Download Archbishop Malcolm's Homily
My dear people, in this address I would like to speak to the priests because it is their day in so many ways, but I don't mind if you listen in. When we gather to bless the oils and consecrate the chrism we are reminded that so much of the Church's ministry is summed up in these three oils: as a Church, the Holy Spirit heals our spirits and our bodies; we are strengthened and sanctified. Priestly ministry is summed up in those three words: heal, strengthen and sanctify. One word that embraces these three is mercy.
In this Jubilee of Mercy the Pope reminds us: "We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us ... Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to a hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness." ('Misericordiae Vultus', no.1)
Mercy, "love's second name" (John Paul II, 'Dives in misericordia', no.7), has many facets. Basically, every good we receive – life, food, shelter, human relationships, our faith etc. – is an outpouring and expression of Divine Mercy. But in its definitive expression, mercy has a face as the title of Pope Francis's bull 'Misericordiae vultus' (The Face of Mercy) indicates.
Jesus Christ is the face of the Father's mercy. In the "fullness of time" (Galatians 4:4), when everything had been arranged according to His plan of salvation, He sent His only Son into the world, born of the Virgin Mary, to reveal His love for us in a definitive way. Whoever sees Jesus sees the Father (cf. John 14:9). Jesus of Nazareth, by his words, his actions, and his entire person reveals the mercy of God.
We see the face of the Father's Mercy in Jesus. But where are we to find it? The icon for the Holy Year helps us: we can see that the face of Our Lord is similar to the face of the rescued sinner – in fact they see eye to eye – so it is in the face of those in need of our help and love, those rejected and despised, those who yearn for wholeness and forgiveness, that we see the face of Christ, and the face of the Father’s mercy. What a shock that can be. So Jesus is there amongst us in all our messiness and the ordinary things of life.
The revelation of the Father’s mercy culminated in the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus, by which he gained for us the forgiveness of our sins. Soon after his resurrection, Our Lord appeared to the apostles in the upper room and instituted the Sacrament of Mercy, saying, "Receive the Holy Spirit; whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained." (John 20:22–23). According to St Thomas Aquinas, it is above all the forgiveness of sins that demonstrates God’s mercy. St Thomas, quoting St. Augustine, states, "for a just man to be made from a sinner (through absolution) is greater than to create heaven and earth, for heaven and earth shall pass away, but the justification of the ungodly shall endure." ('Summa Theologica', I–II, 113, 9).
Nevertheless, the sacrament by which Jesus absolves us through his priests from our sins is poorly appreciated in our days. In most of the parishes in the Western world the Communion queues are long while the Confession queues are short or do not exist at all. The confessional is sometimes called the "loneliest place in the Church". This looks like a crisis. We should perhaps think of how we have contributed to the crisis.
Famously, Pope Francis compares the state of the Church fittingly to a field hospital: "Today we can think of the Church as a 'field hospital'. There is need to cure the wounds, so many wounds! So many wounds! There are so many wounded people, by material problems, by scandals, also in the Church ... Wounded people by the illusions of the world ... We, priests, must be there, close to these people. Mercy means first of all to cure the wounds." (Address to the clergy of Rome, 6 March 2014). Wounds that cannot heal unless the healing power of God's mercy is sought in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
We may ask: "How could the reception of this so important sacrament decay so radically?" Pope Pius XII said in 1946 – so it’s not a recent problem – "The sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin."
Pope Benedict XVI says it is partially to do with the "dictatorship of relativism", that is the claim that knowledge, truth and morality are not absolute, but can change according to culture, society or historical context. But another reason weighs maybe more heavily. Why is it that despite our best efforts we fail to get across to our people the need for holiness. Why are we hesitant to pass on to our congregation that being a Christian is about becoming holy? It is though we are afraid to talk about it, and part of becoming holy is how important it is to go frequently to Confession. We have become desensitised in regards to sin. Another point is that we do not always give enough attention to our spiritual life. If we give up the pursuit of sanctity, and are not inclined to preach on holiness, then we are failing the people we serve.
A final point: why some people abandoned Confession is the immature – for want of a better word – administration of the Sacrament by some priests. We have all come across people who have stopped going to Confession because of a bad experience in the confessional where they have been judged harshly. When I took my second faculties examination the examiner asked me what kind of judge I would be in the confessional. He was pressing me for an answer I didn't know. I knew that if I said kind or gentle that would not satisfy him, but I finally got there. He didn't want me to be a rule book judge, like a judge in the Roman Empire, who looked up a crime and administered the appropriate sentence, but a Greek judge. The Greek word for 'judge' in English gives us words like critic and criticise which can be positive constructive words. That is how we should be in the confessional.
