I am very happy to meet with you on the occasion of the annual course on the internal forum organized by the Apostolic Penitentiary. I address a cordial greeting to Cardinal Manuel Monteiro de Castro, the Major Penitentiary, who, for the first time in this vesture has presided over your study sessions, and I thank him for the cordial remarks he addressed to me. I also salute Monsignor Gianfranco Girotti, regent of the Penitentiary, the personnel of this body and each one of you, who, with your presence, remind everyone of the importance that the Sacrament of Reconciliation has for the life of faith, demonstrating both the permanent necessity of an adequate theological, spiritual and canonical education for confessors and, above all, the constitutive bond between sacramental celebration and proclamation of the Gospel.
The Sacraments and the proclamation of the Word, in fact, must never be conceived as separate, but, on the contrary, “Jesus says that the proclamation of the Kingdom of God is the goal of his mission; this proclamation, however, is not only a ‘discourse’ but at the same time includes his action; the signs and miracles that Jesus works show that the Kingdom comes as a present reality and in the end coincides with his very Person, with his gift of himself. [...] The priest represents Christ, the One sent by the Father, he continues his mission, through the ‘word’ and the ‘sacrament,’ in this totality of body and soul, of sign and word” (General Audience, May 5, 2010). Precisely this totality, that sinks its roots down into the mystery itself of the Incarnation, suggests to us that the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is itself a proclamation and thus a path that must be traveled in the work of the new evangelization. In what sense, then, is sacramental Confession a “path” for the new evangelization?
In the first place this is so because the new evangelization draws its lifeblood from the sanctity of the sons and daughters of the Church, from the daily journey of personal and communal conversion to an ever more profound conformity to Christ. And there is a close connection between sanctity and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, testified to by all of the saints of history. The true conversion of hearts, which is an opening up to the transformative and renewing action of God, it is the “engine” of every reform and it translates itself into a true evangelizing force. In Confession the contrite sinner, by the gratuitous action of divine Mercy, is justified, forgiven and sanctified, he abandons the old man and puts on the new man. Only he who has let himself be deeply renewed by divine Grace can bear, and therefore proclaim, the newness of the Gospel in himself. Blessed John Paul II, in the apostolic letter “Novo Millennio ineunte,” stated: “I am also asking for renewed pastoral courage in ensuring that the day-to-day teaching of Christian communities persuasively and effectively presents the practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation” (n. 37). I would like to repeat this request, in the awareness that the new evangelization must make the face of Christ known to the man of our time “as ‘mysterium pietatis,’ the one in whom God shows us his compassionate heart and reconciles us fully with himself. It is this face of Christ that must be rediscovered through the Sacrament of Penance” (ibid.).
In an age of educational emergency, in which relativism questions the possibility itself of an education understood as a progressive introduction to the knowledge of truth, to a deep sensitivity to reality, and so as a progressive introduction to the relationship with the Truth that is God, Christians are called to proclaim vigorously the possibility of an encounter between the man of today and Jesus Christ, in which God drew so near that we could see and hear him. From this perspective the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which is necessitated by a consideration of one’s concrete existential condition, helps in a singular way that “opening of the heart” that permits us to turn our gaze toward God that he might enter into our life. The certainty that he is near and that in his mercy he assists man, even when he is in sin, to heal his infirmities with the grace of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is always a light of hope for the world.
Dear priests and dear deacons who are preparing for the priesthood, in administering this sacrament, you are given or will be given the possibility of being instruments of an ever renewed encounter of men with God. Those who come to you precisely in their condition as sinners, will experience a profound desire in themselves: the desire to change, the request for mercy and, definitively, the desire that, through the sacrament, there occur the encounter with Christ and his embrace. You will therefore be collaborators and protagonists in as many possible “new beginnings” as there are penitents who come to you, knowing that the authentic meaning of every “newness” does not consist so much in the abandonment or the denial of the past, as in welcoming Christ and opening up to his Presence, ever new and able to transform, to enlighten all the regions of shadow and to continually open a new horizon. The new evangelization, thus, also begins in the confessional! It begins, that is, from the meeting between man’s inexhaustible plea, the sign of mystery of creation in him, and God’s mercy, the only adequate response to the human need of the infinite. If the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation will be this, if in it the faithful will really experience that mercy that Jesus of Nazareth, Lord and Christ, has bestowed upon us, then they themselves will become credible witnesses of that sanctity, which is the goal of the new evangelization.
All of this, dear friends, if it is true for the lay faithful, will have even greater relevance for each of us. The minister of the Sacrament of Reconciliation collaborates in the new evangelization, first renewing in himself the consciousness of being a penitent and of needing to ask sacramental forgiveness, that there be renewed that encounter with Christ, which, begun in Baptism, found a specific and definitive configuration in the Sacrament of Holy Orders. This is my wish for each one of you: that the newness of Christ always be the center and the reason of your priestly existence, that those who meet you might, through your office, proclaim with Andrew and John: “We have met the Messiah” (John 1:41). In this way, every Confession, from which every Christian will emerge renewed, will represent a step forward in the new evangelization. May Mary, Mother of Mercy, Refuge of us sinners and Star of the new evangelization accompany your journey. I thank you from my heart and gladly impart to you my apostolic benediction.
Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic