We are pleased to publish the afterword of the recent book by the Vatican journalist of Rai 1 Italian television channel Aldo Maria Valli, titled “C’era una volta la confessione” (Once was Confession), published by Ancora. It is a reflection on the Sacrament of Confession at the time of Pope Francis and has also been published in the March 10 edition of L’Osservatore Romano, at page 7 . This is our translation from the original in Italian Language. We remain at disposal for promptly removing this post if it is not appreciated by the right owners.
Fr. Francesco Pesce
I belong to a generation that was educated to fear God, rather than to love him; during seminary, a new sense of duty was required, in the face of which it proved hard to remain free and joyful. I can still see this fear and twisted sense of duty today in many people who approach the Sacrament of Confession. Fear of God, fear of themselves, fear of others and their judgement. Confession as an obligation, not as a desired meeting with our Father, who is always willing to forgive us. I must confess that I was surprised to hear Pope Francis, in preparation for the Jubilee, speak of the «missionaries of mercy». I asked myself: but aren’t priests by definition missionaries of mercy? Isn’t forgiveness a very hallmark, so to speak, of the priest? Then I remembered that I had seen with my own eyes, in some confessionals, the Book of Canon Law, ready for use, like in a law court, and I also remembered the accounts of several penitents, injured by some priests who had been very harsh. And this helped me understand Francis’ idea. My experience as a confessor, in fact, has taught me that the advent of Pope Francis has blown away the old sense of fear and duty, and replaced it with the desire to meet a merciful Father. Not only have confessions increased exponentially, but the quality has improved too. Nowadays, many people enter the confessional holding a copy of the Gospels, having adopted his suggestion to read at least one passage every day. And so they confess themselves based on what they read. This fills me with a great joy. It is a true miracle worked by this man, Francis, sent to us by God. I can see that, thanks to God, people do not feel more sinful (I think that there are already too many people oppressed and humiliated by their sins), they now feel that their Father is more merciful. I wish to add that I see rather clearly, if I may say so, that when a person feels welcomed, respected, encouraged, then he or she can better understand his or her sins and ask for forgiveness. Indeed, he or she can understand that his or her sin, in a certain sense, has already been forgiven, that he or she is inside the confessional to accept the forgiveness that has already been granted, because God is love, in the brief, yet sublime, words of John the Evangelist. This is also why I believe that to speak of a crisis of the sacrament of confession is a contradiction in terms; it is the way in which the priestly ministry is practised, if anything, that is undergoing a crisis. Because this priesthood is confined to the sacristies, rather than lived out in the streets, it is a priesthood that prefers the smell of incense, and money, rather than that of the flock of sheep. Therefore, I see it as a “blessing crisis”. My experience has taught me that men and women come to confession in equal numbers. But two things do strike me, although I find them hardly surprising. The first is that the confessions of those who appear closest to the Church, who ways attend, are more predictable, matter-of-fact, and soulless; sometimes they even expect a good punishment rather than forgiveness. They are also those who don’t very much like Pope Francis, precisely because, they say, he’s «a communist, a pauperist, too predictable», plus other nonsense disseminated by the 21st century crusaders and by some very godless and hardly devout atheists.
I would like to give you an example: I have been a priest for sixteen years and I still have to struggle enormously to explain to catechists (who are otherwise saintly persons) that teaching children «Dear God, I repent and regret my sins, because by sinning I have deserved your punishment» is not the best thing. This should at least be better explained and replaced with other biblical acts of contrition. I also wish to mention those who find it absolutely necessary to confess themselves on a given day, otherwise they feel they have broken their devotional service and have to start all over again? Is this not an obsession rather than devotion?
The other thing that strikes me are the confessions of the members of certain ecclesial movements, and of one in particular, which is also quite widespread. These confessions all seem to be the same, as if part of a stock repertoire, totally lacking the sense of thanksgiving for the good there is out there. To these I always say: «Excuse me, but something nice and good must have happened to you since you last confessed, or is everything just sin?».
I would like to conclude by saying that I find it disheartening to see confession hours put up in churches. As much as I understand the need for planning and organisation, but the church is not a post office. My experience has taught me (I work as a parish priest in the centre of Rome) that priests should be available primarily at lunchtime and in the evenings, after the evening Mass, to meet the needs of working people. Of course, this can only be done if we keep our church doors wide open, like God’s heart, who we call upon as «Our Father, who is in heaven», not «Our Judge and Master, who lives in the confessionals».