Pastoral Letter of Archbishop Bruno Forte
Reconciliation and the Beauty of God
Together, let us try to understand what Confession is: If you really understand it, with your mind and heart, you will feel the need and the joy of experiencing this encounter, in which God, granting you his forgiveness through the ministry of the Church, creates a new heart in you, puts a new Spirit in you, so that you can live a life reconciled with Him, with yourself and with others, so that you also will be able to forgive and love, beyond any temptation to mistrust and weariness.
1. Why go to Confession?
Among the questions that my heart as Bishop asks, I choose one that I am often asked: Why must one go to Confession? It is a question that is posed again in many ways. Why go to a priest to tell one’s sins and not do so directly to God, who knows and understands us much better than any human interlocutor?
And, in a more radical way, why speak of my affairs, especially of those that even I myself am ashamed of, to someone who is a sinner like me, and who perhaps assesses my experience in a completely different way than I do, or doesn’t understand it at all? What does he know is a sin for me? And some add: Does sin really exist or is it only an invention of priests so that we will behave well?
I think I can answer this last question right away and without fear of being refuted: Sin exists, and not only is it wrong but it does evil. Suffice it to look at the daily scene of the world, where violence, wars, injustices, abuses, egoisms, jealousies and vengeance burst out (an example of this “war bulletin” is given to us today in the news in newspapers, radio, television and the Internet).
He who believes in the love of God, moreover, perceives that sin is love that falls back on itself (“amor curvus,” closed love, the medievals said), ingratitude of the one who responds to love with indifference and rejection. This rejection has consequences not only in the one who lives it, but also in the whole society, to the point of producing conditionings and interlacements of egoisms and violence that become authentic “structures of sin” (think of social injustices, of the inequality between rich and poor countries, of the scandal of hunger in the world …).
Precisely because of this, one must not hesitate to emphasize the enormity of the tragedy of sin and how the loss of the sense of sin — very different from that sickness of soul that we call “guilt feeling” — weakens the heart in the face of the spectacle of evil and the seductions of Satan, adversary who tries to separate us from God.
2. Experience of Forgiveness
Despite all this, however, I do not think I can say that the world is evil and that it is useless to do good. On the contrary, I am convinced that good exists and is much greater than evil, that life is beautiful and that to live correctly for love and with love is really worthwhile.
The profound reason that leads me to think this way is the experience of God’s mercy that I feel in myself and that I see shine in so many humble people: It is an experience that I have lived many times, both giving forgiveness as minister of the Church, as well as receiving it. I have been going to confession regularly for years, several times a month, and with the joy of doing so.
The joy stems from feeling myself loved in a new way by God, every time that his forgiveness reaches me through the priest who gives it to me in his name. It is the joy I have seen often on the face of those coming to Confession: not the futile sense of relief of the one who has “emptied the sack” (Confession is not a psychological relief or a consoling meeting, at least not primarily), but the peace of feeling well “within” oneself, touched in the heart by a love that cures, that comes from above and transforms us.
To ask for forgiveness with conviction, to receive it with gratitude and to give it with generosity is a source of inestimable peace: Because of this, it is right and beautiful to go to Confession. I would like to share the reasons for this joy with all those whom I may reach with this letter.
3. Confess to a priest?
You then ask: Why must one confess one’s sins to a priest and not do so directly to God? Of course, one always addresses God when confessing one’s sins. However, that it is also necessary to do so to a priest is something that God himself makes us understand: In sending his Son with our flesh, he shows he wants to encounter us through a direct contact that passes through the signs and language of our human condition.
Just as He came out of Himself for love of us and has come to “touch us” with his flesh, we are also called to come out of ourselves for love of Him and to go with humility and faith to him who can give us pardon in his name with word and gesture. Only the absolution of sins that the priest gives in the sacrament can communicate the interior certainty of having been truly forgiven and received by the Father who is in Heaven, because Christ has entrusted to the ministry of the Church the power to bind and to loose, to exclude and admit in the Covenant community (cf. Matthew 18:17).
He it is who, risen from death, said to the Apostles: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:22-23). Therefore, to go to Confession to a priest is very different from doing so in the secret of one’s heart, exposed to so many uncertainties and ambiguities that fill life and history.
You will never know absolutely if what has touched you is the grace of God or your emotion, if you have forgiven yourself or if He has forgiven you in the way He chose. Absolved by the one the Lord has chosen and sent as minister of forgiveness, you will be able to experience the freedom that only God gives and understand why going to Confession is a source of peace.
4. A God close to our weakness
Confession therefore is the encounter with divine forgiveness, which is offered to us in Jesus and transmitted to us through the ministry of the Church. In this effective sign of grace, meeting with endless mercy, we are offered the face of a God who knows like no one our human condition and comes close to it with very tender love.
