Holy Father to Priests: Mercy in the Confessional - Archived

by Stephanie Sanchez
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Vatican City, 6 March 2014 (VIS) – This morning, in the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall, Pope Francis met with the clergy of the diocese of Rome. The central theme of the meeting, inspired by the Gospel of St. Matthew, was mercy. The Holy Father recalled how Jesus walked through towns and villages, feeling compassion for those he encountered; people who were “tired and worn out, like sheep without a shepherd”. “We are not here to perform a spiritual exercise for the beginning of Lent, but rather to listen to the voice of the Spirit that speaks to everyone in the Church in this, our time, which is indeed the time of mercy”.

This “time of mercy” was Pope Francis’ first point of reflection. “Today, we forget everything too easily, including the teaching of the Church! This is in part inevitable, but we must not forget the important content, the great intuitions and that which has been consigned to the People of God. And divine mercy is among these. … It is up to us, as ministers of the Church, to keep this message alive, above all in preaching and in our gestures, in signs and in pastoral choices, such as the decision to restore priority to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and at the same time to works of mercy”.

Secondly, the Pope asked, “What does it mean to be a priest?”. He explained that “priests are moved by their sheep, like Jesus when he saw the people, tired and exhausted, like sheep without a shepherd”. He commented that the priest, following the example of the Good Shepherd, is a man of mercy and compassion, close to his people and the servant of all. “In particular, the priest demonstrates the depths of his mercy in administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation; he shows this in all his attitude, in his way of welcoming, listening, advising and absolving. … But this derives from how he lives this Sacrament himself. … If a person lives this himself, in his own heart, he is also able to give it to others in his ministry”.

The Holy Father added that the heart of a priest must be susceptible to being moved, as “sterile priests do not help the Church. … We can think of today’s Church as a kind of ‘field hospital’, where we need to tend to injuries. … There are many people who are wounded by material problems, by scandals, even in the Church. … People wounded by the illusions of the world. … We priests must be there, close to these people. Mercy means, above all, taking care of wounds. When a person is injured, this is the immediate help they need, not analyses; the special care can follow, but first we need to tend to the open wounds. Do you know what your parishioners’ wounds are? Are you close to them?”.

In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, mercy means “neither undue laxity nor excessive rigour”. “Often, as priests, we hear of the experience of the faithful who say they have encountered in Confession a very ‘rigid’ or a very ‘flexible’ priest, lax or rigorous. That there may be differences in style is normal, but these differences must not relate to the substance, that is the healthy moral doctrine and mercy. Neither the lax nor the rigorous bear witness to Jesus, because neither of them truly take on the people they meet. … True mercy truly takes the person on board … and acts like the Good Samaritan. … Neither laxity nor rigour make holiness flourish”.

“Instead, mercy accompanies the path of holiness, and helps growth. But how? Through pastoral suffering, which is a form of mercy. What does pastoral suffering mean? It means suffering with the people, like a father and a mother suffer for their children, and I would say also with anxiety”.

Pope Francis shared with the clergy some questions that helped him when a priest comes to him for advice. “Do you cry? How many of us cry when faced with the suffering of a child, the destruction of a family, before the many people who cannot find their path? The tears of a priest … Do you cry, or is this a clergy that has lost its tears? Do you cry for your people? Do you battle with the Lord for your people, like Abraham fought?”

The Bishop of Rome concluded by commenting that in the end, “we will be judged for how we have been able to be close to ‘every flesh’, to our neighbours, to the flesh of our brothers. … At the end of time, only those who have not been ashamed before the flesh of his injured and excluded brother will be admitted to the contemplation of Christ’s glorified flesh”.