VATICAN CITY, MAR 21, 2002 (VIS) – Made public today was the Holy Father’s traditional Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday. His message this year focussed on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but also touched upon two other issues: the lack of peace in the world, and what he called “the sins of some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of Ordination in succumbing even to the most grievous forms of the ‘mysterium iniquitatis’ at work in the world.”
The Letter to Priests, published in several languages, was signed by Pope John Paul on march 17, the fifth Sunday of Lent.
Following are excerpts from the 19-page document:
“I would like this year to speak to you about an aspect of our mission to which I called your attention last year at this same time. I believe that it warrants further reflection. I mean the mission which the Lord has given us to represent him not just in the Eucharistic Sacrifice but also in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us: ‘The Eucharist cannot unite us to Christ without at the same time cleansing us from past sins and preserving us from future sins’ (No. 1393). … ‘The Eucharist,’ the Catechism continues, ‘is not ordered to the forgiveness of mortal sins. That is proper to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. … ‘anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1385).
“I feel a pressing need to urge you, as I did last year, to rediscover for yourselves and to help others to rediscover the beauty of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In recent decades and for a variety of reasons, this sacrament has passed through something of a crisis. … (Today, there is a) need for personal contact, something that is becoming increasingly scarce in the hectic pace of today’s technological society, but which for this very reason is increasingly experienced as a vital need. Certainly, this need can be met in various ways. But how can we fail to recognize that the Sacrament of Reconciliation þ without confusing it with any of the various forms of psychological therapy þ offers an extraordinarily rich response to this need? It does so by bringing the penitent into contact with the merciful heart of God through the friendly face of a brother.”
“I wish to repeat that the usual form of administering this sacrament is its individual celebration, and only in ‘cases of grave necessity’ is it lawful to employ the communal form with general confession and absolution. The conditions required for this form of absolution are well known; but perhaps we should remember that for absolution to be valid the faithful must have the intention of subsequently confessing their grave sins individually (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1483).”
“Surrounded by a wide variety of pastoral situations, we can sometimes lose heart and motivation because so many Christians pay too little attention to the sacramental life, and even when they do approach the sacraments, they often do so in a superficial way. … The confessor should not fail to use the sacramental encounter to lead penitents to some grasp of the way in which God is mercifully reaching down to them, stretching out his hand, not to strike but to save.”
“The ministry of the confessional … is a ministry always beset by two opposite extremes: severity and laxity. … We must always be careful to maintain a proper balance in order to avoid falling into one or the other of these extremes. Severity crushes people and drives them away. Laxity is misleading and deceptive.”
“Accordingly, confessors too need to be properly trained for the celebration of this Sacrament. … Let us also make every effort to keep our theological training truly up-to-date, especially where emerging ethical issues are concerned. It can happen that in the face of complex contemporary ethical problems the faithful leave the confessional with somewhat confused ideas, especially if they find that confessors are not consistent in their judgments.”
The Letter concludes: “Dear Priests! Know that I am especially close to you as you gather with your Bishops on this Holy Thursday of the year 2002. We have all experienced a new momentum in the Church at the dawn of the new millennium, in the sense of ‘starting afresh from Christ’. We had all hoped that this momentum might coincide with a new era of brotherhood and peace for all humanity. Instead we have seen more bloodshed. Once again we have been witnesses of wars. We are distressed by the tragedy of the divisions and hatreds which are devastating relations between peoples.
“At this time too, as priests we are personally and profoundly afflicted by the sins of some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of Ordination in succumbing even to the most grievous forms of the ‘mysterium iniquitatis’ at work in the world. Grave scandal is caused, with the result that a dark shadow of suspicion is cast over all the other fine priests who perform their ministry with honesty and integrity and often with heroic self-sacrifice. As the Church shows her concern for the victims and strives to respond in truth and justice to each of these painful situations, all of us þ conscious of human weakness, but trusting in the healing power of divine grace þ are called to embrace the ‘mysterium Crucis’ and to commit ourselves more fully to the search for holiness. We must beg God in his Providence to prompt a whole-hearted reawakening of those ideals of total self-giving to Christ which are the very foundation of the priestly ministry.”