‘What I want is mercy, not sacrifice. I did not come to call the virtuous, but sinners. ’ (Mt 9:13)
Dear Brothers in Christ
I send you my heartfelt good wishes and gratitude on this day when we remember ‘the institution of the Holy Eucharist and of priestly Order, and the commandment of the Lord concerning fraternal charity.’ (Roman Missal 331, no. 10)
Like many of you I was very moved by the Holy Father’s Consecration of Ukraine and Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Rome on 25 March. It was preceded by a Celebration of the Sacrament of Penance, with photographs of Pope Francis in the role of both penitent and confessor. These images prompted me to write to thank you, in a particular way this year, for your ministry as confessors.
The beautiful sacrament of conversion, forgiveness, reconciliation and renewal remains alive in the Church. Indeed there is growth wherever there is spiritual and pastoral encouragement, good catechesis, and the exercise of priestly fatherhood which lovingly welcomes sinners home. As Pope Francis reminded us, we receive the joy of God’s forgiveness where ‘shame for our sins becomes the occasion for an experience of the warm embrace of the Father, the gentle strength of Jesus who heals us, and the ‘maternal tenderness’ of the Holy Spirit.’ (Celebration of the Sacrament of Penance, 25 March 2022) It is the relationship of this sacrament to our personal discipleship and priestly ministry that I want to reflect upon with you a little in this letter.
Both our discipleship and our priesthood are rooted in a personal friendship with the Lord Jesus. Speaking to the Bishops of England and Wales on their ad limina visit back in October 2003, St John Paul II said this: ‘Firmly grounded in a personal relationship of deep communion and friendship with Jesus the Good Shepherd, the priest not only will find sanctification for himself but will become a model of holiness for the people he is called to serve.’ Part of this ‘deep communion and friendship with Jesus the Good Shepherd’ means opening the deepest levels of our heart to the Lord, standing unmasked in his presence. Our struggles and failures can lead us to doubt our rightful place before the Lord. It can also make us hesitant about approaching the sacramental fountain of God’s mercy.
However reticent we may be, for all kinds of reasons, the desire for healing intimacy with Christ draws us personally to a sacramental encounter with his forgiveness. In the spirit of people who have a bath once a week whether they need it or not, without a regular experience of the Lord’s mercy, we suffer. We suffer as disciples and we suffer as a priests. We suffer as human beings and so do others around us. Each of us needs time and space every day to prayerfully experience God’s presence; and regularly, throughout the year, we all need, honestly and humbly, to come before God’s mercy and seek absolution.
I have a small ceramic figure of a little Mexican man sat hugging his knees under his chin, hiding under a large sombrero. He is exactly who I want to become when I am most conscious of my vulnerabilities, my mistakes, my sin. What I try continually to learn, however, is that when I most feel like hiding, the place to hide is in the Lord, in his love, in his healing, in his forgiveness. As the psalmist puts it: ‘You are my hiding place O Lord; you save me from distress.’ (Ps 32:7) Our sin should only ever cause us to hide in the Lord, never to hide from the Lord. How important it is to believe this with all our heart.
Like Matthew the tax collector, we have heard the Lord Jesus call our name and invite us to follow him. Our Lord has captured our heart. As his priests we share his mission to seek out the lost: ‘I did not come to call the virtuous, but to call sinners.’ (Mt. 9:13) Christ’s work is our workas weimpart sacramentally the Lord’s forgiveness.
Our ministry of reconciliation is an immense privilege. It is possible to hear one person’s confession and know that one’s whole priesthood has been worthwhile. I know of no other encounter where a person, anonymous and possibly unseen, can be helped to change their life forever for the better. This is what happens each time we hear someone’s confession, sometimes in the most incredibly profound way. We can all take encouragement from Pope Francis: ‘God never tires of forgiving us, but we sometimes tire of asking Him to forgive us. Let us never tire of asking God’s forgiveness. He is the loving Father who always forgives, who has that heart of mercy for all of us.’ (Angelus address 17 March 2013)
We approach the ministry of the confessional with the utmost respect, humility and faith, acting always on the side of mercy. I hope that you consider this sacrament to be a precious jewel in your priestly crown. It may not always be easy. Sometimes we might be troubled by the situations that people reveal. Our heart goes out to them as they share their difficulties. There will be times when we are tired, when we grapple with what we should say, and when we are conscious of feeling we have not found the right words. There will be other times when the exact words someone needed to hear come out of our mouth seemingly from nowhere, but obviously from the Holy Spirit. I have found hearing confessions to be one of the most rewarding and fulfilling aspects of my priesthood. I am continually humbled by the trust people have in this sacrament and in the priest as the minister of it. How uniquely fortunate we are as priests to share the joy of the Good Shepherd in welcoming home those who are lost.
Through our priestly ordination, the Lord has placed into our frail hands the celebration of the sacraments, including the astonishing outpouring of God’s mercy through confession and absolution. Reconciliation is enfleshed sacramentally through our priesthood. Please always remember the gentle, patient tenderness of Christ, in your service as a confessor and in your need as a penitent.
Thank you, sincerely, from my heart, for your priestly life and ministry; and in particular for your service as a confessor. Be sure of the Lord’s love for you, and of mine in Him.
With every blessing for the Sacred Triduum and Easter
Your devoted brother in Christ
The Most Reverend John Wilson
Archbishop of Southwark