Misericordiae Vultus 17cd: Confession

head of ChristSome words on one of Pope Francis’ favorite sacraments, an initiative we’ve seen in many dioceses around the world:

The initiative of “24 Hours for the Lord,” to be celebrated on the Friday and Saturday preceding the Fourth Week of Lent, should be implemented in every diocese.

The significance seems to me to be the two days prior to when the parable of the father and two sons is proclaimed on that fourth Sunday.

A hope for penitents:

So many people, including the youth, are returning to the Sacrament of Reconciliation; through this experience they are rediscovering a path back to the Lord, living a moment of intense prayer and finding meaning in their lives. Let us place the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the center once more in such a way that it will enable people to touch the grandeur of God’s mercy with their own hands. For every penitent, it will be a source of true interior peace.

An instruction for clergy:

I will never tire of insisting that confessors be authentic signs of the Father’s mercy. We do not become good confessors automatically. We become good confessors when, above all, we allow ourselves to be penitents in search of his mercy.

Authenticity includes the personal experience of being a penitent. The search for mercy implies a pilgrimage of sorts. That participation, that status as a companion increases the credibility and fruitfulness of the ministry of confessor.

Let us never forget that to be confessors means to participate in the very mission of Jesus to be a concrete sign of the constancy of divine love that pardons and saves. We priests have received the gift of the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins, and we are responsible for this. None of us wields power over this Sacrament; rather, we are faithful servants of God’s mercy through it.

The ministry is one of persistence, not power.

Every confessor must accept the faithful as the father in the parable of the prodigal son: a father who runs out to meet his son despite the fact that he has squandered away his inheritance. Confessors are called to embrace the repentant son who comes back home and to express the joy of having him back again.

The confessor’s role with the unrepentant son:

Let us never tire of also going out to the other son who stands outside, incapable of rejoicing, in order to explain to him that his judgment is severe and unjust and meaningless in light of the father’s boundless mercy.

What do you make of this advice:

May confessors not ask useless questions, but like the father in the parable, interrupt the speech prepared ahead of time by the prodigal son, so that confessors will learn to accept the plea for help and mercy gushing from the heart of every penitent. In short, confessors are called to be a sign of the primacy of mercy always, everywhere, and in every situation, no matter what.

What constitutes useless questioning? Requests for exact counts? Juicy particulars? Confessors realize that they gain or lose reputations for the degree they embrace mercy and show it. Children and teens especially are able to sniff out when a certain boundary is crossed. And those situations are extremely unfortunate, as the luster of the sacrament is often tarnished for a number of people. I’m inclined to think poor confessors may contribute to the current situation with penance as much or more than the supposed loss of a sense of sin.

The highlighted text is © copyright – Libreria Editrice Vaticana. You can find the document in its entirety on the Vatican website here.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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1 Response to Misericordiae Vultus 17cd: Confession

  1. Liam says:

    “What constitutes useless questioning?”

    I doubt think it’s referring to exact counts. The Church doesn’t require exact counts, but for grave matter does require a reasonable estimate of number (See canon 988 below; also factors into penance in Canon 981). I’ve never encountered a confessor who demands exactness.

    Can. 987 To receive the salvific remedy of the sacrament of penance, a member of the Christian faithful must be disposed in such a way that, rejecting sins committed and having a purpose of amendment, the person is turned back to God.

    Can. 988 §1. A member of the Christian faithful is obliged to confess in kind and number all grave sins committed after baptism and not yet remitted directly through the keys of the Church nor acknowledged in individual confession, of which the person has knowledge after diligent examination of conscience.
    §2. It is recommended to the Christian faithful that they also confess venial sins.

    Can. 989 After having reached the age of discretion, each member of the faithful is obliged to confess faithfully his or her grave sins at least once a year.

    What I suspect this is referring to is a practice that was once the dominant form of confession, and as far as I can tell from anecdotal evidence is still common in certain areas outside the US (for example, I’ve heard that confessors in the confessionals at St Peter’s Basilica employ this older method): what I would call the interrogatory form of confession. It’s where the confessor essentially asks the penitent questions in the manner one finds in examinations of conscience. (It’s partly influenced by the culture of Roman law – see canon 978 below; as best I can tell, but also very much by the fact that most penitents for most of our history have been illiterate, and unable to consult written examen before going to confession.) So, I think Pope Francis is talking about the requirement to use “prudence and discretion” mentioned in canon 979.

    Can. 978 §1 In hearing confessions the priest is to remember that he is at once both judge and healer, and that he is constituted by God as a minister of both divine justice and divine mercy, so that he may contribute to the honour of God and the salvation of souls.

    §2 In administering the sacrament, the confessor, as a minister of the Church, is to adhere faithfully to the teaching of the magisterium and to the norms laid down by the competent authority.

    Can. 979. In asking questions the priest is to act with prudence and discretion, taking into account the condition and the age of the penitent, and he is to refrain from enquiring the name of a partner in sin.

    Can. 981 The confessor is to impose salutary and appropriate penances, in proportion to the kind and number of sins confessed, taking into account, however, the condition of the penitent. The penitent is bound personally to fulfil these penances.

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