Pastoral Exhortation: God's Mercy through the Ministry of the Church

To conclude the Year of Mercy, I have written a pastoral exhortation to the faithful of the Diocese of Tyler on the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. The complete text of the exhortation is below in and it can also be printed in English and Spanish from this PDF.

JOSEPH EDWARD STRICKLAND
BY THE GRACE OF GOD AND THE APOSTOLIC SEE
BISHOP OF TYLER

TO THE  CATHOLIC FAITHFUL OF THE DIOCESE OF TYLER,
HEALTH AND BENEDICTION

The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation: God’s Mercy through the Ministry of the Church

As we bring the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy called by Pope Francis to a close, a year in which we have contemplated the Lord Jesus as the face of the Father who is rich in mercy, my hope is that the clergy and faithful of the Diocese of Tyler have come to better understand that the mystery of God’s mercy is truly a wellspring of joy, serenity and peace.[1]

During this Year of Mercy, we have continually been reminded that God’s mercy is infinitely greater than even the most heinous sin we might commit, and that God’s unfathomable love for us is made tangible and visible through acts of mercy. This tangibility and visibility means that God’s mercy is not an abstract theological concept or an act that is hidden, but rather something we can feel, hear and touch as human beings. This is how God has interacted with his people throughout history, and it is why Christ instituted the sacraments and entrusted them to his Church – so that down through the ages we might personally experience through our senses the visible reality of the invisible grace that is being given to us.

With this in mind, I write to you at this time to focus our attention more deeply on the sacrament most directly associated with mercy – the sacrament of reconciliation, also called penance, confession and forgiveness. My experience as a priest has often led me to reflect on the personal encounter with Jesus Christ that occurs in this outward and visible sign of his mercy.  Our faith as Catholics is firmly founded on the beautiful gift of the real presence of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, the fundamental mystery of our faith that the consecrated bread and wine become the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. Many converts are drawn to the Catholic faith because they come to understand that they are experiencing a true and deep encounter with the Son of God when they receive the Eucharist. With regard to the to the sacrament of reconciliation, I believe we need to nurture a similar statement of faith and remind ourselves that this sacrament is also an intimate personal encounter with the living presence of Jesus Christ. No one can come to the Father except through the person Jesus, and in the sacrament, Jesus himself has given us the method for doing this.[2]

Through the centuries, saints and scholars have written volumes about the great beauty of this sacrament and the richness of the Divine Mercy, and I will not endeavor to add to that here or to try give a complete overview of all the various aspects of reconciliation. Rather, the purpose of this letter is to help us, in some small way, better understand the “why” of this encounter with the Lord and to answer a question that we have probably been asked before and that we may have even had ourselves: why do we confess our sins to a priest? This question can take many different forms, but a clear understanding of why the Lord wants us to experience his mercy in this very personal way can allow us to enter more deeply into our relationship with him.

As Christians, we understand that pardon for our sins comes from Christ’s work on Calvary, the offering of himself as the perfect and once-for-all sacrifice to the Father. However, this does not immediately have its full effect “since Christ, after redeeming the world at the lavish cost of His own blood, still must come into complete possession of the souls of men.”[3] Each of us must individually choose to participate in the Lord’s work, so, in his great love, he provided a path for us to receive his pardon and experience the effects of his forgiveness. Sacred Scripture tells us that he established two means by which our sins can be taken away: the sacraments of baptism and reconciliation.

Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, washes away all sin, both original sin transmitted to us from Adam and any personal sins committed before receiving the sacrament. Through baptism, we are united to Christ, transformed by grace and saved, but the consequences of the first sin still impact all humanity and we are left with a human nature that is weak and inclined to evil. Consequently, in this earthly life Christians are in the midst of a spiritual struggle, striving daily for holiness and to avoid sin with the help of grace.[4] Because of his infinite mercy, God never abandons us, even if we turn away from him. Deeply aware of our human frailty and our tendency to sin, the Lord instituted the means to provide forgiveness of sins and to restore us to grace and communion with God and one another after our baptism. On the evening of his Resurrection, Jesus breathed on his Apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:22-23). Jesus, who had the authority on earth to forgive sins, now unconditionally entrusted this same authority to the Church he had established.[5]

Knowing that he would soon ascend to heaven, Christ told his Apostles that they were now to take on his mission and act in his place and with his authority, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). Just as the Apostles were to carry Christ’s message to the whole world, they were also instructed to carry his forgiveness, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18).

