28 August 2016

Is it terrible being a priest?

Holy Mother Church places before us today the virtue of humility. In the first reading, she has hear these words from one of the wisdom books: "My child, conduct your affairs with humility" (Sirach 3:17).

In the second reading, we hear not of entering into the presence of the Lord, but of approaching (cf. Hebrews 12:18, 22). It is the humble man who approaches the presence of one greater than himself and the proud man who simply walks into the presence of another.

In the verse accompanying the Alleluia, Jesus tells us, "take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart" (Matthew 11:29). In the Gospel, Jesus warns us that "everyone who exalts himself will be humbled" (Luke 14:11).

To live in humility is really quite simple; all one must do is look honestly at one's life and at the course of human history. Such an honest assessment cannot but remind us of our sinfulness and our failures. With such a knowledge, one cannot think too highly of oneself. This is why the confessional is the best teacher of humility, both for the penitent who confesses his or sins and for the priest who hears and absolves the sins confessed.

A good many people do not yet fully understand this and so think the confession of sins is something to be dreaded and even avoided. Even the great J.R.R. Tolkien, himself a devout Catholic, thought "it must be terrible to be a priest!" In one of his letters to his son, he wrote these words:
A small knowledge of history depresses one with the sense of the everlasting mass and weight of human iniquity: old, old, dreary, endless repetitive unchanging incurable wickedness. All towns, all villages, all habitations of men - sinks! And at the same time one knows that there is always good: much more hidden, much less clearly discerned, seldom breaking out into recognizable, visible, beauties of word or deed or face - not even when in fact sanctity, far greater than the visible advertised wickedness, is really there. But I fear in the individual lives of all but a few, the balance is debit - we do so little that is positive good, even if we negatively avoid what is actively evil. It must be terrible to be a priest! (Letter to Christopher Tolkien, 14 May 1944).
Let me say here that it is far from terrible being a priest! Listening to the confession of sins, even of sins confessed by the same penitent over and over again again is not dreary; rather, it is a sign of great humility and of a desire for holiness.

When he spoke with a group of First Communicants some years ago, His Holiness Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI answered a question from the children about the confession of repetitive sins:
It is true: our sins are always the same, but we clean our homes, our rooms, at least once a week, even if the dirt is always the same; in order to live in cleanliness, in order to start again. Otherwise, the dirt might not be seen but it builds up. Something similar can be said about the soul, for me myself: if I never go to confession, my soul is neglected and in the end I am always pleased with myself and no longer understand that I must always work hard to improve, that I must make progress. And this cleansing of the soul which Jesus gives us in the Sacrament of Confession helps us to make our consciences more alert, more open, and hence, it also helps us to mature spiritually and as human persons.
Whenever a penitent enters the confessional and confesses his or her sins with humility, he or she leaves the confessional exalted by the Lord and filled with his joy and peace. When a priest hears confessions conscious of his configuration to Christ Jesus, our humble and eternal High Priest, who, too, leaves the confessional exalted by the same Lord and filled with his joy and peace.

Since my return to these United States of America on 21 June 2016 (since which date no one has walked into me or even come close to walking into me), I have had the great privilege of hearing confessions in a number of different circumstances, from retreats for high school students and married couples (two separate retreats) to the course of ordinary parish ministry.

While studying in Rome, I only the opportunity to hear confessions on a very occasional basis and it is good to hear them again. I have always found absolving the sins of Christ's faithful to be not a terrible experience as The Professor supposed, but one that fills me with humble gratitude for being used by the Lord Jesus as an instrument of his merciful love.

Whenever we receive absolution for our sins after a humble and sincere confession, we "rejoice and exult before God" and are "glad and rejoice" (Psalm 68:4). When we humble ourselves, the Lord exalts us; I therefore encourage you not to let your pride keep you from confessing yours sins.

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