Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Seeds of reform: the humble and merciful priest

Pope Francis today in his Wednesday General Audience spoke about the beauty of sacramental Confession, even "confessing" to everyone that he receives this Sacrament of Mercy every other week. Here is what he said about Confession, forgiveness and mercy:
The Church, however, is not the master of forgiveness, but its servant.
The Church accompanies us on our journey of conversion for the whole of our lives and calls us to experience reconciliation in its communal and ecclesial dimension. We receive forgiveness through the priest. Through his ministry, God has given us a brother to bring us forgiveness in the name of the Church. Priests, who are the servants of this sacrament, must recognize that they also are in need of forgiveness and healing, and so they must exercise their ministry in humility and mercy. Let us then remember always that God never tires of forgiving us. Let us truly value this sacrament and rejoice in the gift of pardon and healing that comes to us through the ministry of priests.
Simple enough, but a powerful reminder of what we are all called to.  I stress the all because I think once again that we see a note here of how the Holy Father hopes to reform the Church - by first reforming her priests and leaders.  And the way he hopes to reform us is by trying to make those two words be the defining characteristics of priestly service - humility and mercy.

My brother, Dan Horan, OFM, wrote an article over at America Magazine, on the issue of clericalism in the priesthood and that has generated a lot of conversation about the very things that define a priest or priestly character.  You can read his response to the conversation here: Respondeo: On Clericalism.  Perhaps, this is the point that the Holy Father is making. Put away what has defined you before and let humility and mercy define your priesthood - as it defined The One from whom you derive your priesthood, Jesus.

These are the very seeds of reform.  Seem simple?  Well, in many ways it is.  I grew up as a typical Catholic who struggled with the Sacrament of Reconciliation and although there were a variety of reasons, it really came down to this: repeated bad experiences in the confessional. Experiences with functionary priests who didn't seem to take the moment as seriously as I did; experiences of confusion when I didn't really understand how it should work or what I should say; experiences of frustration as priests didn't want to take the time to help me understand my sin or how to work through it to holiness.  Like many, I gave up on it.

Obviously, once into my conversion and the possibility of entering religious life, I re-engaged the Sacrament; and certainly when becoming a priest, I was determined to offer to penitents a better experience than the ones that I had encountered.

I can't tell you how many of that fastest-growing religious group known as "former Catholics" I have met have told me that the reason that they left the Church are reasons exactly like this - the attitudes that they experienced from the leadership of the Church; and far, far too often those attitudes expressed harshly in the most vulnerable of moments - in the confessional.

Catholic doctrine is wonderfully clear; wonderfully black and white.  But, as we all know, life is not.  Life is gray. Life is messy.  And, our message has got to be a bit more nuanced than simply, "Get with the program."  The Pope is calling us - especially priests and those in leadership roles - to engage people where they are at; to engage them in the messiness.  To roll up our sleeves and meet them smack dab in the middle of the challenges of their life and remind them there that "God never tires of forgiving."  Our job is not to simply publish a list of prerequisites that need to be checked off before entrance.  Our job is to welcome people into God's merciful and loving arms.

The Pope said today:
Even I go to Confession every 15 days, because the Pope is also a sinner. And the confessor listens to what I tell him, he advises me and absolves me, because we are all in need of this forgiveness. Penitents have the obligation? No. They have the right! We have the right, all of us, to find in priests, the servants of forgiveness from God.
We are all sinners in need of mercy - penitents, laity, priests and even Popes.  We all need to go to confession and find there God's loving mercy.  This is what it means, I think, to have the "smell of the sheep" as God's ministers. The Pope thinks this is so important, in fact, that he also said today that that the task of forgiving sins is so delicate, that if a priest is not merciful and benevolent, he should avoid being a confessor. 

Humility and mercy need to be the defining characteristics of our life and our ministry. As a friar and as a priest I feel the challenge that the Pope is placing before me every day.  I want to be that priest.  You've probably seen the humorous comic strip that says, "I wish I were the man that my dog thinks I am."  Well, I really want to be the priest that this Pope is not only calling me to be, but is showing me how to be each and every day of his pontificate. 

Imagine what the Church might be like if we all embraced that vision?  If we all embraced those simple words: humble and merciful.

"God never tires of forgiving."  He also never tires of welcoming and hoping and loving us to be the very people He created us to be.

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