This authority Christ gave the Apostles and their successors, the bishops, was twofold: to forgive sins or to hold them bound, or unforgiven. Several things logically follow from this. First, Christ does not give gifts needlessly – in handing this power to the Church, he intended for it to be used. Next, in order to know what sins to forgive or retain, the Apostles must be told the sins – which is the act of confession. This is further established later in the New Testament when the early Christians are enjoined to “confess your sins to one another” (James 5:16). Further, the Apostles were not merely to preach of God’s forgiveness, but they were told to go exercise the same power that Christ possessed. Christ’s ministers understood that this power was not their own, but was coming from God, “And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18). St. Paul expressed this reality clearly, “So we are ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor. 5:20).

The bishop and his priests, the ambassadors for Christ, act as the instruments of the Lord’s forgiveness. The power of binding and loosing which Christ gave to the Apostles calls the priests to an important and necessary role in discerning who is eligible to receive the Lord’s forgiveness, but it is always and only God who forgives.[6] Christ is always freely offering his forgiveness in the power of the Holy Spirit seeking to reconcile us to the Father, but the priest’s crucial role makes this forgiveness visible and tangible, and ensures that the penitent is truly sorry for their sins and has a sincere desire to amend their lives.

The answer to our question, “why do we confess our sins to a priest?” is clear: we confess to a priest because it is the way that Christ Jesus established and intended for us to have a personal relationship with him in faith and objectively experience his forgiveness. We do not confess our sins to a priest “instead of God,” no, we make our sins known through a priest because God the Father encounters men in Christ the Son, and Christ encounters us in his body the Church.

This is a great gift! The sacrament of reconciliation is a visible and external sign of Christ’s mercy available to us 2,000 years after his Ascension. When the priest, acting for the Church and in the person of Christ, pronounces the beautiful formula of absolution, we are able hear God’s forgiveness with our own ears and know with absolute and unconditional certainty that he has forgiven us. Moreover, we are strengthened in our efforts to resist sin and we grow in humility before God.

Pope Francis, like his predecessors, has emphasized again and again that the true heart of our Catholic faith is an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  An authentic and theologically sound celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation is a beautiful example of what that intimate relationship is truly about. There are few experiences more deeply personal than an honest, soul-searching confession in which we bare our souls before God and encounter Jesus Christ in the mystery of his mercy through the person of the priest. As I write these words, I am reminded, as I have been many times, of the awesome responsibility this sacrament places on the shoulders of the priest. It is the responsibility of the priest to make present the true forgiving mercy of the Savior of the World, and this is only possible when the priest is deeply rooted in the reality that he too is a sinner in desperate need of the Lord’s mercy. When the priest approaches his role in the sacrament of penance in this way, he allows the Lord’s mercy to flow through him and he is always humbly aware of the great mystery he is celebrating.

This is what the Church celebrates in this beautiful sacrament: the reality that the healing love of Jesus Christ the Forgiver is really present in the world today, longing to allow His Mercy to flow over us and forgive our sins. When we examine our conscience, have sorrow for our sins, firmly resolve to amend our lives, make a good confession, and receive the penance and absolution, we hear Christ’s words in the Gospel echo through the world as words of great mercy for every sinner today, “Your sins are forgiven, go and sin no more.”

Given at the Diocesan Chancery on November 1, 2016, the Solemnity of All Saints.

+Joseph Edward Strickland
Bishop of Tyler

[1] Papal Bull Misericordiae Vultus, 2

[2] John 14:6

[3] Encyclical Letter Mediator Dei 77

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 405, 1426

[5] Matthew 9:6; CCC 1461

[6] CCC 1441

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