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A tragedy for the Church: The sacrament of confession is forgotten

on Saturday, 01 January 2011. Posted in Confession

On June 9, 2010, on the occasion of the international meeting of priests, at the end of the Year for Priests, Cardinal Joachim Meisner gave a meditation to more than 4,000 priests gathered at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, in Rome, 9 June 2010. The meditation was entitled Conversion and mission", and talked about the forgotten sacrament of confession. Here are large excerpts of this meditation:

Dear Fellow Priests! One of the most tragic failings that the Church has suffered in the second half of the twentieth century is to have neglected the gift of the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of penance. In us priests this has caused a tremendous loss of spiritual profile. When the Christian faithful ask me: "How can we help our priests?" I always reply: "Go to them to confess". When the priest is no longer a confessor he becomes a social worker of a religious kind. In fact he lacks the experience of the greatest pastoral achievement, of working together so that a sinner, thanks also to his help, leaves the confessional newly sanctified. In the confessional the priest can penetrate into the hearts of many people and from that impulses result, encouragement and inspiration for his own following of Christ. (…)

The biggest obstacle preventing Christ being seen through us is sin. It prevents the presence of the Lord in our lives and for that reason nothing is more necessary to us than conversion, also for the purposes of the mission. It is a matter, in short, of the sacrament of penance. A priest who does not frequently take his place on one and the other side of the grille of the confessional suffers permanent harm to his soul and his mission. Here certainly lies one of the major causes of the manifold crisis in which the priesthood has come to find itself in the last fifty years. The very special grace of the priesthood is precisely that the priest can feel "at home" on both sides of the grille of the confessional: as penitent and as minister of forgiveness. When the priest distances himself from the confessional, he enters into a grave identity crisis. The sacrament of penance is the privileged locus for the deepening of the identity of the priest, who is called upon to make himself and believers return to draw upon the fullness of Christ. (…)

The spiritual maturity to receive priestly ordination by a candidate for the priesthood, in my opinion, becomes evident from the fact that he regularly receives – at least as often as once a month – the sacrament of penance. Indeed in the sacrament of penance I meet the merciful Father with the most precious gifts He has to give, namely the giving, forgiving, and the giving of grace to us. But when someone, precisely because of his rare attendance at confession, says in fact to the Father: "Keep your precious gifts for yourself! I don't need you or your gifts!", then he stops being a child, because he excludes himself from the fatherhood of God, because he does not want to receive His precious gifts. And if one is no longer a child of the heavenly Father, then he cannot become a priest, because the priest first and foremost is the son of the Father through baptism, and then, through priestly ordination is, along with Christ, son with the Son. Only then can he truly be a brother to men.

The passage from conversion to mission can be seen in the first place in the fact of moving from one side to the other of the confessional grille, from the side of the penitent to that of the confessor. The neglect of the sacrament of penance is the root of many evils in the life of the Church and in the life of the priest. And the so-called crisis of the sacrament of penance is not only due to the fact that people no longer go to confession, but also to the fact that we priests are no longer present in the confessional. A confessional in which there is a priest, in an empty church, is the most moving symbol of the patience of God that waits. God is like this. He awaits us all through life.

In my thirty-five years of episcopal ministry I have known poignant examples of priests present daily in the confessional without a single penitent coming; until, one day, the first penitent, after months or years of waiting, finally shows up. Thus, one could say, the situation became unlocked. Since then, the confessional began to be very popular. (…)

When this essential area of priestly service is lost, we priests easily fall into a functional mindset or a level of mere pastoral technique. The placing of ourselves on both sides of the confessional grille leads us, with our testimony, to make Christ become perceptible to people. To clarify with a negative example: whoever comes into contact with radioactive material, becomes radioactive. If he then comes into contact with others, then these too will also be contaminated by radioactivity. But now however we will turn to our positive example: whoever comes into contact with Christ, becomes "Christ-active". And if then the priest, being "Christ-active", comes into contact with other people, they will certainly be "contaminated" by his "Christ-activity". This is the mission, as it was present from the beginning of Christianity. People flocked around the person of Jesus to touch him, even when it was only the hem of his dress. And they were healed even when he was turned away from them, "Since power came forth from him and healed them all" ( Lk 6, 19).

With us, however, people often shun us, do not approach to come into contact with us. Instead, they shun us. To prevent this, we must ask ourselves the question: who do they come into contact with when they come into contact with me? With Jesus Christ, in his boundless love for mankind, or with some private theological opinion or a complaint about the situation of the Church and the world? Coming into contact with us, do they come into contact with Jesus Christ? If it so, then people will come. So, talking among themselves about a priest, they will speak about him with words such as these: "With that one there you can talk. He understands me. He can really help me". I am profoundly convinced that people are longing for priests like this, in whom they can meet Christ authentically, who frees them from all ties and unites them to His Person. (…)

The forgiveness of God reconciles us with Him, with ourselves, with our brothers and sisters and with the whole world. It makes us authentic missionaries. Do you believe it, dear brothers? Try it, this very day!

Cardinal Joachim Meisner 

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