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from issue no. 05 - 2010

“Conversion and mission”

A tragedy for the Church: the forgotten sacrament of confession

“One of the most tragic failings that the Church has suffered in the second half of the twentieth century is to have neglected the gift of the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of penance”. A talk given by Cardinal Joachim Meisner, Archbishop of Cologne on “Conversion and mission”

A talk by Cardinal Joachim Meisner

Cardinal Joachim Meisner on the occasion of the international meeting of priests, at the end of the Year for Priests, Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Rome, 9 June 2010 [© Romano Siciliani]

Cardinal Joachim Meisner on the occasion of the international meeting of priests, at the end of the Year for Priests, Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Rome, 9 June 2010 [© Romano Siciliani]

Dear Fellow Priests! I don’t mean to set out for you once again the theology of penance and of the mission. I would rather, with you, let myself be guided to conversion by the Gospel itself, to then, sent by the Holy Spirit, bring to men the message of Christ.
Along this road I would now like to dwell with you on 15 points for reflection.

1 We must become again a “Church that goes to men” (Geh-hin-Kirche), as Cardinal Joseph Höffner, my predecessor as Archbishop of Cologne, liked to say. But this cannot happen at will. We must be moved to it by the Holy Spirit.
One of the most tragic failings that the Church has suffered in the second half of the twentieth century is to have neglected the gift of the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of penance. In us priests this has caused a tremendous loss of spiritual profile. When the Christian faithful ask me: “How can we help our priests?” I always reply: ”Go to them to confess”. When the priest is no longer a confessor he becomes a social worker of a religious kind. In fact he lacks the experience of the greatest pastoral achievement, of working together so that a sinner, thanks also to his help, leaves the confessional newly sanctified. In the confessional the priest can penetrate into the hearts of many people and from that impulses result, encouragement and inspiration for his own following of Christ.

2 On the outskirts of Damascus, a small suffering man, St Paul, falls to the ground blinded. In the second Epistle to the Corinthians, he tells us the impression his person made on his opponents: he was physically weak and incapable in speech (cf. 2 Cor 10, 10). It was, however, through this small suffering man that, in the following years, the Gospel was to be proclaimed to the cities of Asia Minor and Europe. God’s wonders never happen in the spotlight of world history. They always take place apart: on the outskirts of the city, precisely, as in the secrecy of the confessional. This can be of great comfort to us all, for us who have great responsibility, yet at the same time are aware of our often limited possibilities. It is part of the grand strategy of God to obtain great effects by small means. Paul defeated at the gates of Damascus became the conqueror of the cities of Asia Minor and Europe. His mission was to gather those called into the Church, the Ecclesia of God. Even if this – viewed from outside – was only a small, oppressed minority, and opposed from within, Paul compared it to the body of Christ, indeed identified it with the body of Christ, which is the Church. This possibility of “receiving from the hands of the Lord” in our human experience is called “conversion”. The Church is the Ecclesia semper reformanda, and in it both the priest and the bishop are semper reformandi: like Paul in Damascus they must always be thrown to the ground from the horse, so as to fall into the arms of the merciful God who sends us then into the world.

3 Therefore it is not sufficient in our pastoral work just to want to make corrections to the structures of the Church to make it appear more attractive. It’s not enough! What is needed is a conversion of heart, of my heart. Only a converted Paul could change the world, not an expert in “ecclesial engineering”. The priest, with his being assimilated to the form of life of Jesus, is so inhabited by Him that Jesus becomes perceptible by others in the priest. In John 14, 23 we read: “Anyone who loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make a home in him”. This is not just a pretty picture! If the priest’s heart loves God and lives in grace, the triune God comes personally and dwells in the heart of the priest. Of course, God is omnipresent, God dwells everywhere, the whole world is like a great church of God. But the heart of the priest is like the tabernacle of the church. God lives there in a quite mysterious and special way.

