In his Homily for the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday 2002,
commenting on the passage of Isaiah: "The spirit of the Lord God is upon
me, because the Lord has anointed me" (Is 61:1), John Paul II presented
"the messianic mission of Jesus, who was consecrated by virtue of the Holy
Spirit and became the eternal High Priest of the New Covenant established
in his blood".1 Likewise, in the Synagogue of Nazareth the
Rabbi of Galilee himself commented on Isaiah's prophetic announcement:
"Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (Lk 4:21).
The faith of the Church has always presented Jesus of
Nazareth as "the One whom the Spirit of the Lord has anointed, the One
whom the Father has sent to bring to men and women freedom from sin and to
bring glad tidings to the poor and the afflicted. It is he who has come to
proclaim the time of grace and mercy. The Apostle, in his Letter to the
Colossians, notes that Christ 'is the first-born of all creation', and
'the first-born of the dead' (1:15, 18). By accepting the call of the
Father that he assume our human condition, he brings with him the spirit
of the new life and gives salvation to all who believe in him".2
Thus, he is the Saviour of "the whole man... and all men".3
On Holy Thursday 2002, John Paul II addressed priests by
stressing: "If all the baptized share in his royal and prophetic
priesthood 'to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God' (I Pt 2:5),
priests are called to share his sacrifice in a special way. They are
called to live it in service to the common priesthood of the faithful. The
sacrament of Holy Orders is the sacrament by which the mission entrusted
by the Master to his Apostles continues to be carried on in the Church
until the end of time: it is the sacrament of the apostolic ministry,"4
that essentially realizes "his sacramental presence among men. He put his
pardon and mercy in our hands...".5
It is important for those who have responded to the call
to the ordained ministry through the imposition of hands and the prayer of
the Bishop as visible signs of the continuity of apostolic charism, to
reinterpret their own identity theologically as those who exercise the
ministry of Christ the Head in relation to the sacrament of
Reconciliation, which involves "healing" and "uplifting" the human being,
both from existential impoverishment, the result of Adam's sin, and from
all that questions the validity of his full communion with the project of
the new man who finds complete fulfilment in Christ.
"But it is fatal to forget", John Paul II affirms, "'that
without Christ we can do nothing' (Jn 5:5)".6 The invitation to
set out anew from Christ which the Apostolic Letter Novo
extends to all who are in Christ, after
having addressed the Sunday Eucharist, also specifically deals7
with the sacrament of Reconciliation8 within a cultural
situation where the "sense of sin" has been lost and the "sense of God"
becomes clouded,9 not so much through ignorance of Christian
ethics but rather through the "loss of a sense of the basis of the
criteria of a moral conscience".10
This is not only within secularized lay society; as John
Paul II says, "even in the field of the thought and life of the Church,
certain trends inevitably favour the decline of the sense of sin.... The
restoration of a proper sense of sin is the first way of facing the grave
spiritual crisis looming over man today".11
This obviously hinges on the dimension of hope, which is
not an illusion but a presence of salvation for all that has been
impoverished in man by the
In interpreting the Christ event as a healing intervention
for human nature, we see that the economy of sin is opposed by this other
active principle which, with the Apostle Paul, we can call the
the very mystery of Christ: the mystery of his passion and death, of his
Resurrection and glorification.13
This happened once for all through Christ pro
so that human beings of, all times could
express with their own free will the choice of conversion and acceptance
of the mysterium pietatis. This is the mandate Christ gave to the
Apostles, bound to the mission of proclamation and administration of the
sacraments, realities proper to the Community of the Risen One. The
sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist and Reconciliation have hierarchical
Ordained ministers sent to be an effective presence of the
mysterium pietatis among God's People take part in a special way
and carry out ministerial service proper to Christ the Head.
In the ancient Church, two moments for penance and
reconciliation existed: one was reserved14 and secret (cf. Acts
19:18), and the other public, exercised by the college of presbyters over
which the Bishop presided (cf. I Tm 5:19).
