Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

What I Have Seen and Heard (February 19, 2009)

By MOST REVEREND WILTON D. GREGORY, Archbishop of Atlanta | Published February 19, 2009  | En Español

As an Archbishop, I do not frequently have the opportunity to listen to homilies offered by other clerics, and that may very well be to my disadvantage since, like all of you, I too need to hear God’s Word opened for me as a member of the family of the Church.

Last Saturday evening, I heard a homily that caused me to reflect in faith upon an experience that I had also shared.

The pastor of a Fort Lauderdale parish preached the homily, which was filled with many good images and was quite engaging, but it was also simultaneously very poignant as it highlighted a Gospel truth.

He spoke about a young couple who had recently returned from Rome where they had celebrated their honeymoon. They stopped him after Mass and told him that they were on the verge of leaving the Church. He asked them what he might have said during Mass that had so distressed them. They told him it was not because of the Mass that they had just attended but because of an experience with a confessor in Rome who had been exceedingly harsh in the sacrament.

They told the priest that after they had attended a recent Wednesday papal audience as a newlywed couple, they decided to receive the sacrament of reconciliation in St. Peter’s Basilica. It was there that they encountered a confessor who evidently was harsh to the point of being cruel in his administration of the sacrament with this young couple.

One of my priest friends who sat next to me nodded in agreement with the experience described in the homily. The point was that the Compassionate Christ always dealt gently with sinners and that indeed today’s confessors are obliged to do the very same. Confessors may be challenging or even direct but never cruel.

Whatever this particular confessor said to this young couple, he deeply offended them and caused them to think about their membership in the Church. Whether that initial reaction on their part was genuine or even perhaps an overreaction, the pain was real.

We confessors need to be careful to look to Christ in the way that we share His forgiveness with the people that He entrusts to our care.

Next week, we begin the holy season of Lent, and the sacrament of penance will be or should be on the minds of all of us. The Compassionate Christ knows the human heart and offers His forgiveness generously through the sacramental ministry of His priests. We priests are also called to reconciliation since we share in the sinfulness that belongs to our human nature.

The best preparation, in my opinion, for any confessor is to seek the Sacrament regularly as a penitent. As we encounter the forgiveness that Christ offers to each one of us as a sinner, we will be reminded of the generosity of His mercy and the obligation to welcome those who will seek the same from us as confessors.

It is the Compassionate Christ who stands at the head of the season of Lent, beckoning all to come to Him for the mercy and forgiveness that He extends to sinners.

The homilist had comforted and consoled the young couple, and I suspect they recognized that in encountering him, they also realized that their unfortunate experience in the sacrament of reconciliation was the exception rather than the rule. I am glad that I heard that particular homily; it gave me much to consider as penitent and confessor.