28 March 2014

An audience with Pope Francis: Be "witnesses and heralds, joyful and strong, of the resurrection of the Lord"

The course offered this week by the Sacred Apostolic Penitentiary on the internal forum concluded this morning with a round table discussion on various questions submitted by the priests and transitional deacons in attendance. After all of the questions had been addressed we made our way - all six hundred or so of us - to the famed Bronze Doors of the Apostolic Palace and climbed several stairways until we arrived in the central loggia - the Hall of Blessings - above the main doors of the Basilica of St. Peter:

This was a hall in which I never thought I would find myself. It is the very hall where the Pope appears immediately after his election to the See of Peter, the same balcony from which he also gives his Urbi et Orbi addresses and blesses the faithful gathered below in St. Peter's Square:

The guards would not let us open the sheers.

At long last the Holy Father finally arrived - thirty-minutes late - and made his way up the aisle toward the chair prepared for him:

After Pope Francis greeted the Major Penitentiary, His Eminence Mauro Cardinal Piacenza, Cardinal Piacenza addressed a few words to the Holy Father who listened with, well, an expression on his face:

Following the Cardinal's brief remarks, His Holiness greeted him again:

Afterwards he returned to his chair and was handed the text of his address:

Here follows the text of the Holy Father's address, with my emphases:
Dear Brothers,

I welcome you on the occasion of the annual Course on the Internal Forum. I thank Cardinal Mauro Piacenza for the words with which he introduced our meeting.

For a quarter of a century the Apostolic Penitentiary, aware of the importance of this ministry, has offered, especially to new priests and deacons, the opportunity of this course, in order to contribute to the formation of good confessors. I thank you for this valuable service and I encourage you to take it forward with renewed commitment, building on experience gained and with skilful creativity, to always help the Church and confessors to better carry out the ministry of mercy, which is so important!

In this regard, I wish to offer a few thoughts.

First of all, the protagonist of the ministry of reconciliation is the Holy Spirit. The forgiveness that the Sacrament confers is the new life sent by the Risen Lord by means of His Spirit: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain, are retained” (Jn 20:22-23). Therefore, you are called to always be “men of the Holy Spirit,” witnesses and heralds, joyful and strong, of the resurrection of the Lord. This testimony is read on the face, is heard in the voice of the priest who administers with faith and with “unction” the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He welcomes penitents not with the attitude of a judge, not even with that of a simple man, but with the charity of God, with the love of a father who sees the son returning and goes to meet him, [with the love] of the shepherd who has found the lost sheep. The heart of the priest is a heart that knows how to be moved, not by sentimentality or mere emotion, but to the “tender mercy” [viscere di misericordia] of the Lord! If it is true that tradition points out the dual role of doctor and judge for confessors, we must never forget that as a doctor he is called to heal and as a judge, to absolve.
The second aspect: if Reconciliation transmits the new life of the Risen Lord and renews baptismal grace, then your task is to give it generously to others. To give this grace. A priest who does not attend to this part of his ministry, both in the amount of time spent and in the spiritual quality, is like a shepherd who does not take care of the sheep that were lost; he is like a father who forgets the lost son and neglects waiting for him. But mercy is the heart of the Gospel! Don’t forget this: mercy is the heart of the Gospel! It is the good news that God loves us, that He always loves the sinner, and with this love draws him to Himself and invites him to conversion. We must not forget that the faithful often have difficulty approaching the sacrament, whether for practical reasons, or because of the natural difficulty of confessing one’s sins to another person. For this reason it is necessary to work hard on ourselves, on our humanity, never to be an obstacle but always to favour drawing near to mercy and forgiveness. But many times it happens that a person comes and says, “I haven’t confessed for many years, I have this problem, I left Confession because I found a priest and he told me this,” and you see the imprudence, the lack of pastoral love, in what that person says. And they draw away, because of a bad experience in Confession. If there is this attitude of a father, that comes from the goodness of God, this would never happen.
And we must guard against two extremes: rigorism and laxism. Neither is good, because in reality they don’t take charge of the person of the penitent. Instead, mercy truly listens with the heart of God and wants to accompany the soul on the path of reconciliation. Confession is not a court of condemnation, but an experience of forgiveness and mercy!

Finally, we all know the difficulties often encountered in Confession. There are many reasons, both historical and spiritual. However, we know that the Lord wanted to give this immense gift to His Church, offering to the baptized the security of the Father's forgiveness. It is this: it is the security of the Father’s forgiveness. For this reason, it is very important that in every diocese and in the parish communities, particular care is taken of the celebration of this Sacrament of forgiveness and salvation. It’s good that in every parish the faithful know when they can find priests available: when there is fidelity, the fruits are seen. This is particularly true for the churches entrusted to religious Communities, which can ensure a constant presence of confessors.

To the Virgin, Mother of Mercy, we entrust the ministry of priests, and every Christian community, that they might always grow in understanding the value of the Sacrament of Penance. I entrust all of you to our Mother and I bless you from the heart.
At the conclusion of his address, Pope Francis blessed those of us present and made his way down the aisle again, greeting some of those along the rail, one of whom is a transitional deacon preparing for ordination to the priesthood later this year who brought his chalice hoping to be able to ask the Pope to bless it:

Much to all of our surprise, he was successful:

Pope Francis asked him when he would celebrate his first Mass and told him to celebrate as it were his first and last.

One the Holy Father left the Hall of Blessings, we made our back down the stairways and through a courtyard that offered an unexpected view of the basilica:

Before arriving again at the Bronze Doors, we found ourselves in another courtyard in which some of us watched a member of the Swiss Guard change a flag:

Once we were back in the piazza, we walked to a nearby restaurant and enjoyed a buon pranzo.

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