The two great Christian Traditions of East and West, with
the writings of the Shepherd of Hermas (second century), have always
stressed the need for penance or reconciliation. Luther himself sometimes
refers to Confession on a par with Baptism and the Last Supper. For the
Augsburg Confession, Reconciliation really is the third sacrament.
Offering reconciliation and forgiveness is connected with
the paschal dimension of Christ's mandate: "Peace be with you....
If you forgive the sins of any,
they are forgiven" (Jn 20:23), and
with the disciples' faith in Jesus Christ as the Lamb who takes away the
sin of the world and takes it upon himself (cf. Jn 1:29; Is 53:7, 12),
offering forgiveness and salvation (cf. Jn 3:17).
The ministry of reconciliation offers a person the great
opportunity to look within himself and make a preliminary fundamental
evaluation of his own conscience. If we entrust ourselves to Christ in the
economy of grace, we can live as justified persons.
John Paul Sartre's poem "Les Mouches" presents the
myth of Aegisthus, who believes he can free himself of existential
conflict by killing his father Agamemnon, whose anguish and illusion
affect all humanity. Believers and non-believers alike are in dire need of
help in order to truly form their conscience and to accept freely the
criteria that accompany their being and acting in the perspective of the
truth about themselves. This dimension belongs not only to them, but is
needed for a positive existential and ethical relationship for themselves
We are aware, of course, that good will does not suffice.
This is indeed important if the human being, and the believer in
particular, accepts the primacy of grace15 which brings him to
putting himself in a penultimate existential position, since he
knows he must seek a relationship that will give him true meaning and
Ethical relativism, while deceiving persons by giving them
a role that is not theirs, leaves them dissatisfied and in anguish over
not knowing who they are or how to act in order to do good.
This anguish Kierkegaard calls sin. It is an "invincible"
situation that removes understanding and hope.
This does not imply existential failure for Christian
anthropology. There is always the possibility of salvation in this earthly
pilgrimage,16 for with thought and repentance we arise and go
to the Father (cf. Lk 15:18-21) and accept that other dimension, the
supernatural aspect of the Christ event.
The sacrament of Reconciliation also affords the person
the great opportunity to know who he is and what he must do regarding his
natural state.17 The ordained minister guides the person to
face his identity and criterion of assessment regarding the natural law
written on his heart by God. "This", St Thomas says, "is nothing other
than the light of understanding infused in us by God, whereby we
understand what must be done and what must be avoided".18
Confession then helps pave the way to an understanding of
the proposal revealed earlier "in the history of Israel, particularly in
the 'ten words', the Commandments of Sinai, whereby [God] brought into
existence the people of the Covenant (cf. Ex 24) and called them to be his
'own possession among all peoples', a 'holy nation' (Ex 19:5-6), which
would radiate his holiness to all peoples.... The gift of the Decalogue
was a promise and sign of the New Covenant",19 the summary and
foundation of which is the commandment of love of neighbour (cf. Mt 19:19;
Mk 12:31). "In this commandment we find a precise expression of the
singular dignity of the human person" .20
The minister of the sacrament of Reconciliation, in his
dialogue with those who approach him, has an opportunity to offer the
chance to acquire an awareness of the sense of God, of the mysterium
pietatis and of a sense of sin, and to practise "contrition", which is
"the beginning and the heart of conversion, of that evangelical
metanoia which brings the person back to God... and which has in the
sacrament of Penance its visible sign... which perfects attrition".21
Helping a person understand his state of loyalty or lack
of it in relation to the truth means helping to build a correct
conscience,22 which alone can truly help human beings develop a
just and objective criterion for evaluation: This means making an
effective contribution to acquiring the criterion of freedom.
The very integrity essential for a "good confession" is in
itself a search for truth by the person preparing to experience the
sacrament of healing as a means to regain an objective relationship with
self, God and ultimate reality.
The sacrament of Reconciliation, through the minister's
and penitent's gestures and in accordance with what the Church has
received and proposes, offers a high-quality response to the thoughtful
person who wants to measure up in the evaluation of his or her identity
and actions, just as the Creator and the Redeemer desired and planned.
