Where the Truth Makes Us Free
Speaking of space, let us go to the confessional. The Catechism of the Catholic Church presents the confessional as the place where the truth makes us free for an encounter. “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 judgement is both just and merciful. The priest is the sign and the instrument of God’s merciful love for the sinner” (No. 1465). The Catechism also reminds us that “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” (No. 1466).
Signs and instruments of an encounter. That is what we are. An attractive invitation to an encounter. As signs, we must be welcoming, sending a message that attracts people’s attention. Signs need to be consistent and clear, but above all understandable. Some signs are only clear to specialists. Signs and instruments. Instruments have to be effective, readily available, precise and suitable for the job. We are instruments if people have a genuine encounter with the God of mercy. Our task is “to make that encounter possible”, face-to-face. What people do afterwards is their business. There is a prodigal son among the pigs and a father who goes out every afternoon to see if he is returning. There is a lost sheep and a shepherd who goes out to seek him. There is a wounded person left at the roadside and a good-hearted Samaritan. What is our ministry? It is to be signs and instruments enabling this encounter. Let us always remember that we are not the father, the shepherd or the Samaritan. Rather, inasmuch as we are sinners, we are on the side of the other three. Our ministry has to be a sign and instrument of that encounter. We are part of the mystery of the Holy Spirit, who creates the Church, builds unity, and constantly invites to encounter.
The other mark of a sign and instrument is that it is not self-referential. Put more simply, it is not an end in itself. Nobody sticks with the sign once they understand the reality. Nobody keeps looking at the screwdriver or the hammer, but at the well-hung picture. We are useless servants. Instruments and signs that help two people to join in an embrace, like the father and his son.
The third mark of a sign and instrument is its availability. An instrument has to be readily accessible; a sign must be visible. Being a sign and instrument is about being a mediator. Perhaps this is the real key to our own mission in this merciful encounter of God and man. We could even put it in negative terms. Saint Ignatius talked about “not getting in the way”. A good mediator makes things easy, rather than setting up obstacles. In my country, there was a great confessor, Father Cullen. He would sit in the confessional and do one of two things: he would repair worn soccer balls for the local kids, or he would thumb through a big Chinese dictionary. He used to say that when people saw him doing such completely useless things like fixing old soccer balls or trying to master Chinese, they would think: “I’m going to go up and talk to his priest, since he obviously doesn’t have much to do!” He was available for what was essential. He got rid of the obstacle of always looking busy and serious.
Everybody has known good confessors. We have to learn from our good confessors, the ones whom people seek out, who do not make them afraid but help them to speak frankly, as Jesus did with Nicodemus. If people come to confession it is because they are penitent; repentance is already present. They come to confession because they want to change. Or at least they want to want to change, if they think their situation is impossible. Ad impossibilia nemo tenetur, as the old maxim goes: no one is obliged to do the impossible.
We have to learn from good confessors, those who are gentle with sinners, who after a couple of words understand everything, as Jesus did with the woman suffering from a haemorrhage, and straightaway the power of forgiveness goes forth from them. The integrity of confession is not a mathematics problem. Sometimes people feel less shame in confessing a sin than in stating the number of times they committed it. We have to let ourselves be moved by people’s situation, which at times is a mixture of their own doing, human weakness, sin and insuperable conditionings. We have to be like Jesus, who was deeply moved by the sight of people and their problems, and kept healing them, even when they “didn’t ask properly”, like that leper, or seemed to beat around the bush, like the Samaritan woman. She was like a bird we have in South America: she squawked in one place but had her nest in another.
We have to learn from confessors who can enable penitents to feel amendment in taking a small step forwards, like Jesus, who gave a suitable penance and could appreciate the one leper who returned to thank him, on whom he bestowed yet more. Jesus had his mat taken away from the paralytic, and he made the blind man and the Syro-Phoenician woman have to ask. It didn’t matter to him if they paid no attention to him, like the paralytic at the pool of Bethzatha, or told others what he ordered them not to tell, with the result that he himself became the leper, since he could not go into the towns or his enemies found reasons to condemn him. He healed people, forgave their sins, eased their suffering, gave them rest and made them feel the consoling breath of the Spirit.
In Buenos Aires I knew a Capuchin Friar. He is a little younger than myself and a great confessor. There is always a line before his confessional, lots of people confessing all day long. He is really good at forgiving. He forgives, but every once in a while he has scruples about being so forgiving. Once in conversation he told me: “Sometimes I have scruples”. So I asked him: “What do you do when you have these scruples?” He replied: “I go before the tabernacle, I look at our Lord and I tell him, ‘Lord, forgive me, today I was very forgiving. But let’s be clear, it is all your fault, because you gave me bad example!” He added mercy to mercy.
Lastly, as far as confession is concerned, I have two bits of advice. First, never look like a bureaucrat or a judge, somebody who just sees “cases” to be dealt with. Mercy sets us free from being this kind of priest, who is so used to judging “cases” that he is no longer sensitive to persons, to faces. The rule of Jesus is to “judge as we would be judged”. This is the key to our judgement: that we treat others with dignity, that we don’t demean or mistreat them, that we help raise them up, and that we never forget that the Lord is using us, weak as we are, as his instruments. Not necessarily because our judgement is “the best”, but because it is sincere and can build a good relationship.
My other bit of advice is not to be curious in the confessional. Saint Therese tells us that when her novices would confide in her, she was very careful not to ask how things turned out. She did not pry into people’s souls (cf. History of a Soul, Ms C, to Mother Gonzaga, c. XII, 32r.). It is characteristic of mercy to cover sin with its cloak, so as not to wound people’s dignity. Like the two sons of Noah, who covered with a cloak the nakedness of their father in his drunkenness (cf. Gen 9:23).
Full text of Pope Francis’ first meditation for the Retreat for Priests:
Full text of Pope Francis’ second meditation for the Retreat for Priests:
Full text of Pope Francis’ third meditation for the Retreat for Priests:
Courtesy: Vatican Radio.