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Retreat on the Priesthood
The Priesthood and the Sacrament of Penance
Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
It is remarkable how much publicity the sacrament of penance is getting these days. A whole stadium of people are 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 Rallies of Mercy.
All the while Catholics are confused. They have been taught to believe that auricular confession (by word of mouth to word of ear) to a priest, privately and confidentially, was necessary. At the same time, reports from one diocese after another are generally the samepeople are just not coming to confession the way they used to. What happened, and what is the future going to be?
Let me ask a few pertinent questions and try to give each an answer. First, what is the Churchs official and defined doctrine about the role of the priest and the faithful in the sacrament of penance? Second, why has there been such a lessening of the use of this sacrament among the Catholic people? Third, what does the Church expect of her priests so they might be what they should be: administrators of this sacrament?
When the so-called reformers of the sixteenth century attacked all the Sacraments, but with special virulence this one, the Church at the Council of Trent took stock of her God-given faith and for all future ages told the faithful, including bishops and priests, what the sacraments are. The Council Fathers gave no less than fifteen detailed definitions on the sacrament of penance; all would be useful to recall in these days when there is so much that is odd being said and done in the name of compassion, that is sometimes in contradiction to the expressed teaching of the Churchs infallible Magisterium.
Here are just four of these fifteen definitions that are specially apropos to our reflections. Each of these is in the form of a canon, which means a solemn declaration and closes with a condemnation of heresy for everyone who denies this article of the Catholic faith.
First. If anyone says that in the Catholic Church penance is not truly and properly a sacrament instituted by Christ our Lord to reconcile the faithful with God as often as they fall into sin after Baptism, let him be anathema.
Second. If anyone says that these words of our Lord and Savior, Receive the Holy Spirit; whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained, ought not to be understood as referring to the power of remitting and of retaining sins in the sacrament of penance as the Catholic Church 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 Churchs authority to preach the Gospel, let him be anathema.
Third. If anyone says that sacramental confession was not instituted by divine law or that it 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 institution and command of Christ and that it is of human origin, let him be anathema.
Fourth. If anyone says that to obtain remission of sins in the sacrament of penance it is not necessary according to divine law to confess each and every mortal sin that is remembered after proper and diligent examinationeven secret ones and sins against the last two commandments (the ninth and tenth)and those circumstances which change the species of a sin, but says that such confession is only useful for instructing and consoling the penitent, and that it was formerly observed only for the purpose of imposing and canonical penance; or if anyone says that those who make an effort to confess all their sins wish to leave nothing for 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 Churchs teaching. But how sadly that so many, including those in positions of great influence in the Church, have forgotten this teaching.
In the light of the foregoing, 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 takes time; and on the part of the priest, it takes a lot of patience. If he is to give the penitents the opportunity to do what Christ, speaking through the Church, commands them to do, the priest has no option; he must be convinced that it is worth the effort.
This is the hub of the problem, the question Is it worth the effort? First in Holland, then in France, and gradually elsewhere, ideas began to spread that were at variance with the Churchswhich in this case is Christs explicit teaching. And some of these ideas at variance to the Churchs teaching were circulated by bishops. 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 childrens confessions until long after they have gone to Communion and well into their older years. And, borrowing from the Protestants who abolished auricular confession, the practice of giving indiscriminate general absolution came into prominence.
Why drop in confessions? There are mainly two reasons. First, because of the prevalence of so many strange ideas that have penetrated the priestly mind. Priests can be brain-washed like anybody else about auricular confession not being of divine origin but an ecclesiastical invention. Are you sure that Christ wants individual confessions to be made to an individual priest? some good pastors are now asking.
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 are pride, lust, anger, covetousness, envy, gluttony and sloth. So strange ideas have combined with the natural lethargy of a priest to make spending sometimes hours in the confessional seem useless. These ideas became a convenient excuse for not doing what only a deep faith even makes intelligible, let alone inspires the willingness to put into what, can sometimes be heroic practice, as only a priest understands.
When Saint John Vianney (the Cure of Ars) was canonized, the Church said that one of the reasons for his canonization and later declaration as patron of parish priests 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.
So, to answer the question, Why the drop in confessions? is very simple: it is because erroneous ideas and human nature have obscured the faith vision that many priests should have of themselves as ambassadors of Christs mercy.
What does the Church expect of her priests relative to this great sacrament? The Church 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 from centuries of wisdom through General Councils, through papal declarations, through the teachings 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 the importance of the sacrament of penance to the faithful, he must himself use this sacrament. Everyone, without exception, must go to confession. In a word, if a priests exhortation to the faithful is to be taken seriously, if he tells them they are to go to confession, he must go himself. In the Society of Jesus, her priests are expected to go to confession at least once a week. Pope Pius XII went to confession every day.
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. The more he looks at himself in his own sinfulness, the more he is saddened by the disproportion between his own incapacity and what the people who confess their sins need. He must 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.
Here are a few sentences from Pope Pius XIs encyclical to priests upon which every priest should periodically read and meditate. The Holy Father was speaking of the priests power of pardon:
This is that power which God gave neither to angels nor archangelsthe 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? 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 man who even forgives sin?
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 Gods 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
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 Christs mercy to others through this great sacrament, the priest must earnestly strive to become more and more like the sinless Christ Himself, like the Christ whose office he exercises when he pardons sins. Why?
The absolution of the priest is valid no matter what his moral condition. This is an article of faith. But having said that, we also know that God uses as the instruments of His grace, those most effectively who are most closely united with Him. After all, the priests 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, are removed.
How we need to counsel and advice, when it comes to healing, and how we need consolation and encouragement. Other things being equal, when it comes to instructing, 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. That sentence is a sacramental sentence. 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 daily say even a short prayer of thanks to God, asking Him to bless the priests who, over the years, have exercised in our regard this blessed sacrament of reconciliation. We should also pray and ask the dear Savior who came not to call the just, but sinners to repentance, that His priests might rise to the dignity to which they have been called and use this sacrament in season and out of season at no matter what cost to themselves, because it is 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.
Conference transcription from a retreat that
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