The ordained minister who celebrates this sacrament is
carrying out one of the highest functions for human promotion, precisely
by ensuring that the person becomes aware of the truth about himself by
"emptying himself" as Christ did (cf. Phil 2:6).
The sacrament which Jesus has bequeathed to us is the
"place" of grace and forgiveness so sought and yet all too often no longer
hoped for (cf. Zacchaeus), which the person of today must recognize as the
house of the Father, where he is expected for his salvation. Ordained
ministers, through catechesis and celebrating this sacrament, elicit this
desire for salvation.23
The Second Vatican Council's Decree Presbyterorum
Ordinis clearly sets ordained priesthood in the ministry of Christ
himself. Priestly life represents the ministerial quality of Christ the
As the person appointed to carry out the saving acts of
Christ for humanity, the ordained minister acts in persona Christi.
He therefore represents Christ in his mission and salvific event, by means
of the sacraments as effective expressions proper to the glorious Christ.
The ordained minister "makes [the] whole Mystical Body a
sharer in the anointing of the Spirit with which he has been anointed: for
in that body all the faithful are made a holy and kingly priesthood....
Therefore, there is no such thing as a member that has not a share in the
mission of the whole Body.... However, the Lord also appointed certain men
as ministers, in order that they might be united in one body in which 'all
the members have not the same function' (Rom 12:4). These men were to hold
in the community of the faithful the sacred power of Order, that of
offering sacrifice and forgiving sins".24
John Paul II affirms this in
Ecclesia de Eucharistia,
presenting Eucharist and Penance as two
closely connected sacraments: "Because the Eucharist makes present the
redeeming sacrifice of the Cross, perpetuating it sacramentally, it
naturally gives rise to a continuous need for conversion, for a personal
response to the appeal made by Saint Paul to the Christians of Corinth:
'We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God' (II Cor 5:20)".25
Reconciliation as a fruit of conversion truly accepted by
a person is the condi
sine qua non to be constituted as
the Mystical Body of Christ and thereby to make historically and
effectively visible this SarxChristi; it becomes concrete
hope for all who desire to actualize that "existential restoration"
of the "Imago Dei",which is man.
Offering sacramental Reconciliation to those who have lost
the fundamental option for God or have seriously damaged the
intersubjective koinonia brought about between God and man through
baptismal grace, becomes the obligatory path to full participation in the
Eucharist, which builds the Church.
"The judgment of one's state of grace", affirms John Paul
II, "obviously belongs only to the person involved, since it is a question
of examining one's conscience".26 Once the conscience is
purified, the sinner anxiously desires forgiveness, to be transformed from
an enemy of God into his adoptive son. This gift of mercy must then be
longed for and experienced by those who, despite sin, are incorporated
through Baptism into the royal priesthood of Christ and are members of the
If, therefore, "the common priesthood of the faithful and
the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless ordered one too
another",27 it is clear that those who are
constituted in the ordained ministry in persona Christi-capitis
offer the fruits of the Redemption Christ obtained for all humanity and
for each person who opts for him with the mystery of his death and
Consequently, although he is aware of his littleness and
frailty, the ordained minister is the only one who makes the effective
celebration of the sacrament of Reconciliation possible for the penitent,
since he represents Christ in the fullness of his saving dimension. He is
not, of course, the mysterium pietatis,but it is through
his insertion in the ordained ministry and his exercise of it that Christ
offers forgiveness and salvation, "repairing" the damaged koinonia
and restoring a "role and effectiveness" to the adoptive sonship, damaged
and humiliated by the situation of sin.
The Council of Arles had already made a distinction
between the holiness of the minister and the efficacy of the sacraments.
This factor should lead to the commitment of every ordained minister not
only to receive regularly the sacrament of Reconciliation,28
but also to feel the urgent need for "training in holiness",29
which is the desire Jesus expressed for his disciples summed up in the
Sermon on the Mount: "You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly
Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48).
If the ordained minister is aware that his identity is to
be and act in persona Christi and make the sacrament of Forgiveness
effective, it is only right for him to make his ministry conform as
closely as possible to the mens Christi that we deduce from the
faith of the post-paschal Community.
