“There is a Church of rigor and a Church of mercy: A priest cannot be only for the penance of sin; the priest is always for mercy”
That depiction of the Sacred Heart is the statue that stood at the entrance of the kindergarten he attended as a child. “In those early years of my life I could not explain my feelings, but I felt them! A sense of sweetness, warmth, tenderness, which today associate with mercy. I grew up always with that image of the heart.” In the vicissitudes of life, “the open arms always made me feel drawn to the warmth of the Divine Mercy.”
Cardinal Piacenza reminisced also about the crucifix in the church near his high school, which was a powerful draw: “Sometimes, before going to class, I stopped back there … but I was going to attend Mass before the Crucifix, and there I felt like telling the Lord all the things on my mind, my plans, my situation.”
“It is important to feel God’s mercy if one is to be able to pour it on others.” To do this, the Cardinal says, it is important to keep “in constant training [via] the Liturgy of the Hours and the celebration of the Mass,” which in their formulas contain real “drops of mercy.”
Cardinal Piacenza is the Penitentiary Major of the Apostolic Penitentiary at the Vatican, a tribunal of the Roman Curia, one chiefly concerned with mercy.
“Reconciliation and forgiveness are the features sculpted in the office of Cardinal Major Penitentiary,” says Piacenza. “Personally, then, for a number of hours per week, I am directly involved with the ministry of confessions, so I do not forget the joy of being a witness of the great works of God and to say to so many people, ‘the Lord has forgiven your sins; go in peace.’ He keeps in mind an image of the merciful Christ to remember that “I must be only transparency; I have to let him speak.” And miracles happen. “Often I see the action of the Spirit, which breaks a chain of sin and allows a soul to feel liberated.”
In the room where the cardinal received us, there is a picture of the Saint John Vianney, the holy Cure of Ars, patron of confessors. “The history of the Church, all its activity, is ultimately to reconcile God’s mercy on humanity. Even when it comes to sin, it insists on reconciliation in order to permit the sinner to enjoy God’s mercy. There is a Church of rigor, and a Church of mercy: A priest cannot be only for the penance of sin; the priest is always for mercy. The penalty is to point out what is good, and what is evil, because there is a dividing line of objective truth. Then, there are all shades — that the pastor must be able to understand — to a greater or lesser responsibility.”
Piacenza points to Padre Pio as an example of a priest who was sometimes brusque with penitents yet was truly about mercy. “He was not tender with penitents, and often sent them back” because he understood that a person had not been wholly forthcoming had therefore given the priest no real provision upon which to provide absolution.
In short, “Mercy is not an eraser on the blackboard; it does not provide a ‘clean slate.’” A sin has still occurred, and in order for Christ (and the Church) to bestow mercy it is really necessary that the penitent understands the harm he or she has caused and the need to open up to God and ask for mercy.” God’s judgment, says the Cardinal, “is always a judgment of mercy but it activated by our humility to acknowledge our sins.”
Waxing poetic, Piacenza continued. “As long as we are pilgrims in this world, above us there is a starry sky of Mercy. We could say that God ‘pursues us’ lovingly with his mercy and the sacraments so that, through the events of daily life, we can sanctify ourselves and reach the bliss of eternal life.”
He asks, “What better occasion of the Year of Mercy to resume the threads of this dialogue of love? To approach the confessional with humility and sincerity, let himself be invaded by the love of our merciful God.”
To those who struggle with faith, or who have been away a long time, Cardinal Piacenza recommends that pastors and parishioners provide “real welcome — and for priests to be always so truthful and sweet, patient, encouraging, and to always find themselves behind the grille.” Piacenza notes he is not being critical of hearing confession face to face, but the grating is important, in his opinion, “in order to respect all feelings and also to be sensitive to those who have difficulty with feelings of shame.”
He recommends that those parishes that have dispensed with the grille altogether reconsider this in the Year of Mercy. “In pastoral charity our consideration should cover even the smallest nuances that will help put a penitent at ease.”
Finally, the Cardinal suggests parishes establish a fixed schedule for confession, “and be in the confessional, with the light on; it is a valuable service.”
Translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Scalia.
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