VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Priests today are challenged with the task of drawing the faithful back to confession and assuring them that their true repentance will be met with mercy and compassion, Pope Benedict XVI said.
In an address to several hundred young priests, Pope Benedict said March 11 that “we must return to the confessional” not only as a place to confess sins and receive absolution, but also as a place where “the faithful can find mercy, counsel and comfort, feel loved and understood by God.”
The pope addressed some 700 priests at the conclusion of a March 8-12 course designed to develop their skills as confessors; the course was offered by the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican court that handles issues related to the sacrament of penance.
Priests are called on to educate their flocks in the “radical requirements of the Gospel” and help them resist “the mentality of this world” and make choices that take courage and are sometimes unpopular, the pope told the group.
The times are difficult, he said, and marked by “a hedonistic and relativistic mentality that cancels God from peoples’ lives.” This mentality makes it difficult to “distinguish good from evil and develop a proper sense of sin.”
Priests must be particularly good examples in their lives so that Catholics will understand their own sins and find the courage and desire to seek God’s forgiveness, he said.
During the course, Archbishop Gianfranco Girotti, regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary, spoke to the priests about the challenges and the complex situations that confessors are required to handle. He reminded them that the church seeks to help “even in situations that are humanly so difficult that they seem to have no solution.”
Among these situations is the plight of divorced Catholics who, if they remarry, are no longer allowed to take Communion. Archbishop Girotti said that in those cases, if the person cannot separate from the new spouse for various reasons, the confessor could suggest that refraining from sex and transforming the relationship into one of friendship might open the way to the possibility of partaking once again in Communion.
He also said confessors must be careful with the psychological states of penitents; if they find themselves with someone with serious problems they should not “try to be a psychologist,” but rather seek expert help.
Archbishop Girotti warned that in the case of repeat offenders, who don’t show even a minimal intention to change, absolution must not be granted. However, the priest must be very patient because a conversion is always possible, he said.
Showing that there is a better way to live is always the job of a priest, especially as an antidote to increasing hedonism and selfishness in contemporary society, said Archbishop Fortunato Baldelli, who heads the tribunal as major penitentiary. “It’s the duty of the confessor to open the consciences of people and make them understand the needs of others, showing them that doing so won’t take anything away from them, but will make them richer.”