In the Spirit of a Good Confession (Part 2)

Father Cantalamessa’s 3rd Lenten Meditation

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VATICAN CITY, APRIL 7, 2004 ( Here is Part 2 of a translation of the Lenten meditation offered last Friday by the Papal Household preacher, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, to John Paul II and officials of the Roman Curia.

«‘Morality Tells Us What to Do’ — Easter in Life» was the focus of the third and last meditation of Lent preached by Father Cantalamessa in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel of the Apostolic Palace. Part 1 appeared Tuesday.

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Father Raniero Cantalamessa
Lent 2004 in the Pontifical Household
Third Sermon

«Morality Tells Us What To Do»
Easter in Life

3. Renew the Sacrament in the Spirit

If we wish, however, that this sacrament be truly effective in the struggle against sin, the way it is administered and received must be renewed in the Spirit, as everything else in the Church. The link between the Spirit and forgiveness of sins is in the words themselves of the institution of this sacrament: «Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained» (John 20:22 ff.).

An old liturgical prayer says: «We pray Lord: that the Holy Spirit may heal our souls with the divine sacraments, because He himself is the remission of all sins.»9 This bold affirmation is inspired in St. Ambrose. «In the remission of sins, the saint writes, men carry out a ministry, but they do not exercise any power of their own, because it is by the Holy Spirit that sins are forgiven.»10

One of the symbols of the Holy Spirit is fire: «He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire» (Matthew 3:11); «And there appeared to them tongues as of fire … and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit» (Acts 2:4). Fire purifies. Water also symbolizes purification, but with a difference: Water purifies the surface of things, fire also the interior; it penetrates between fiber and fiber and rids one of the scoria. To purify gold, it is not enough to wash it, it must be passed through the melting pot.

The Holy Spirit does this in the sacrament of reconciliation. He frees the image of God from the encrustation of sin and gives back to it its original splendor. Speaking of the burning coal that purifies Isaiah’s lips (see Isaiah 6:6), St. Ambrose wrote: «That fire was a figure of the Holy Spirit that would descend after the Ascension of the Lord, to remit the sins of all and to enkindle, as fire, the souls and minds of the faithful.»11

To renew the sacrament in the Spirit means not to live confession as a rite, a habit, a canonical obligation to be fulfilled, but as a personal encounter with the Risen One who allows us, as Thomas, to touch his wounds, to feel within us the healing force of his Blood and to taste «the joy of being saved.»

Confession enables us to experience within ourselves that which the Church sings about at the Easter Vigil in the Exultet: «O happy fault that has merited for us such a Redeemer!» Jesus knows how to make of all human faults, once recognized, «happy faults,» faults that are no longer remembered but for the experience of divine mercy and tenderness which they occasioned!

A greater miracle than saying to a paralytic: «Rise and walk» takes place in every absolution (see Mark 2:9). Only divine omnipotence can create from nothing that which is not, and reduce to nothing that which is, and this is what takes place in the remission of sins. In it is achieved in fact that which took place by right on the cross: «the body of sin is destroyed,» literally «annihilated» (Romans 6:7).

The sacrament of confession puts at our disposition an excellent and unsurpassable means to always experience again free justification through faith. It gives us the possibility to realize every time the «wonderful exchange» by which we give Christ our sins and he gives us his justice. After every good confession, we are the publican who, for having said only: O God, have mercy on me a sinner!» returns home «justified,» forgiven, made a new creature.

Having received absolution, we must be careful not to repeat the error of the nine lepers who did not even turn back to express their gratitude. Let us look in the mosaic of this chapel what the sinful woman does to whom so much was forgiven: with what infinite devotion and profound emotion she bends down to wash and kiss the feet of Jesus and to dry them with her hair. We too, after every confession, can run to the house where Jesus is at a banquet — to the Eucharist or before the Most Blessed Sacrament — and give vent to our overwhelming gratitude.

To renew the sacrament in the Spirit means, therefore, also to review every now and then the object of our confessions. There is the danger of being entrenched in schemes of examination of conscience learned when we were young and to go on with them throughout life, while situations have changed and our real sins are no longer the same as they were then.

At times, when there are no serious sins to confess, I think it is appropriate to put aside all our schemes and, preparing ourselves for confession, to have a little conversation with Jesus such as this: «Jesus, in confidence just between you and me: What is the thing in this period that has displeased you most in me, what has saddened and offended you?»

In general, we need not wait for the answer to this question. Once we know it, we must go directly to the point and not bury it in confession under the avalanche of other habitual defects.

4. Penitents and Confessors

Many of us here present are not only penitents but also confessors; we do not only receive the sacrament of reconciliation but we also administer it. The renewal of the sacrament does not relate only to the way of receiving it but also to the way of administering it. I permit myself to offer humbly some reflections in this regard.

