Absolution

Parish Diary

Fr. Peter Daly

September 15, 2009

 

(Fr. Peter Daly talks about the importance of absolution and tension in the priests’ role in confession..)

 

                Confession is good for the soul.

                Forgiveness brings healing.

                I think that if someone sincerely asks for forgiveness, we should forgive them, even though they might sin again. Just as God has forgiven us in Christ.

                The image Jesus wants us to have of God the father described in the story of the prodigal son. The father forgives immediately. The sorrowing son does not even get a chance to finish his confession before the father orders a ring and a garment and a banquet to celebrate their reconciliation. The father is really the “prodigal” in the sense that he is extravagant with his forgiveness.

                In hearing thousands of confessions, I have never heard a confession from someone who was not truly sorry. I have never refused absolution.

                Confession is meant to be an encounter with God’s mercy.    

                The people who come to confession are a rare in today’s world. They are people who actually take sin seriously. They are people who accept their guilt and feel the need of the forgiveness of the church. We should encourage such people.

                They are like King David who expressed his guilt in Psalm 51, the “Miserere” or “mercy” psalm. David asks for mercy, after his sin with Bathsheba. Actually, his most serious sin was not adultery with Bathsheba but the murder of her husband Uriah which he arranged to cover up their adultery.

                Anyway, David was totally sorry.

                 He says: “Have mercy on me Oh God in your kindness, in your compassion blot out my offense. Wash me more and more from my guilt and cleanse me from my sin. My offenses truly I know them, my sin is always before me.” Now that’s an Act of Contrition!

                In my experience, the people who come to confession have carried around their guilt for a long time, sometimes for years. So, when people finally get up the courage to come to confession, I don’t think we priests should discourage them. We are meant to be a “balm in Gilead.”

                 Now there is a tension in the priest’s role of confessor.

                Canon law says priests are supposed to be judge as well as healer. (Canon 978). This is hard to do.

                When I was a young priest, I think I put more emphasis on being “judge.” Today I think I represent Christ the healer. I certainly appreciate people’s persistent striving more than I used to.  

                But, in all my years of hearing confessions, I have never questioned anyone’s sorrow. Nor have I questioned their “firm purpose of amendment.” I take it at face value. Canon law says priests should not refuse or delay absolution if the penitent is sincere.

                Of course we know that some people will commit the same sin again. After all, many sins are also addictions. I know that people will likely use pornography or alcohol again until they get help to overcome their addiction.

                It is a harder case when people are living with someone not their spouse. I ask them to live as brother and sister, but I don’t check on them.  

                Occasionally a person comes to confession and tells me they have been refused absolution by another priest. I don’t question that priest’s judgment. I was not there.

                But I do admire the persistence of the penitent. I’m not sure I would ever go back to confession if I was refused absolution.

                In the tension between being judge and healer, I would rather err on the side of healing.

                David said it well in Psalm 51, “A humble and contrite heart you will not spurn.”