A Parent’s Perspective
One of my favourite hymns is ‘Where Your Treasure Is’, with its lines based on the words of St Luke’s Gospel “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be”. When everything else is stripped away and we’re forced to re-examine our priorities, what is most important to us? For Catholics, one treasure we should value highly is the sacrament of penance where we can obtain forgiveness for sins and be reconciled with God and the Church. A “24 hours for the Lord” initiative was launched by Pope Francis in 2014 with a major focus on the mercy of God and the value of Confession. It involved churches all over the world having Eucharistic Adoration for 24 hours and, during that period, having priests continually available for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Many of the great saints spoke glowingly about this great sacrament. St John Bosco, the brilliant priest, writer and educator, said: “Do you want to become saints? Here is the secret: Confession is the lock; confidence in your confessor is the key. This is how you open heaven’s gates.”
St Pope John Paul II called Confession “an act of honesty and courage-an act of entrusting ourselves, beyond sin, to the mercy of a loving and forgiving God”. St Alphonsus Liguori, the patron saint of confessors and founder of the Redemptorists, repeatedly called on Catholics to seek God’s mercy and forgiveness in Confession. His authentic love and charity for others led him to seek out the struggling and lost sheep, kindly and tirelessly leading them to Jesus.
St Alphonsus knew the great task priests had before them in accompanying those under their care on their path of conversion. His way wasn’t one of harshness or accusation but of understanding, support and encouragement. He embraced his role as a spiritual father to his flock and expected similar high standards from other priests saying that if all preachers and confessors did their duties as they should, the whole world would be holy. Like a teacher, manager or leader who is on top of his game, this great saint expected the same of other priests, such was his passion for those who were depending on him. He had strong words for priests who were lukewarm in their devotion to their office, who didn’t study to constantly improve themselves and who didn’t live their ministry to the very best of their abilities. At present, while still in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and moving in and out of various lockdowns, we’re seeing, more than ever, how we need strong, ardent, brave pastors. I was very moved by the words spoken at the recent funeral of Fr Seamus Collins OP of the Newbridge, Co. Kildare community of Dominicans. Even though he was 87 when he died, he had guided his people until the very end. He didn’t believe that lockdown and closure were the best pastoral responses of the Church to the pandemic. In fact he expressed the view that it was the younger priests that needed to be looked after more, that his life was almost over and that he should be the one to go out to bury the dead and to visit the hospitals. “Well done, good and faithful servant” comes to mind.
Watching the documentary ‘The Confessors’ recently on RTÉ 1 brought me back to some years ago when my late father had strong words to say about Confession boxes in a little church in Connemara being used to store various tools and cleaning equipment. The same story was being painted in a somewhat humorous light in the RTÉ programme while some priests spoke sadly about decreasing numbers seeking the sacrament of forgiveness. I was reading an excellent article by Thomas Joseph White OP – The Primacy of the Spiritual and the Obligations of the Church: On the Suspension of Public Worship. He discusses, with amazing clarity, how the Church is uniquely responsible for the spiritual good of the human community and “the importance of the life of grace and charity as the highest good of the soul”. While taking all prudent public health precautions, it’s during this pandemic that all of us, and especially the sick and suffering, need greater spiritual strength. The sacraments, Fr White explains, are our essential means of salvation and sanctification that the Church can and must provide if she is to properly respond to our needs as human persons bearing in mind our supernatural destiny. I’d encourage priests to renew their sense of hope and courage, to reignite their passion for the sacraments and to clear out those Confession boxes and restore them to their rightful usage. We have a golden opportunity now to speak about the beauty of Confession, how God is a loving father not waiting with a stick, but an embrace. Some creativity in using social distancing, perspex screens and outdoor locations, definite times for Confession, not just “on request” which the majority won’t avail of due to shyness, embarrassment or the lack of privacy. Who wants to feel like they’re a bother to the priest, especially a child or teenager? A few small changes can make it happen. Frequent Confession makes us realise that we are indeed human, we are capable of doing wrong but love and forgiveness of our sins brings us the joy, strength and grace to go on. It’s not an optional extra but vital to our peace, our strength and our quest to grow in holiness following in the footsteps of Christ himself.