathema.
If anyone says, that these words of the Lord our Savior, “Receive the Holy Spirit whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them and whose sins you shall retain they are retained” ought not to be understood as referring to the power of remitting and retaining sins in the sacrament of penance as the Catholic church has always understood them from the beginning and if anyone to disprove the institution of this sacrament twists the meaning of those words and refers them to the church’s authority to preach the gospel, let him be anathema
If anyone says that sacramental Confession was not instituted by divine law, that means that the Confession was not instituted by divine law or is not necessary for salvation according to the same law or if anyone says that the method which the Catholic Church has always observed from the very beginning and still observes. On confessing secretly to the priest alone is foreign to the command of Christ and is of human origin, let him be anathema.
If anyone says to obtain remission in the sacrament of Penance it is not necessary according to divine law to confess each and every mortal sin when remembered after proper and diligent examination even secret ones. And sins against the last two commandments, the ninth and tenth and both circumstances which changes the species of the sin but says that such confession is only useful for instructing and consoling the penitent and that it was formally observed only for imposing the canonical penance or if anyone says of anyone who make an effort to confess all their sins wish to leave nothing to the forgiveness of the divine mercy or finally that it is not permissible to confess venial sins, let him be anathema.

Thank God for the Church's teaching. But how sadly how many, including those in great influence in the Church, have forgotten this teaching.

Why the Drop in Confessions?

We now ask, why the drop in Confession? In the light of the forgoing, it follows that hearing confessions places a heavy demand on the generosity of a priest. To tell not just one sin, but all of them and, if they are grave, with all their attending circumstances, this takes time. And on the part of the priest it takes a lot of patience.

If he is to give the penitent the opportunity to do what Christ, speaking through the Church commands them to do, they have no option. The priest must be convinced that it is worth the effort. This, in my humble estimation, is the hub of the problem. Is it worth the effort? First in Holland, then in France and then gradually elsewhere, ideas began to spread that were at variance with the Church's which in this case is Christ's explicit teaching and some of these ideas at variance with the Church's teaching were circulated by bishops.

Like what? The early confessions of children were discouraged until by now, a whole library of propaganda exists trying to tell priests why they should not hear children's confessions until long after they have gone to Communion and well into their older years.

One reason why shortly before Christmas, a mother called me up from another state. They had moved to this other state from New York. I had become the regular confessor of her little children whose first confessions I heard. The boy wanted to go to confession, it was quite a trip. All I can tell you I considered it worth it!

Borrowing from the Protestants, who abolished auricular Confession the practice of giving indiscriminate general absolution came into prominence.

We return to our question. Why the drop in confessions? In my judgment, mainly for two reasons. First because of the prevalence of so many strange ideas that have penetrated the priestly mind. And priests can be brainwashed like anybody else about auricular Confession not being of divine origin, but an ecclesiastical invention. As one pastor, a good man, when after asking me about this, I told him and he began to argue. Are you sure? Are you sure that Christ wants individual confessions to be made to an individual priest? That’s the first reason, strange ideas.

Secondly, because these ideas have combined with the natural lethargy of a priest. Priest or no priest, we all have the same seven capital tendencies which, in my line-up, is pride, lust, anger, covetousness, envy, gluttony and, that's right sloth. So these ideas combined with the natural lethargy of a priest to spend, sometimes hours, in the confessional. These ideas became a convenient excuse for not doing what only faith and a deep faith even makes intelligible, let alone inspires the willingness to put into what sometimes must be heroic practice, as only a priest understands. Saint John Vianney, the Cure of Ars, was canonized, one of the reasons for his canonization and later declaration as patron of parish priests, so the Church said, was that he spent so much time sometimes sixteen hours a day in the confessional, hearing the confessions of the thousands of people who came to him.

I am asking the question the third time - why the drop in confessions? Very simple. Because of erroneous ideas and because human nature has in enough priests obscured their faith vision of themselves as ambassadors of Christ's mercy.

What the Church Expects of Her Priests

We finally ask, what does the Church expect of her priests relative to this great sacrament? The Church., as we know, expects much of her priests, but only because the Christ who ordained them expects the same. Pertinent to the sacrament of Penance, the Church has said a great deal, speaking now through centuries of wisdom through general councils, through papal declarations, through the teaching of her saints and through the practice of the great priests of Catholic history. What do we find in this library of instruction about the priests and the sacrament of Reconciliation? We find especially these things if a priest is to preach the dignity and importance of the sacrament of Penance to the faithful he must himself use this sacrament.