We must thank God that Pope Francis has the courage and the light to focus the Church's attention anew on Confession. In fact it is the primary goal of the Year of Mercy to bring people back to Confession. "Let us place the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the centre once more in such a way that it will enable people to touch the grandeur of God's mercy with their own hands. For every penitent, it will be a source of true interior peace." ('Misericordiae Vultus', no.17).
There can be no sanctity in the Church nor can we speak of a new evangelisation, if Confession does not regain its indispensable place in the lives of the faithful.
But how to begin? Pope Francis stresses that priests themselves must appreciate and make frequent use of this sacrament. Their own souls ought to resonate deeply St Peter's sentiments: "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man" (Luke 5:8). They must deeply experience their own need for God's mercy and receive it often; only then can they be men of mercy and compassion towards the faithful. John Paul II expressed it in these drastic words: "The priest's spiritual and pastoral life, his priestly existence, suffers an inexorable decline if by negligence or for some other reason he fails to receive the sacrament of penance at regular intervals and in a spirit of genuine faith and devotion. If a priest were no longer to go to Confession or properly confess his sins, his priestly being and his priestly action would feel its effects very soon, and this would also be noticed by the community of which he was the pastor." ('Reconciliatio et Paenitentia', no.31)
The priest shows the depths of mercy in administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation; his whole attitude demonstrates it, in the way he welcomes, listens, advises, absolves. However, this stems from the way that he himself lives the sacrament personally, that he lets himself be embraced by God the Father in Confession and he stays in this embrace. If one lives this oneself, in one’s heart, one can also give it to others in the ministry. And I leave you with the question: How do I confess? Do I allow myself to be embraced?
The priest welcomes penitents not with the attitude of a judge, not even with that of a simple man, but with the charity of God, with the love of a father who sees the son returning and goes to meet him, with the love of the shepherd who has found the lost sheep. The heart of the priest is a heart that knows how to be moved, not by sentimentality or mere emotion, but by the tender mercy of the Lord. If it is true that tradition points out the dual role of doctor and judge for confessors, we must never forget that as a doctor he is called to heal and as a judge, to absolve.
"Do not ask useless questions, but like the father in the parable, interrupt the speech prepared ahead of time by the prodigal son, so that you will learn to accept the plea for help and mercy pouring from the heart of every penitent. In short, you are called to be a sign of the primacy of mercy always, everywhere, and in every situation, no matter what." ('Misericordiae Vultus', no.17)
On the other hand a priest must not confuse mercy with leniency. "Taking both God and the penitent seriously, means not pretending that nothing the person confesses is really a sin. Too often people confuse being merciful with being lenient. Saying, 'Oh, go on, that’s not a sin', is just as bad as insisting over and over, 'but the law says this'. Neither response takes the penitent by the hand and accompanies him or her on the journey of conversion."
In regards to offering Confession, the Holy Father stressed strongly the importance that Confession is generously and faithfully offered to the people and takes preference over other activities:
"If Reconciliation transmits the new life of the Risen Lord and renews baptismal grace, then your task is to give it generously to others. A priest who does not attend to this part of his ministry, both in the amount of time spent and in the spiritual quality, is like a shepherd who does not take care of the sheep that were lost; he is like a father who forgets the lost son and neglects waiting for him. But mercy is the heart of the Gospel! Don't forget this: mercy is the heart of the Gospel! It is the good news that God loves us, that He always loves the sinner and with this love draws him to Himself and invites him to conversion." (Address to participants of a ‘Course on the Internal Forum’, 27 March 2015)
Both John Paul II and Francis have said that the time in which we live is a time of mercy. But let us be clear: the mercy of God must find open and contrite hearts. Without a renewal of the frequent practice of Confession, the faithful will not be able to be light and salt in the world, but will rather become a further insipid part of the world. All our efforts and activities undertaken without sincere conversion will render to nothing.
That is as shocking as it is true, so what can we do about it? Well, we have made a small start: the pilgrimages to the Cathedral and other designated churches have helped people come to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. But if we are going to make a difference then let everyone here tonight make a very determined effort to go to Confession as a regular part of their spiritual life, their growth in holiness. It will prepare you better to receive Holy Communion and become the face of Christ to those who need God’s mercy. Jesus has no other face but yours; let it be one that shows the tender care of our Father in heaven to those who want to turn to him.
And I do not wish to finish my sermon tonight without thanking the priests of the Archdiocese and those who work in the diocese for their unfailing service to God's holy faithful people. We are all aware that being a priest today brings with it certain burdens and responsibilities that don't seem to get any lighter, but as I have come to know you in the last two years I have seen how you bear this weight lightly because the Lord helps you, and that your closeness to Him is an inspiration to all. So thank you for serving with your lives God’s Church in the Archdiocese of Liverpool. I can say quite honestly that I am very proud of you and thankful that the Lord has called me to serve you as your bishop.