4 The biggest obstacle preventing Christ being seen through us is sin. It prevents the presence of the Lord in our lives and for that reason nothing is more necessary to us than conversion, also for the purposes of the mission. It is a matter, in short, of the sacrament of penance. A priest who does not frequently take his place on one and the other side of the grille of the confessional suffers permanent harm to his soul and his mission. Here certainly lies one of the major causes of the manifold crisis in which the priesthood has come to find itself in the last fifty years. The very special grace of the priesthood is precisely that the priest can feel “at home” on both sides of the grille of the confessional: as penitent and as minister of forgiveness. When the priest distances himself from the confessional, he enters into a grave identity crisis. The sacrament of penance is the privileged locus for the deepening of the identity of the priest, who is called upon to make himself and believers return to draw upon the fullness of Christ.
In his priestly prayer, Jesus speaks to His and our Father of this identity: “I am not asking you to remove them from the world, but to protect them from the Evil One. They do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world. Consecrate them in truth; your word is truth”(Jn 17, 15-17).
The sacrament of penance is a matter of the truth in us. How is it we do not like to look the truth in the face?

<I>Jesus at table with sinners</I>, by Father Marko Ivan Rupnik

Jesus at table with sinners, by Father Marko Ivan Rupnik

5 Perhaps we should ask ourselves if we have ever experienced the joy of recognizing a mistake, admitting it and apologizing to those whom we have offended: “I will leave this place and go to my father and say: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you” (Lk 15, 18). Because if not, we also don’t know the joy of seeing others open their arms like the father to the prodigal son: “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him” (Lk 15, 20). And we cannot even imagine the joy of the Father who has found us again: “And they began to celebrate” (Lk 15, 24). Given that this feast is celebrated in heaven every time we convert, why do we not convert more frequently? Why – if I may put it this way – are we so stingy with God and the saints in heaven, so rarely letting them have the joy of celebrating a feast because we have allowed ourselves to be embraced by the Lord, the Father?

6 Often we don’t like this explicit forgiveness. Yet God never shows Himself so much God as when He forgives. God is love! He is giving in person! He gives the grace of forgiveness. But the strongest love is that which overcomes the main obstacle to love, which sin is. The greatest grace is being pardoned and the most precious gift is to give (die Vergabung), and forgiving (die Vergebung). If there were no sinners who need forgiveness more than daily bread, we could not precisely know the depth of the Divine Heart. The Lord points it out explicitly: “I tell you, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner repenting than over ninety-nine upright people who have no need of repentance” (Lk 15, 7). Why ever – we ask ourselves once again – does a sacrament that stirs such great joy in heaven evoke such antipathy on earth? The reason is our pride, the constant tendency of our heart to fence itself in, to be sufficient unto itself, to isolate itself, to close in on itself. What do we actually prefer: to be sinners whom God forgives, or seemingly to be without sin, that is live in the illusion of self-sufficient renouncing the manifestation of the love of God? Is it really enough to feel at peace with ourselves? But what are we without God? Only the humility of a child, such as the saints have, enables us to bear joyfully the disproportion between our unworthiness and God’s glory.

7 The purpose of confession is not that we, forgetting our sins, no longer think of God. Rather it is that confession makes available to us a life in which one can think of nothing but God. God tells us inwardly: “The only reason you have sinned is because you can’t believe I love you enough, that I really have you at heart, that in Me you find the tenderness you need, that I delight in the smallest gesture that witnesses to your welcome, so as to forgive you everything you bring Me in confession”. Knowing such forgiveness, such love, we would be so flooded with joy and gratitude, as to gradually lose our attraction for sin and confession will become a regular fixture of joy in our lives. Going to confession means beginning to love God a little more in our hearts, hearing ourselves told and effectively feeling – because confession is not just encouragement from the outside – that God loves us. Confession means starting to believe in it again, and at the same time discovering that until now we had never believed deeply enough in it and that for that reason we must ask forgiveness. Before Jesus, one feels sinful, one discovers oneself a sinner who does not come up to his expectations. Confessing means letting the Lord raise one up to His divine level.

8 The prodigal son abandons the family home because he has become disbelieving. He no longer has trust in the love of the Father, that it will satisfy him, and so demands his part of the inheritance to solve his own affairs by himself. When he decides to return and ask for forgiveness, his heart is still dead. He believes he will not be loved, will no longer be considered a son. He returns only to avoid dying of starvation. This is called imperfect contrition. But the father was already waiting for him for a long time. For a long time nothing gave him more joy than the thought that one day his son would be able to return home. As soon as he glimpsed him, he runs to meet him, embraces him, he doesn’t even give him the time to finish his confession and calls the servants to dress, feed and take care of him. Because he has been shown a love so great, at that point also the son begins to perceive it, and allows himself to be overcome by it. An unexpected remorse seizes him. This is the perfect contrition. Only when the father embraces him, does he calculate all his own ingratitude, his own insolence and his own injustice. Only then does he really come back, become a son again, open and full of trust in the father, returns to life again, “Your brother was dead and is alive again” ( Lk 15, 32), his father said to the son who remained at home.