The awareness that they are acting in persona Christi
must commit the ordained ministers to attentiveness and balance with
respect to two extremes:
"Severity crushes people and drives them away. Laxity is
misleading and deceptive. The minister of pardon, who exemplifies for
penitents the face of the Good Shepherd, must express in equal measure the
mercy already present and at work and the pardon which brings healing and
peace. It is on the basis of these principles that the priest is deputed,
in dialogue with the penitent, to discern whether he or she is ready for
It is precisely by considering the minister of the
sacrament of Pardon as acting in persona Christi that the Church
emphasizes the personal encounter between confessor and penitent as an
ordinary form of sacramental Confession, restricting the practice of
general absolution to exceptional circumstances.31
"Seen in these terms, the sacrament of Reconciliation is
one of the most effective instruments of personal growth. Here the Good
Shepherd, through the presence and voice of the priest, approaches each
man and woman, entering into a personal dialogue which involves listening,
counsel, comfort and forgiveness. The love of God is such that it can
focus upon each individual without overlooking the rest. All who receive
sacramental absolution ought to be able to feel the warmth of this
If sin has personal and social effects, there is also an
ecclesial dimension for every sin of the Christifidelis.In
fact, by seriously grave or mortal sin, the Christian resists God's love
and impoverishes the Church33 for two reasons:
first fails in the mission received in Baptism to be a sign and witness to
the history of the Paschal Mystery of Christ, who objectively overcame the
culture of death and its cause;
faithful who live in a state of sin are obstacles to the Church's saving
dynamism in the human dimension, which manifests and suffers the sin and
incoherence of her members.
In this regard, we can conclude that the Church is both
holy and sinful. Thus, to speak of the ecclesiality of "sin" first implies
recognizing that "by virtue of a human solidarity which is as mysterious
and intangible as it is real and concrete, each individual's sin in some
way affects others".34 This applies first and foremost to true
With mortal sin the believer "fulfils" himself by
repudiating God's love, the Holy Spirit and his own being as a living part
of Christ's Mystical Body. He thereby cuts himself off from the baptismal
mission of being another Christ.While still a part of the
Mystical Body, he is deprived of its normal salvific and missionary
efficacy because, by refusing to live in the plan of grace, in addition to
separating himself from vital communion with Christ, the sinner is cut off
from the saving love of the Church and thus hinders the Church's very
Thus, the sacrament of Reconciliation becomes a means for
sinners to re-establish the salvific relationship with God in Christ and a
"sacramental place" of communion, so that the sinner can resume his vital
dynamic in the Church. It is from this "revitalization" that the Church,
humanly speaking, regains greater credibility and efficacy.
The sincere conversion of a great sinner is a cause of
wonder and serious reflection even for those who are indifferent. But
above and beyond the aspect of the mission ab extra of the sinner,
obtained with absolution and sacramental pardon, he brings an increase of
love and thus salvific efficacy to the spiritual treasury of the People of
This is brought about by virtue of the "magnificent
mystery of the Communion of Saints, thanks to which it has been possible
to say that 'every soul that rises above itself, raises up the world'".35
This "law of ascent"36 renders qualitative in human terms the
"distributive holiness of the Church for Gospel proclamation. It cannot be
disregarded by the ordained minister, even in the perspective of that
hoped-for spirituality of communion for a profound and more theological
renewal of the Church.37
The spirituality of communion begins precisely in the
human being's intersubjective relationship with God, and subsequently
spreads among the brethren. To remove sin by means of sacramental
absolution means restoring full efficacy to the Trinity who dwells within
the believer's heart. This divine presence is the common denominator for
holiness and brotherhood in the Church.
