From the Recent Magisterium of Pope John Paul II
Priest, Penance and the gift of peace
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 Millennio Ineunte 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 mysterium iniquitatis.
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 mysterium or sacramentum pietatis,12or 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 mundi vita,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 priority.
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 and others.
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 fulfilment.
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 Head.
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 conditio 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 Church.
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 Resurrection.
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 sacramental absolution".30
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 personal attention".32
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:
— he 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;
— the 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 mortal sin.
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 mission.
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 God.
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 grace. If 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 of hope.
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 against unity.
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 brother 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 Imago Dei and servants of creation.
1 John Paul II, Homily, Chrism Mass, 28 March 2002, n. 1; L'Osservatore Romano English edition [ORE], 3 April 2002, p. 3.
2 Ibid., n. 2.
3 Cf. Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, n. 22.
4 John Paul II, Homily, Chrism Mass, 28 March 2002, n. 3; ORE, 3 April 2002, p. 3.
5 Ibid.,n. 4.
6 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 Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, n.18.
10 Cf. John Paul II, Address to Bishops of France's Eastern Region,2 April 1982; ORE,16-23 August 1982, p. 15, n. 6.
11 John Paul II, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, n. 18.
12 Cf. ibid., n.19.
13 Cf. ibid., n. 20.
14 Cf. Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., 1, 13, 7.
15 Cf. John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte,n. 38.
16 Cf. St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol., II-II, q. 14, a. 3.
17 Cf. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor, n.10-11.
18 St Thomas Aquinas, SummaTheol. II-II, q. 9, a. 2.
19 John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, n. 12.
20 Ibid., n. 13.
21 John Paul II, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia,n. 31, III.
22 Cf. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor,n. 63.
23 Cf. John Paul II, Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday 2002, n. 4.
24 Second Vatican Council, Decree Presbyterorum Ordinis,n. 2.
25 John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia,n. 37.
27 Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, n. 10.
28 Cf. John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Europa, n. 77.
29 John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte,n. 31.
30 John Paul II, Letterto Priests for Holy Thursday 2002, n. 8.
31 Cf. ibid.,n. 9.
33 Cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 11.
34 John Paul II, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, n. 16.
36 Cf. ibid.
37 Cf. John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte, n. 43.
39 John Paul II, Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday 2002, n. 10.
40 Cf. John Paul II, Ecclesia in Europa,n. 34.
41 Cf. John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte,n. 23.
42 John Paul II, Ecclesia in Europa, n. 44.
43 Ibid.,n. 76.
44 Roman Missal, Holy Saturday, Easter Proclamation(Exultet).
45 John Paul II, Ecclesia in Europa, n. 77.
46 Ibid.,n. 34.
Weekly Edition in English
7 April 2004, page 9
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