Innumerable episodes in the life of Jesus demonstrate this to us, from the meeting with the Samaritan woman to the healing of the paralytic, from the forgiveness of the adulteress to the tears in the face of the death of his friend Lazarus. … We have immense need of this tender and compassionate closeness of God, as a simple glance at our existence also shows: Each one of us lives with his own weakness, goes through sickness, draws near to death, is aware of the challenge of the questions that all this poses to the heart.
No matter how much we wish to do good, the frailty that characterizes us all, exposes us continually to the risk of falling into temptation. The Apostle Paul described this experience with precision: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:24).
It is the interior conflict from which is born the invocation: “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). To it responds in a special way the sacrament of forgiveness, which comes to rescue us always again in our condition of sin, reaching us with the healing power of divine grace and transforming our heart and our behavior.
Because of this, the Church does not tire of proposing the grace of this sacrament to us during the whole journey of our lives: Through it Jesus, true heavenly physician, takes charge of our sins and accompanies us, continuing his work of healing and salvation. As happens in every love story, also the Covenant with the Lord must be tirelessly renewed: Faithfulness is the ever-new desire of the heart that gives itself and receives the love offered it, until the day that God will be all in all.
5. Stages of the encounter with forgiveness
Precisely because it was desired by a profoundly “human” God, the encounter with mercy that Jesus offers us takes place in several stages, which respect the seasons of life and of the heart. At the beginning, is listening to the Good News, in which you hear the call of the Beloved: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).
Through this voice the Holy Spirit acts in you, giving you docility to consent and believe in the Truth. When you are docile to this voice and decide to respond with your whole heart to Him who calls you, you undertake the journey that takes you to the greatest gift, a gift that is so valuable that it leads Paul to say: “We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God!” (2 Corinthians 5:20).
Reconciliation is precisely the sacrament of the encounter with Christ who, through the ministry of the Church, comes to help the weakness of the one who has betrayed or rejected the Covenant with God; he reconciles him with the Father and with the Church, he re-creates him as [a] new creature in the strength of the Holy Spirit.
This sacrament is also called of penance, because in it is expressed man’s conversion, the way of the heart that repents and comes to invoke the forgiveness of God.
The term confession — used normally — refers instead to the act of confessing one’s faults to the priest but it also recalls the triple confession that must be made to live in fullness the celebration of the reconciliation: the confession of praise (“confessio laudis”), with which we remember the divine love that precedes and accompanies us, recognizing its signs in our lives and thus understanding better the gravity of our fault; the confession of sin, with which we present our humble and repentant heart to the Father, acknowledging our sins (“confessio peccati”); the confession of faith, finally, with which we open ourselves to forgiveness that liberates and saves, which is offered to us with the absolution (“confessio fidei”).
In turn, the gestures and words in which we express the gift that we have received will acknowledge in life the wonders realized in us by the mercy of God.
6. Celebration of the encounter
In the history of the Church, penance has been lived in a great variety of ways, communal and individual, which nevertheless have maintained all the fundamental structure of the personal encounter between the repentant sinner and the living God, through the mediation of the ministry of the Bishop or the priest.
Through the words of the absolution, pronounced by a man who is a sinner who, however, has been chosen and consecrated for the ministry, it is Christ himself who receives the repentant sinner and reconciles him with the Father and in the gift of the Holy Spirit, renews him as living member of the Church.
Reconciled with God, we are received in the vivifying communion of the Trinity and receive in ourselves the new life of grace, the love that only God can infuse in our hearts: The sacrament of forgiveness thus renews our relationship with the Father, with the Son and with the Holy Spirit, in whose name we are given absolution from our faults.
As the parable of the Father and the two sons shows, the encounter of reconciliation culminates in a banquet of tasty dishes, in which one participates with a new robe, a ring and shoes on one’s feet (cf. Luke 15:22f): images that express all the joy and beauty of the gift offered and received. Truly, to use the words of the Father in the parable, “let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:24).
7. Return to the Father’s House
In relation to God the Father, penance presents itself as a “return home” (this is in fact the meaning of the word “teshuva” which the Hebrew uses to say “conversion”). Through becoming aware of your faults, you realize you are in exile, far from the homeland of love: You feel ill at ease, sorrow, because you understand that sin is a rupture of the Covenant with the Lord, a rejection of his love, it is “unloved love,” and because of this is also source of alienation, because sin uproots us from our true dwelling, the Father’s heart.
It is then that we need to remember the house in which we are awaited: Without this memory of love we would never have the necessary confidence and the hope to make the decision to return to God. With the humility of the one who knows he is not worthy of being called “son,” we can decide to call at the door of the Father’s house. What a surprise to realize he is at the window scrutinizing the horizon because he has been waiting for a long time for our return!
To our open hands, to the humble and repentant heart responds the free offer of forgiveness with which the Father reconciles us with himself, “converting us” in some way to ourselves: “While he was still at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). With extraordinary tenderness, God introduces us in a renewed way in the condition of sons, offered by the Covenant established in Jesus.