ADDRESS OF JOHN PAUL II
Saturday, 27 March 2004
1. In this holy season of Lent when the Church is walking towards Easter in the footsteps of Christ the Lord, I am pleased to welcome all the participants in the Course on the Internal Forum. This Course, organized each year by the Tribunal of the Apostolic Penitentiary, is not only followed with special interest by priests and confessors, but also by seminarians who want to prepare themselves to exercise with generous care the ministry of Reconciliation, so essential to the life of the Church.
I first greet you, Cardinal James Francis Stafford. In your capacity as Major Penitentiary, you are accompanying this select group of teachers and students as well as Officials of the Tribunal for the first time. I am also delighted to see here the praiseworthy Religious of various Orders who are dedicated to the ministry of Penance in the Patriarchal Basilicas of Rome for the benefit of the faithful of the Urbe and the Orbe (the city and the world). I greet you all with affection.
2. The new Rite of Penance came into effect in Italy 30 years ago. It had been promulgated a few months earlier by the Congregation for Divine Worship. It seems to me only right to recall this event that placed in the hands of priests and faithful a precious instrument for the renewal of sacramental Confession whose doctrinal premises and instructions for a dignified liturgical celebration are invaluable. I would like to draw attention to the abundant harvest of texts of Sacred Scripture and prayer that the new Rite offers, giving the sacramental moment the full beauty and dignity of a confession of faith and praise to God.
It is also worth stressing the newness of the formula for sacramental absolution, which sheds greater light on the Trinitarian dimension of this sacrament: the mercy of the Father, the paschal mystery of the death and Resurrection of the Son, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
3. With the new Rite of Penance, so rich in biblical, theological and liturgical references, the Church has put in our hands a timely aid for living the sacrament of forgiveness in the light of the Risen Christ. On Easter Day itself, as the Evangelist recalls, Jesus entered the Upper Room through closed doors, breathed upon his disciples and said: "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (Jn 20: 22). Jesus gave them his Spirit, for he is "the forgiveness of all sins", as the Roman Missal says (cf. Saturday of the Seventh Week of Easter, Prayer over the Gifts), so that through the ministry of the priest, the penitent might obtain reconciliation and peace.
The fruit of this sacrament is not only the forgiveness of sins, necessary to those who have sinned. It "brings about a true "spiritual resurrection', restoration of the dignity and blessings of the life of the children of God, of which the most precious is friendship with God" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1468). It would be an illusion to want to strive for holiness in accordance with the vocation that God has given to each one of us without frequently and fervently receiving this sacrament of conversion and sanctification.
The horizon of the universal call to holiness which I proposed as the foundation of pastoral planning for the Church at the beginning of the third millennium (cf. Novo Millennio Ineunte, n. 30) has a crucial premise in the sacrament of Reconciliation (cf. ibid., n. 37). It is, in fact, the sacrament of pardon and grace, of the encounter that regenerates and sanctifies, the sacrament which, with the Eucharist, accompanies the Christian on his way towards perfection.
4. By its nature this sacrament involves a purification, both in the acts of the penitent who lays bare his conscience out of the deep need to be forgiven and to be born to new life, and in the outpouring of sacramental grace that purifies and renews. We will never be holy enough not to need this sacramental purification: humble confession, made lovingly, gives rise to an ever more delicate purity in our service to God and the motivation that sustains it.
Penance is a sacrament of enlightenment. The word of God, sacramental grace, the exhortations filled with the Holy Spirit of the confessor who is a true "spiritual guide", together with the penitent's humble reflection, illumine his conscience, make him understand the sin he has committed and dispose him once again to strive for goodness. Those who make frequent use of Confession and do so desiring to make progress know that in this sacrament, together with God's forgiveness and the grace of the Holy Spirit, they will receive a precious light for their journey towards perfection.
Lastly, the sacrament of Penance brings about a unifying encounter with Christ. Gradually, from confession to confession, the believer experiences an ever deeper communion with the merciful Lord to the point of fully identifying with him, which comes with that perfect "life in Christ" of which true holiness consists.
Seen as an encounter with God the Father through Christ in the Spirit, the sacrament of Penance not only reveals his beauty, but also the fittingness of its assiduous and fervent celebration. It is also a gift for us priests who, despite being called to exercise the sacramental ministry, have shortcomings of our own that need forgiveness. The joy of forgiving and of being forgiven go hand in hand.
5. All confessors have a great responsibility to exercise this ministry with kindness, wisdom and courage. Their task is to make lovable and desirable this encounter that purifies and renews us on our way towards Christian perfection and on the pilgrimage towards our heavenly Homeland.
Dear confessors, as I express the hope that the grace of the Lord will make you all worthy ministers of the "message of reconciliation" (cf. II Cor 5: 19), I entrust your precious service to the Blessed Virgin, Mother of God and our Mother, who, in one of the Masses dedicated to her during this Lenten season, the Church calls upon as "Mother of Reconciliation".
Together with these sentiments, I affectionately impart my Blessing to you all.