While confusion over the Pope's address to Swiss bishops drew attention last week because the text first published was actually not the address given, another item caught my attention in the Vatican Information Service press release on Friday, at the conclusion of that visit. The press release said:
VATICAN CITY, NOV 10, 2006 (VIS) - Given below is the text of a communique made public today, concerning the "ad limina" visit of prelates from the Conference of Swiss Bishops who, from November 7 to 9, met in the Vatican with the Holy Father and representatives of the Roman Curia.
"The meeting was characterized by true collegial affection," the communique reads, "during which - in frank dialogue and with a spirit of collaboration - consideration was given to various questions concerning the situation of the Church in Switzerland and elsewhere. The following themes were discussed:
"The unity of the bishops among themselves, and with Peter's Successor; the collaboration of bishops.
"The bishop as master of faith, and the principal doctrinal and pastoral problems in Swiss dioceses.
"Communion with the bishop; the role of the priest in the parish and in pastoral care groups; pastoral assistants.
"Seminaries and the various faculties and schools of theology in the mission of the Church.
"Liturgical renewal and the observance of discipline.
"The Motu Proprio 'Misericordia Dei,' for a relaunch of the pastoral care of the Sacrament of Penance.
"The ecclesiastical corporations of public law.
"The meeting served to improve mutual understanding and to strengthen ties of unity. It also clearly demonstrated the common desire of Swiss bishops to face current challenges with hope, responsibility and courage, in trusting collaboration with the action of God at work in the hearts of men and women.
"The meeting ended with the words of Bishop Amedee Grab O.S.B., who, in the name of his brother prelates, thanked the Holy Father and his collaborators for the days spent in the Vatican, expressing particular gratitude for the three talks given by His Holiness."
The mention of a wish to relaunch the sacrament of penance, and reference to a specific Motu Proprio, interested me.
The Motu Proprio, Misericordia Dei, was issued by Pope John Paul II on April 7, 2002. While mentioning a "relaunch" of the sacrament, the press release does not speak of authorities and practices from past decades. Rather, the authority mentioned for what they considered was only a few years old.
John Paul II wrote about the sacrament as it has continued over the centuries, and as it has changed:
"Down through history in the constant practice of the Church, the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18), conferred through the Sacraments of Baptism and Penance, has always been seen as an essential and highly esteemed pastoral duty of the priestly ministry, performed in obedience to the command of Jesus. Through the centuries, the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance has developed in different forms, but it has always kept the same basic structure: it necessarily entails not only the action of the minister – only a Bishop or priest, who judges and absolves, tends and heals in the name of Christ – but also the actions of the penitent: contrition, confession and satisfaction."
In that Motu Proprio, John Paul II reflected back on two earlier calls he had made to continue to follow that practice of individual confession. One of those was in his Apostolic Letter in the year 2000, "Novo Millennio Ineunte". The other was as far back as 1984, in his post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, "Reconciliato et Paenitentia". The latter followed a synod of bishops devoted to the question of that sacrament. It was certain that the sacrament of reconciliation was a priority for Pope John Paul II.
Most of that Motu Proprio responds to the practice of general confession, cautioning that a general confession should only be allowed in case of grave necessity, and that one who has received a general absolution of serious sins should seek individual confession as soon as there is an opportunity to do so, before receiving another general confession. The Motu Proprio also has a good discussion of other requirements for the individual confession.
This past Lent, Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieto-Vasto, a member of the International Theological Commission, wrote a pastoral letter on the theme of "Reconciliation and the Beauty of God." In it, he wrote of the reasons for confession to a priest and the encounter with forgiveness.
As we near the beginning of Advent, when many parishes make a particular effort to encourage parishioners to take advantage of the Sacrament of Penance in preparation for the celebration of Christmas, it seemed to me good to have the importance of this Sacrament brought to mind amid all the talk of Latin and English Mass and other changes that may be afoot. It is important to return to thoughts of those things that have not changed and, yet, still need to be rediscovered.