The remainder of this document will find us with John Paul II and taking a close look at “The “Pastoral Ministry of Penance and Reconciliation.” This third of three main parts begins with the section numbered 23 and will take us to the end of 34. Today, we’ll begin with thoughts on the Holy Father’s desire in Promoting Penance and Reconciliation and in a few weeks, we’ll move to his substantial thoughts on the sacrament of penance.
23. To evoke conversion and penance in (the human) heart and to offer … the gift of reconciliation is the specific mission of the church as she continues the redemptive work of her divine founder. It is not a mission which consists merely of a few theoretical statements and the putting forward of an ethical ideal unaccompanied by the energy with which to carry it out. Rather it seeks to express itself in precise ministerial functions directed toward a concrete practice of penance and reconciliation.
That Pope John Paul II didn’t leap right into sacramental practice and considerations is telling. Clearly, he believes that reconciliation isn’t limited to a juridical or liturgical or devotional practice. Here, he introduces the idea that penance is pastoral. This will occupy the next numbered sections of the document. We’ll spend a few weeks here.
We can call this ministry, which is founded on and illumined by the principles of faith which we have explained and which is directed toward precise objectives and sustained by adequate means, the pastoral activity of penance and reconciliation. Its point of departure is the church’s conviction that (humankind), to whom every form of pastoral activity is directed but principally that of penance and reconciliation, is the (one) marked by sin whose striking image is to be found in King David. Rebuked by the prophet Nathan, David faces squarely his own iniquity and confesses: “I have sinned against the Lord,”(2 Samuel 12:13) and proclaims: “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”(Psalm 51:3) But he also prays: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow,”(Ibid., 51:7) and he receives the response of the divine mercy: “The Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.”(2 Samuel 12:13)
The desire of pastoral ministers would definitely be to facilitate such conversion of heart. Some might desire to be Nathan to today’s people. He was an effective teller of parables, finding the way into the heart and will of a member of the 1% of his day. As the Holy Father reminds, a pastoral ministry is not merely the presentation of a theory, the listing of ethical ideals, followed by the hope that people will naturally adhere to principles of virtue. We need more. John Paul II realized it. We still have the theoretical documents and the statements from religious leaders. But they are not enough.
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