This, by the way in giving retreat to priests, is one of my peaks of my retreat. Fathers, everyone, no exceptions, must go to Confession. I am especially happy to make this statement when there is a bishop in their midst. In a word, if a priest's exhortation to the faithful is to be taken seriously, and people are shrewd, if he tells them they should go to Confession, he had better go himself.

In the Society of Jesus, her priests are expected to go to Confession at least once a week. Pope Pius XI went to Confession every day. All I know speaking for one priest is that I can't go too often.

Second if a priest is to appreciate the greatness of this sacrament, he must prayerfully reflect on what it means. He is no mere counselor; he is surely not a therapist. He is a representative of Christ and the more he looks at himself in his own sinfulness, the more he is staggered by the disproportion between his own incapacity and what the people who confess their sins need. He must then see with the eyes of faith that he is only an instrument, though a necessary one, in the hands and through the lips of the Master.

Let me read a few sentences from Pope Pius XI's encyclical to priests that every priest should periodically read and meditate on. The Holy Father is speaking of the priest's power to pardon.

This is that power which, as St. John Chrysostom says: "God gave neither to angels nor archangels" – the power to remit sins. "Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them: and whose sins you shall retain they are retained"; a tremendous power, so peculiar to God that even human pride could not make the mind conceive that it could be given to man. "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" And, when we see it exercised by a mere man there is reason to ask ourselves, not, indeed, with pharisaical scandal, but with reverent surprise at such a dignity: "Who is this that forgiveth sins also?" But it is so: the God-Man who possessed the "power on earth to forgive sins" willed to hand it on to His priests; to relieve, in His divine generosity and mercy, the need of moral purification which is rooted in the human heart. What a comfort to the guilty, when, stung with remorse and repenting of his sins, he hears the word of the priest who says to him in God's name: "I absolve thee from thy sins!" These words fall, it is true, from the lips of one who, in his turn, must needs beg the same absolution from another priest. This does not debase the merciful gift; but makes it, rather, appear greater; since beyond the weak creature is seen more clearly the hand of God through whose power is wrought this wonder (Ad Catholici Sacerdotii, 20-21).

Priests must meditate on what God has entrusted into their hands. Otherwise, as so many have allowed, they will not appreciate what they have, and to the tragic detriment of thousands of souls, will not exercise this power of pardon.

Finally, to become the channel of Christ's mercy to others through this great sacrament, the priest must honestly strive to become more and more like the sinless Christ himself – like the Christ whose office he exercises when he pardons sins. Why? First of all, to repeat an article of faith, the absolution of the priest is valid no matter what his moral condition. This, too, is an article of faith. For that also, thank God.

But having said that, we also know that God uses as the instrument of His grace those most effectively who are most closely united with Him. After all, the priest's role in the confessional is not only to absolve. He has, as we are told by the infallible Church, three roles. One to absolve, another to instruct and a third to heal. His power of absolution is absolute, provided the penitent does his or her part and the priest seriously intends to absolve the sins by the power of the keys committed to the Church, they are removed. But when it comes to instructing, and how we need council and advice, when it comes to healing, and how we need consolation and encouragement, other things being equal, the Church keeps telling her priests: “Be holy yourselves.” Because the holier you are, the more effective will be just a word, even a brief sentence. Ah! But that sentence is a sacramental sentence. And the Christ who speaks through His priests will teach the penitent and will heal the weak and feeble soul as only Jesus can. And He can because He is God but the instrument must be totally resigned and conformed to the divine will.

Needless to say, we should, may I suggest daily, say even a short prayer of thanks to God, asking Him to bless the priests that over the years have exercised in our regard this blessed sacrament of Reconciliation. And that we also pray and ask the dear Savior who came as He told us not to call the just, but sinners to repentance – that His priests might rise to the dignity to which they have been called, use this sacrament in season and out of season, at no matter what cost to themselves. Because it is, I may almost say, especially in this sacrament of peace, that the Prince of Peace continues to inspire peace in the hearts of a troubled, worried and anxious world.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Copyright © 2003, Inter Mirifica

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