At tonight’s Chrism Mass, the Cardinal chose to focus his remarks to the more than 300 priests in attendance on the beauty of the Sacrament of Confession and the power of mercy. What a magnificent gift the Lord gave His Church through the ministry of priests, that we can hear His blessed words, I absolve you from your sins … go in peace.
My mind goes back to a beautiful story of St. John Paul II and a certain bishop (not of my own diocese). The story was told by the homilist at the funeral of this bishop over a decade ago and I was in attendance. Sadly, the bishop had a fall from grace and was forced to resign after an affair he had with a woman had come to light. Pope John Paul II accepted his resignation but within a month asked the bishop to come to Rome for a meeting. It was with some trepidation that the bishop made the journey. He was led into the meeting room by the usual Vatican staff, but, strangely, they all stepped out of the large, ornate room leaving him quite alone for a few minutes. The door opened and in walked Pope John Paul II, not with his usual entourage, but alone. The bishop was apprehensive, not knowing what to expect. He had let the Holy Father and God’s people down and a thousand nervous thoughts rushed through his mind. As he drew close, Pope John Paul II extended his large, muscular arms and put a hand on each shoulder of the bishop. He looked him in the eye and said, “Are you at peace?”
Relief and a profound sense of mercy flooded the bishop’s heart; his eyes often filled with tears as he recounted the story years later. None of us who heard it at the funeral failed to be moved either. The rest of the meeting with the Pope was never related by the bishop, who held that close to his heart, but he emerged reconciled and at peace. He spent his remaining years quietly ministering to several cloistered religious communities.
There is perhaps no greater gift than to experience the power and beauty of mercy. Yet it is a gift that is often wrapped in pain and in the humiliation of having experienced the true weight of our sins. It is no accident that the opening words of our Lord’s proclamation were “Repent and believe the good news” (Mk 1:15), specifically in that order. For unless we know the bad news, the good news is no news. To repent is to come to a new mind that, beholding God’s glory and holiness, sees the need for mercy. But oh, the glory then of the good news: mercy is available in abundance! God will never reject anyone who calls on Him (Jn 6:37). Oh, the relief, the peace of knowing the effect of those words spoken by God through His priests: “I absolve from your sins … go in peace.”
It is one of the greatest joys of a priest to confer that peace and to say those words, knowing that by his configuration to the Lord in the sacrament of Holy Orders, they are no mere wish; they in fact confer the absolution they announce and offer the only peace that really matters: the Lord’s peace. And as a priest I, too, need to hear those words addressed to me. I go to confession once a week and have no doubt at all that the progress and peace I experience are due to the power and beauty of those words: “I absolve you from your sins … go in peace.” I also give God thanks for the glorious Sacrament of Holy Communion, for His Holy Word in Scripture and Tradition, for the power of prayer, and for the honesty of fellowship with His Church.
In the past few years I became alarmed that the number of confessions was dropping. I added a number of reminders and exhortations to my preaching, but they had only a marginal effect.
Then I remembered an admonition by Fr. Dennis McManus, with whom I studied recently. He told us (most of whom were priests) that people would know we were serious about confession not by our words, but by our deeds. He went on to recite the pathetically limited schedule of confessions in a number of parishes with which he was familiar. In most cases it was barely an hour a week. And even then, it was not uncommon for the priest to show up late. Were there exceptions? Sure. And where exceptions did exist, confessions were numerous. The conclusion was clear: when priests are serious about offering confessions, the faithful are more serious about going.
I had thought I was already generous with offering confessions. I would enter “the box” half an hour before scheduled Masses. But, sadly, I spent a lot of time reading while waiting for penitents. We are not a downtown parish, so noontime confessions did not seem to be a good solution. My parish has a large commuter component due to our specialized liturgies, so many arrive just before Mass and sometimes even a bit late. Confessions just before Mass did not seem to be proving very helpful. I began asking what might work. People said, “Father could you hear confessions after Mass?” Sure.
Some liturgical purists might object, saying that people with serious sins need to go to confession before Mass. Agreed. So I continue to hear confessions before Mass. But now it was time to offer what people needed. After each Mass this Lent, I announced that I was headed to “the box” and that a Lent without confession was a disgrace.
The result? A bumper crop! I often heard more than a dozen confessions after each Mass. With four Masses, that was almost fifty confessions a weekend. And with five weeks of Lent, that was more than 200 confessions. Fr. Dennis was right.
Was I tired? Sure. But it was the right kind of tired. God is good, and many waited patiently in line after each Mass. When they knew I was serious, they were too. I am going to keep up this practice; it will not stop with Lent. After Mass, I make a few quick greetings and then it’s off to “the box.”
I am not here to tell you or any other priest what is right for your parish, but consider these key points. Mercy is a glorious gift and must be celebrated often. Repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be preached in every pulpit. And the same priest who exhorts repentance must be willing to be dedicated to the celebration of the good news of the mercy that comes with that repentance. It surely means expanded confessional times for most parishes, but those times will vary. Actually asking parishioners for suggestions may seem obvious, but what is obvious is not always what is done and “business as usual” tends to prevail.
Encourage your priests. Brother priests, encourage your people and ask what will work for them. When priests are serious, the faithful are too.
Mercy! No greater gift, for it restores us to Jesus. A costly gift? Often, yes. But it’s always worth it. Such precious words: “I absolve you of your sins … go in peace.”