The more radiant this presence of the Trinity is in the
Christian's soul, the more he or she will feel the need to encounter his
"brothers and sisters in faith within the profound unity of the Mystical
Body", and therefore as those who are a part of him, to be "able to share
their joys and sufferings, to sense their desires and attend to their
needs.... A spirituality of communion implies also the ability to see what
is positive in others, to welcome it and prize it as a gift from God... a
'gift for me'. A spirituality of communion means, finally, to know how to
'make room' for our brothers and sisters, bearing each others' burdens
(cf. Gal 6:2) and resisting the selfish temptations.... Let us have no
illusions: unless we follow this spiritual path, external structures of
communion will serve very little purpose".38
Absolution in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy
Spirit becomes a seal of intercommunion so rich that it cannot but be
expressed in the ecclesial fabric and in the whole of human life as
a longing for solidarity and
communion is rooted in the Trinitarian
Mystery understood and contemplated, it cannot be far from truth. If the
ordained minister, who in the sacrament of Penance is the steward of
communion, wishes to build the Church, he must be a servant of truth.
In this regard John Paul II rightly states: "Let us also
make every effort to keep our theological training truly up-to-date,
especially where emerging ethical issues are concerned. It can happen that
in the face of complex contemporary ethical problems the faithful leave
the confessional with somewhat confused ideas, especially if they find
that confessors are not consistent in their judgments. The truth is", the
Pope stresses, "that those who fulfil this delicate ministry in the name
of God and of the Church have a specific duty not to promote and, even
more so, not to express in the confessional, personal opinions that do not
correspond to what the Church teaches and professes. Likewise, a failure
to speak the truth because of a misconceived sense of compassion should
not be taken for love".39
A sign of hope
If there is a sacrament that is totally opposed to a
vision of self-sufficiency and presumption through the imploded
anthropology that is part of the "superman" culture rooted in Nietzsche's
thought, it is precisely Confession. Indeed, this sacrament requires
acquiring a sense of one's own limits, an awareness of one's errors and
the desire to be true to oneself and others.
This truly defies today's social logic, "suffering from
horizontalism".40 The sacrament of Forgiveness as celebrated
and presented by the Church is an appeal to experience that
other-dimension which is the evangelical logic, a sure sign of a culture
Forgiving and loving one's enemies are not taken into
consideration by the dynamic of the culture of the so-called "emerging
man". Instead, the teachings of the Gospel are steeped in that other
dimension which, if experienced, becomes a source of true hope.
How often since the beginning of this new millennium has
John Paul II pointed out to Christian communities and to the whole world
the importance of asking and granting forgiveness, as he himself did even
during his difficult pilgrimage in tormented Bosnia. There, without
reticence, he asked pardon for those who, despite being Catholic
Christians, had sullied themselves with violence and death. Paul VI did
the same when at the end of the Second Vatican Council he knelt and kissed
the feet of Metropolitan Meliton as a sign of his forgiveness for sins
Every time we take part in a celebration of the sacrament
of Penance or go to a shrine or to one of our churches where an ordained
minister is waiting for us and welcomes us to offer Christ's forgiveness,
we should marvel and be moved spiritually. Unfortunately, the force of
habit, even a good one, often "saps" our sentiments of wonder.
We must allow ourselves to marvel in order to understand,
and today this is far from our practice. It is very important because that
meeting of the human being with the mystery of mercy is truly unique. The
encounters with Nicodemus (Jn 3:1-16), Zacchaeus (Mt 19:1-10), the
Samaritan woman (Jn 4:1-26) and the disciples of Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35) were
unique. Their maturation to adulthood was born from this wonder flowing
from the encounter with "the Face of Christ" ,41 the Good
Shepherd of impoverished humanity.
We must be convinced through culture and faith that only
Jesus can reveal and actualize God's plan found in each person's heart.
John Paul II says that "left to himself, man is not capable of giving
meaning to history and to human affairs: life remains without hope" .42
In a society where conflict, violence and lack of
understanding are on the agenda at the personal, family, ethical, cultural
and political levels, offering with conviction a presence where it is
possible to experience a trust that will never be lacking on the part of
God for man, even if he is a repentant "squanderer", makes an important
contribution to inspiring people of good will to think. The sacrament of
Reconciliation plays a key role in the recovery of hope.
John Paul II notes that "a personal experience of the
forgiveness of God for each one of us is, in fact, the essential
foundation of every hope for our future" .43 Thus, we can say
that the sacrament of Reconciliation is the supernatural and effective
aspect of the "civilization of love", which Paul VI so ardently desired
for the entire human family and John Paul II has repeatedly stressed, even
making it the theme of his Message for World Day of Peace 2001.
