friend of mine texted me recently to tell me that she had a powerful experience of God’s mercy and love through the priest in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (Confession). Like so many of us, she has been grappling with an area of her spiritual life. She desperately needed to see Christ in the priest and know that she is forgiven and strengthened, by God’s grace, to grow in holiness.
My friend left the confessional filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit and at peace, once more. She had a tangible encounter with Christ through the witness and guidance of this priest as he stood in persona Christi in the Sacrament.
Confession is a tremendous gift from Christ to His Church. It is through this Sacrament that we are reconciled to God and to His Church. Our sin wounds us deeply and it damages the Mystical Body.
Sin is never committed in isolation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church 1422 states: “Those who approach the sacrament of Penance obtain pardon from God’s mercy for the offense committed against him, and are, at the same time, reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by their sins and which by charity, by example, and by prayer labors for their conversion.” We are intimately connected to one another, which is why the Sacrament reconciles us with God and it reconciles us with the Body of Christ.
One of the greatest tragedies of the clergy sex abuse scandals is the sacrilegious abuses that have occurred in relation to the Sacraments and the Mass. In fact, reading of such horrific abuses can easily make a devout Catholic’s blood boil. The damage done by abusive priests and bishops cannot be overstated. The last 50 years have already seen a great decline in those who regularly go to Confession, which is tragic in its own right, but the abuse of this Sacrament by some clergy is nothing short of destructive.
There are parents who are now afraid to let their children go to Confession because they are alone with the priest in the confessional and others who are avoiding the Sacrament altogether. Bishop Robert Barron reports that 37% of Catholics are now considering leaving the Church. Priests are now confronted with the abuses committed in the confessional by their brother priests and how best to minister to God’s people in an age of scandal.
To be clear, our anger about the evils committed by some members of the hierarchy should not keep us from the graces Christ wishes to extend to us through His Church. If there is an issue with a specific priest, then another priest should be sought out. Abuse of any kind should be reported immediately.
We also have to keep in mind that the Enemy wants to keep us from the Sacraments, which is why he vehemently attacks the priesthood. He wants to divide the laity from the priesthood and we must do everything in our power to fight back and not allow him to win, despite our horror and fear in the face of what has been done by some priests.
Confession is meant to be a time of healing and peace, even with its discomforts, sorrows, and embarrassment. It can also be accompanied by great joy and a deeper realization of how much we are loved by Our Triune God. The priest is meant to reflect the love of God to us in this Sacrament and extend the mercy of God that we all desperately need.
Here are some things to keep in mind about the Sacrament of Confession and a portion of how the priest is understood in this Sacrament:
“1464 Priests must encourage the faithful to come to the sacrament of Penance and must make themselves available to celebrate this sacrament each time Christians reasonably ask for it.
1465 When he celebrates the sacrament of Penance, the priest is fulfilling the ministry of the Good Shepherd who seeks the lost sheep, of the Good Samaritan who binds up wounds, of the Father who awaits the prodigal son and welcomes him on his return, and of the just and impartial judge whose judgment is both just and merciful. The priest is the sign and the instrument of God’s merciful love for the sinner.
1466 The confessor is not the master of God’s forgiveness, but its servant. The minister of this sacrament should unite himself to the intention and charity of Christ. He should have a proven knowledge of Christian behavior, experience of human affairs, respect and sensitivity toward the one who has fallen; he must love the truth, be faithful to the Magisterium of the Church, and lead the penitent with patience toward healing and full maturity. He must pray and do penance for his penitent, entrusting him to the Lord’s mercy.”
Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1464-1466.
My friend’s joy at being forgiven and her experience of Christ’s mercy—which she saw in the priest—is an essential aspect of this ministry. The priest is meant to radiate the love of Christ to the flock and to draw us more closely to the Good Shepherd. She was able to see Christ in the priest and left praising God.
While great sacrileges have been committed by some priests in this Sacrament, it is not the norm. It also doesn’t change the nature of the Sacrament or the mission of the priesthood in conferring this, and all of the Sacraments. We must remember that it is Christ Himself who seeks to heal us in Confession. This is accomplished through absolution, but we are also ministered to through the guidance the priest offers to us in this Sacrament.
Let us pray for our brothers and sisters who stay away from the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, that they may seek to draw closer to Christ through the forgiveness of sins. And let us pray for our priests, that the Holy Spirit may be poured out upon them, so that they can be witnesses of Christ’s mercy and love, that we may leave this Sacrament singing His praises.