The Latin Church has tried to explain this sacrament with the juridical idea of a trial from which one emerges absolved or not absolved. In this trial, the minister holds the office of judge. This view, if accentuated unilaterally, can have negative consequences. It becomes difficult to recognize Jesus in the confessor. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the father does not behave like a judge but, in fact, like a father; even before the son had finished making his confession, he embraces him and orders a feast. The Gospel is the real «Manual for Confessors»; canonical law is there to serve it, not to replace it.

Jesus does not begin by asking, in a peremptory tone, the adulteress, Zacchaeus, and all the sinners he meets, «the number and kind» of their sins: «How many times? With whom? Where?» He is concerned first of all that the person experience mercy, tenderness and even the joy of God in receiving the sinner. He knows that after this experience it will be the sinner himself who will feel the need of an ever more complete confession of faults.

In the whole Bible we see in action the pedagogy of God, not asking man everything and immediately in the matter of morality, but only that which, at the moment, he is able to understand. Paul speaks of a «divine patience» in this respect (see Romans 3:26). What is essential is that it be the beginning of true repentance and the will to change and repair the evil done.

The Pope has given a strong sign in this connection and not only with the encyclical «Dives in Misericordia.» In 1983, while the Synod of Bishops was being held on «Penance and Reconciliation,» he wished to proclaim a saint, in the presence of the entire synod, Blessed Leopold Mandic, a humble Capuchin who spent his life confessing.

Well known is the affability, love and encouragement with which St. Leopold received and dismissed every penitent. To those who reproached him for being «too good» and that God would ask him to explain his excessive generosity with penitents, he rep
lied: «We were not the ones who died for souls, but he poured out his divine Blood. We must therefore treat souls as He has taught us with his example. If the Lord were to reproach me for too much generosity, I could say to him: ‘Blessed Lord, You gave me this bad example.'»12

The fruits attest to the goodness of this way of administering the sacrament. At a distance of half a century, one still finds in Italy people who attribute to him their return to the Church. It is true that together with St. Leopold, most tender in confession, there is a St. Pio of Pietrelcina of the same order, noted at times for his gruff way of receiving and dismissing penitents; but to imitate him in this, one would have to be sure of having the same gift that he had of binding souls in this way closer to himself and of making them return to his confessional immediately afterward, with a changed disposition of heart.

When presenting a book on St. Leopold, the then cardinal prefect of the Congregation for Sainthood Causes, Pietro Palazzini, wrote: «If there are persons who have the primary obligation of saving confession from the crisis that seems to threaten it, these are, above all, priests. If the falling away of faithful from this most human and consoling sacrament occurred independently of other causes, it would be painful; but it would never be as painful as in the case when it depended on the ministers.»13 It is not unusual to meet people who have been away from confession for years and at times for their whole life because of a traumatic meeting that took place the last time they approached the sacrament.

The administration of penance can become for a confessor an occasion of conversion and grace, as the proclamation of the Word of God is for the preacher. In the sins of the penitent he recognizes without difficulty, perhaps in different forms, his own sins and while he hears a confession he can do no less than say within himself: «Lord, I too, I too have done the same, have mercy on me also.» How many sins, never included in one’s examination of conscience, are discovered by listening to the sins of others! To some penitents who were more afflicted, St. Leopold would say to encourage them: «Here we are two sinners: God have mercy on us!»14

I end this meditation with a poem by Paul Claudel which describes confession with the same images with which the liturgy celebrates the resurrection of Christ. The latter makes us desire the joy of reaching Easter renewed in the spirit of a good confession:

«My God, I am resurrected and I am again with You!
I was asleep and lying like a dead person in the night.
God said: Let there be light and I woke up
As a cry is uttered!
I am resurrected and I have awakened,
I am standing up and I start with the day that begins!
My Father who created me before the dawn,
I place myself in Your presence,
My heart is free and my mouth is clear,
my body and spirit are fasting.
I am absolved of all my sins
which I have confessed one by one.
The wedding ring is on my finger and my face is clean.
I am like an innocent being in the grace
That you have granted me.»15

Happy and Holy Easter!

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9. Roman Missal, Tuesday after Pentecost

10. St. Ambrose, On the Holy Spirit, III, 137.

11. St. Ambrose, On Duties, III, 18, 103 (PL 16, 174).

12. Texts quoted in Lorenzo da Fara, «Leopold Mandic. Humanity, Sanctity,» Padua 1987, pp. 103 ff.

13. Cardinal Pietro Palazzini, presentation of the book «In the Name of Mercy. St. Leopold Mandic and Confession Today,» Padua 1990.

14. Cf. Lorenzo da Fara, cit., p. 106.

15. P. Claudel, «Corona benignitatis anni Dei, Oeuvres poétiques,» Paris 1976, p. 377.

[Translation by ZENIT]

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