In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis wrote,
“The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.”
When I read this, I thought of all of you priests who spend hours in the confessional, some even staying there at fixed regular hours whether or not someone comes. You priests make the Church a place of mercy freely given whenever you make yourself available to anyone who wants the sacrament of Penance.
I know it can be draining to sit for hours inside a narrow box while listening to a succession of people talking about their personal miseries. The tedium of the task makes it is easy to forget that you are exercising an awesome power. But awesome indeed it is, for when you give absolution, you are transmitting God’s mercy in His name. I am reminded of the following part of Portia’s soliloquy on mercy in William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice:
“‘[Mercy] T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes The throned monarch better than his crown: His sceptre shows the force of temporal power, The attribute to awe and majesty, Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings; But mercy is above this sceptred sway; It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings, It is an attribute to God himself;”
For four years, I worked as a law clerk. I spent every day of those four years inside a small cubicle, poring over records of murders, rapes, embezzlements, siblings squabbling over their inheritance, and all the other possible atrocities committed by mankind. I felt during this period that my job was not much different from yours. But you priests have it better. For in my, all I could do was to recommend to my boss what judgment to render according to the law. You priests, on the other hand, can give a repentant sinner the forgiveness of God. You have the power to tell a repentant sinner, in the name of God, that God has forgiven him or her. After you pronounce the formula for the absolution, the repentant sinner’s crimes are cleansed away, as if he or she had never committed them in the first place.
You may sometimes feel that the hours you spend in the confessional are wasted. It is true that the hours you spend hearing confessions or waiting for penitents to come can be spent instead catching up on parish administrative work or running a feeding program. It would indeed be wrong to neglect these kinds of activities.
But whether you feel it or not, the hours you spend in the confessional benefit the whole Church. So many people, rich and poor, young and old, have regained peace of soul because of the sacrament you administer – the kind of peace that can only come from a good confession.
Your availability in the confessional is, in itself, an eloquent sermon. Whenever I see a confessional with the priest’s light on, it’s as if I hear Christ say, “I am here. Come and receive My mercy.” The sight of a confessional with a priest wearing a purple stole is an invitation from Christ to approach Him, and to be forgiven, healed, embraced, and strengthened by Him. Many people, doubtless, decline this invitation. But when you priests make yourself available to give the sacrament nonetheless, you are acting as Christ the Good Shepherd Who seeks out the lost sheep.
I do not know how many people appreciate your administering the sacrament of penance. I wrote this letter because I want you to know that I, for one, appreciate it a lot. Thank you for making the Church “a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.” I pray that more will take advantage of the mercy you make so accessible.
In Christ, A Grateful Member of the Laity