Confessional of Saint Curé of Ars <BR>[© Romano Siciliani]

Confessional of Saint Curé of Ars
[© Romano Siciliani]

9 The eldest son, the “righteous”, underwent a similar change – thus one would have wanted the parable to continue. The case of this son is however much more difficult. It cannot be said that God loves sinners rather than the righteous! A mother does not love her sick child, to whom she directs her special care, more than her healthy children whom she lets play alone, to whom she expresses her love – certainly not less – in a different way. For as long as people refuse to recognize and confess their sins, while they remain proud sinners, God prefers humble sinners to these. He has patience with all. Even with the son who remained at home, the father has patience. He appeals to him, and speaks with kindness to him, “Son, you are always with me and all that is mine is yours, but it was fitting to make merry and be glad” ( Lk 15, 31-32). The forgiveness of the insensitivity of his eldest son is not expressed here but it is implicit. How great should the shame of his eldest son be in the face of such mercy! He had foreseen everything, but certainly not this humble tenderness of his father. Suddenly he finds himself helpless, confused, sharing the general joy. And he asks himself how he could have thought to stand aside on purpose, how he could, even for a moment, have preferred to be unhappy all alone while everyone else loved and forgave each other reciprocally. Fortunately, the father is there and apprehends him in time. Fortunately, the father is not like him! Fortunately, the father is much better than all the others put together! Only God can forgive sins. Only He can accomplish this act of grace, joy and abundance of love. That is why the sacrament of penance is the source of permanent renewal and revitalization of our priestly life.

10 For this reason, the spiritual maturity to receive priestly ordination by a candidate for the priesthood, in my opinion, becomes evident from the fact that he regularly receives – at least as often as once a month – the sacrament of penance. Indeed in the sacrament of penance I meet the merciful Father with the most precious gifts He has to give, namely the giving (Vergabung), forgiving (Vergebung), and the giving of grace to us. But when someone, precisely because of his rare attendance at confession, says in fact to the Father: “Keep your precious gifts for yourself! I don’t need you or your gifts!”, then he stops being a child, because he excludes himself from the fatherhood of God, because he does not want to receive His precious gifts. And if one is no longer a child of the heavenly Father, then he cannot become a priest, because the priest first and foremost is the son of the Father through baptism, and then, through priestly ordination is, along with Christ, son with the Son. Only then can he truly be a brother to men.

11 The passage from conversion to mission can be seen in the first place in the fact of moving from one side to the other of the confessional grille, from the side of the penitent to that of the confessor. The neglect of the sacrament of penance is the root of many evils in the life of the Church and in the life of the priest. And the so-called crisis of the sacrament of penance is not only due to the fact that people no longer go to confession, but also to the fact that we priests are no longer present in the confessional. A confessional in which there is a priest, in an empty church, is the most moving symbol of the patience of God that waits. God is like this. He awaits us all through life.
In my thirty-five years of episcopal ministry I have known poignant examples of priests present daily in the confessional without a single penitent coming; until, one day, the first penitent, after months or years of waiting, finally shows up. Thus, one could say, the situation became unlocked. Since then, the confessional began to be very popular. Here the priest is called apart from all the work of pastoral planning with external groups, to immerse himself in the personal needs of each one. Here he doesn’t have to speak first, but to listen. A festering wound on the body can heal only if it can bleed to the end. The wounded heart of a man can be cured only if it can bleed to the bottom, that is if it can pour out everything. And you can only pour things out if there is someone who listens, in that absolute discretion of the sacrament of penance. For the confessor it is not important to talk first of all but to listen. How many inner impulses does the priest receive and experience, for his following of Christ, precisely in the administration of the sacrament of penance! Here he can understand and confirm how far ahead of him, in the following of Christ, are simple Catholic faithful, men, women and children.