Indeed, the unusual, "ultimate" or definitive aspect of
Christianity is precisely the saving love of God: "to ransom a slave [he]
gave away [his] Son",44 slaying the Lamb to save the flock. The
Christian offers a different logic so that the world may live. And the
sacrament of Reconciliation is a concrete "place" where "what has passed
away and what is to come" are fulfilled, and where Christ makes "all
things new" (Rv 21:5).
It is the ordained minister, however, who makes the
mysterium pietatis effective, concrete and present for people of his
time. We can thus understand the exalted nature, depth and indispensable
need for the ministerial priesthood, and not only for the Church.
In addressing ordained ministers, John Paul II urges them
"to give generously of their time in hearing confessions and to be an
example to others by their own regular reception of the sacrament of
Penance. I urge them to keep current in the field of moral theology, in
order to approach knowledgeably the issues which have lately arisen in
personal and social morality".45
The very life of the priest must be authentic, that is,
such as the Church desires of one who has responded generously to the call
to act among the People of God in persona Christi.John Paul
II recalls that "as men who are 'in' the world but not 'of' the world (cf.
Jn 17:1516), priests are called in Europe's present cultural and spiritual
situation to be a sign of contradiction and of hope for a society... in
need of openness to the Transcendent. In this context priestly celibacy
also stands out as the sign of hope put totally in the Lord".46
The ordained minister should entrust himself to a serene
and mature interior life, and a generous pastoral ministry.
May the words of the Holy Father and of the European
Bishops from the closing message of the Special Synod of 1999 reach every
priest: "Do not lose heart and do not allow yourselves to be overcome with
weariness! In full communion with us Bishops, persevere in your invaluable
and indispensable ministry in joyful fraternity with your
priests, in generous collaboration with those in consecrated life and with
all the lay faithful",47 because in the sacrament of
Forgiveness the faithful, by rediscovering peace with their Lord, become
builders of peace, witnesses to those values people need to fulfil in that
existential freedom and relationship which promotes their true being as
and servants of creation.
1 John Paul II,
Homily, Chrism Mass, 28 March 2002, n. 1;
English edition [ORE], 3
April 2002, p. 3.
Ibid., n. 2.
3 Cf. Second Vatican Council, Pastoral
Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,
Spes, n. 22.
4 John Paul II,
Mass, 28 March 2002, n. 3; ORE,
3 April 2002, p. 3.
John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio
Ineunte, n. 38.
7 Cf. ibid., nn. 35-36.
8 Cf. ibid., n. 37.
9 Cf. John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic
et Paenitentia, n.18.
Cf. John Paul II,
of France's Eastern Region,
2 April 1982; ORE,16-23
August 1982, p. 15, n. 6.
John Paul II,
Reconciliatio et Paenitentia,
14 Cf. Irenaeus,
1, 13, 7.
Cf. John Paul II,
Cf. St Thomas Aquinas,
II-II, q. 14, a. 3.
17 Cf. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter
18 St Thomas Aquinas, Summa
q. 9, a. 2.
John Paul II,
John Paul II,
n. 31, III.
22 Cf. John Paul II,
23 Cf. John Paul II,
Priests for Holy
Second Vatican Council, Decree
25 John Paul II, Encyclical Letter
Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution
Lumen Gentium, n. 10.
28 Cf. John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic
Europa, n. 77.
29 John Paul II,
John Paul II, Letter
Holy Thursday 2002, n. 8.
Lumen Gentium, n. 11.
John Paul II,
Reconciliatio et Paenitentia,
Cf. John Paul II,
39 John Paul II, Letter to
Priests for Holy Thursday 2002,
40 Cf. John Paul II,
Ecclesia in Europa,
Cf. John Paul II,
42 John Paul II, Ecclesia
in Europa, n.
44 Roman Missal, Holy Saturday, Easter
45 John Paul II,
Ecclesia in Europa, n.
Weekly Edition in English
7 April 2004, page 9
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