12 When this essential area of priestly service is lost, we priests easily fall into a functional mindset or a level of mere pastoral technique. The placing of ourselves on both sides of the confessional grille leads us, with our testimony, to make Christ become perceptible to people. To clarify with a negative example: whoever comes into contact with radioactive material, becomes radioactive. If he then comes into contact with others, then these too will also be contaminated by radioactivity. But now however we will turn to our positive example: whoever comes into contact with Christ, becomes “Christ-active”. And if then the priest, being “Christ-active”, comes into contact with other people, they will certainly be “contaminated” by his “Christ-activity”. This is the mission, as it was present from the beginning of Christianity. People flocked around the person of Jesus to touch him, even when it was only the hem of his dress. And they were healed even when he was turned away from them, “Since power came forth from him and healed them all” ( Lk 6, 19).

13 With us, however, people often shun us, do not approach to come into contact with us. Instead, they shun us. To prevent this, we must ask ourselves the question: who do they come into contact with when they come into contact with me? With Jesus Christ, in his boundless love for mankind, or with some private theological opinion or a complaint about the situation of the Church and the world? Coming into contact with us, do they come into contact with Jesus Christ? If it so, then people will come. So, talking among themselves about a priest, they will speak about him with words such as these: “With that one there you can talk. He understands me. He can really help me”. I am profoundly convinced that people are longing for priests like this, in whom they can meet Christ authentically, who frees them from all ties and unites them to His Person.

<I>The forgiveness of the adulterous woman</I>, by Father Marko Ivan Rupnik

The forgiveness of the adulterous woman, by Father Marko Ivan Rupnik

14 In order to truly forgive, we need great love. The only forgiveness we can really give is what we have received from God. Only if the merciful Father has been experienced, can we become merciful brothers for others. He who doesn’t forgive, doesn’t love. He who forgives little, loves little. He who forgives much, loves much. When we leave the confessional, which is the starting point of our mission, whether from one or other side of the grille, but especially from the side of the penitent, then you would just want to embrace all people, asking them for forgiveness. I myself have experienced the love of God that forgives in such a gratifying way as not to ask for anything with urgency other than: “ You too accept His forgiveness! Take a part of the forgiveness that I have now received in abundance. And forgive me that I offer it to you so badly”. With one and the same gesture (the confession) one re-enters the love of God and brotherly love, in union with God and the Church, from which sin had excluded us. We can and must love all men, if God has taught us to love in a new way. If it were not so, it would be a sign that we have not confessed well and that, therefore, we should confess again.
Probably the greatest confessor of the Church is the saintly Curé of Ars. Thanks to him we have the Year for Priests and thus our present meeting, as priests and bishops, with the Holy Father, here in Rome. With this holy parish priest I reflected upon the mystery of holy confession, seeing that his daily ministry of reconciliation, in the confessional at Ars, caused him to become a great missionary for the world: it was said that as confessor he won the French Revolution spiritually. I have recounted here what inspired in me this spiritual dialogue with Jean-Marie Vianney. But however, it further reminded me of something very important.

15 Let us love everyone, let us forgive everyone! Beware however, in this, not to forget someone! There is a being, in fact, that disappoints us and weighs on us, a being with whom we are constantly dissatisfied: ourselves. Often we have had enough of ourselves. We’re sick and tired of our mediocrity of our own tediousness. We live in a cold state of mind and also with an incredible indifference to this neighbor, who is the closest that God has entrusted to us so that we insure that he be touched by divine forgiveness. This nearest neighbor is ourselves. One reads, in fact, that we must love our neighbor as ourselves (cf. Lev 19, 18). So we must also love ourselves, just as we seek to love our neighbor. We must ask God, then, to teach us to forgive ourselves: the fury of our pride, the disappointment of our ambition. Let us pray that the goodness, tenderness, patience and unutterable trust with which He forgives us conquer us to the point that we rid ourselves of the weariness with ourselves that accompanies us everywhere, and often doesn’t even cause us shame. We cannot recognize God’s love for us without also modifying the view we have of ourselves, without acknowledging to God Himself the right to love us. The forgiveness of God reconciles us with Him, with ourselves, with our brothers and sisters and with the whole world. It makes us authentic missionaries.
Do you believe it, dear brothers? Try it, this very day!

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