As a Retreat master at an all-boys Catholic College, it is part of my duty to invite priests to the Retreats, often to celebrate the Eucharist but mainly to hear the confessions of the students. When I create a roster for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I am acutely aware that I require priests who have the pastoral experience to deal with the: joys, sufferings and anxieties of adolescent young men. I am blessed with an outstanding team of priests, a group that has been carefully cultivated over the years. These men are a credit to their priestly calling, and are the counter-balance to that number who have abjectly and grossly failed in their ministry, that number which we read so much about in the newspapers around the world.
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- Understanding Prayer
It is vital that when the young men come away from the Sacrament of Reconciliation at these Retreats, that they do so with the firm understanding that through this Sacrament they have had an experience of, and an encounter with God. That is not to say that I ever equate the person of the priest with God – but that I clearly explain to the young men, that God works his forgiveness through the ministry of the priest. In the light of the young men being all too knowing of the clerical abuse scandals, it is also critical that the individual who comes to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, understands the distinction, between a very fallible individual, who is the priest, and the great power of the Sacrament, that takes place because of God’s presence through the priest.
May I also add, how fortunate the Church is, that parents still continue to send their children to Catholic schools, despite the horrendous abuse and disgraceful actions, of what appears now tragically to have been not just a few of the clerics within the Church, speaking as I do in particular of the Australian context.
The young men that I lead in Retreats, trust that we will do the right thing by them. This trust is a real sign of God’s grace. I can remember at a Retreat that I directed ten years ago, a young man of seventeen years of age, entering a Confessional, only to exit over an hour later, in tears. I immediately went up to him to ask if everything was alright. He looked into my eyes, all the while, wiping tears out from his own, and said: “Doc, today is the happiest day of my life!” Whatever had been on his conscience – whatever had been weighing him down for so long, had now been lifted off.
what I also found difficult to understand was that if we used that priest’s paradigm, that only those who attend Mass regularly can receive Absolution, then the message of the Gospel, is truly only for the few in today’s society; those who are ‘saved’ who sit in our pews
But now to a story with a different ending. On one occasion five years ago, one of my regular confessors phoned me to say that he was unable to attend the three day residential Retreat. Ringing around to my other confessors, I discovered that I couldn’t find an easy replacement for that evening. There were no shortages of priests, per se, but priests who have the skill and desire to minister to young men, they are indeed rare. The name of a priest was given to me by a friend, so I followed up by giving this priest a phone call as to his availability. The priest from all reports was a very good man. In no way had his name ever been tainted by scandal. So it is not of this man’s character that I decry, but of his pastoral formation; what I call the blind side. I will get back to the subsequent conversation I had with this priest in a moment.
At about the same time that I called looking for a replacement confessor for the Retreat, I opened the door of the Chapel at the College early one morning to say a prayer before the beginning of the working day. The following scene confronted me. Lying fully prostrate on the floor on the steps leading up to the altar was a thirteen year old boy – hands clasped in prayer – weeping. I discovered that he had come that morning to desperately pray that his mother and father begin to believe in God. Every Sunday, this young man would walk to Church by himself and what he desired most of all, was that the family would begin to attend Mass together. That image has stayed with me, as vividly as when I first saw him. I taught another young man, who received the Sacrament of Confirmation, (in the absence of his parents), who every Sunday rode his bicycle four kilometres to Mass, although his mother and father had an expensive car in the garage. If I was to describe to you the cross-section of humanity that I have seen as families of the students I have taught at Catholic Schools over the nearly thirty years, I would say that: the majority, but slight majority, are of two parent homes, with the children living with their biological parents, and that of the rest, the children live with the dysfunction of single parent homes, mostly with mothers, and that both double and single parent families, are battling the ravages and threats of: drug addiction, unemployment, consumerism, alcoholism, sexual abuse, poverty, depression, domestic violence, and a whole cacophony of societal ills that lie waiting for the child. In the past, the Church would be there as a stabilizing and constant force. Perhaps that is why so many of the parents who don’t attend the Church with any sense of regularity, still send their children to Catholic Schools. They seek an anchor for their child’s development, especially so, in light of the dysfunction that they know is present in their families. How reprehensible therefore, the clerical abuse scandal. Depravity at its worst. Punishing an innocent child, time and time again.
Whoever, therefore, gives off the appearance of sanctity but destroys another by his words or example, it would be better for him that his earthly acts, demonstrated by worldly habits, would bind him to death than for his sacred office to be a source for the imitation of vice in another.
Let me now continue by meshing the two preceding paragraphs together; the priestly ministry, and the reality of the child’s modern family life.
The priest in question answered the phone, and I explained who I was and my reason for calling him. There was a protracted silence. He then replied to me that he would consider coming to hear the Confessions of these young men, but on one strict condition, that I understood that he would explain to the young men in the Confessional that he would not grant absolution to any of them, if they could not promise that they would go to Mass every Sunday from then on.
So we need to make a distinction here between what the Church teaches – and the priest’s opinion. According to Church teaching – if the individual has confessed their sins, and is penitent, and wishes to amend their lives, then absolution cannot be denied. (CIC, can. 959, 980). Of course, if the individual has confessed missing Mass on a Sunday, the priest can ask what was the reason, but normally, as I have been advised by experienced Confessors, if the individual does not confess a particular matter, the Confessor, does not ask. In the case of a child, whose responsibility to attend Mass, rests in large part with their parents, the impact of the sin, for non-Church attendance, cannot be shouldered by the child. It would be a different circumstance completely if the child had refused to go with their parents to Mass
So back to my telephone conversation. After the priest had declared his condition for agreeing to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I thought for ten seconds or so, then I replied: “Father, are you actually telling me that you would withhold Absolution from a young man who comes to you openly pouring out his soul in order to experience the mercy of God, and that his only sin, other than the sins he is confessing, is that he was born to parents who have not built up a culture of Church in the home?” There was no reply back from the priest. But I was angry. Perhaps I was wrong, and that this priest was indeed correct by virtue of some code of canon law, that I was ignorant of knowing. What I said next, I do not regret, but it will shock the reader. Still having heard nothing back from my last comment. I questioned the priest: “Father, are you sincerely telling me that you would withhold Absolution from this young man, but would freely give Absolution to a man who comes to you confessing that he has sexually abused a child, but because he is a daily communicant, and himself celebrates the Mass, is worthy of his sins being forgiven?” To the priest’s credit, he sorrowfully replied: “I actually have never thought about that.” In addition, what I also found difficult to understand was that if we used that priest’s paradigm, that only those who attend Mass regularly can receive Absolution, then the message of the Gospel, is truly only for the few in today’s society; those who are ‘saved’ who sit in our pews. As for those who are ill – let them shift for themselves.
When I put the phone down, and as I closed the door to my office, at the end of the day, I walked slowly with my head bowed low, shuffling my feet, kicking pebbles. I mused: if only someone in the Church had thought that Absolution should have been withheld with the same degree of expedition from a clerical sex abuser, as that priest in my telephone conversation was willing to apply to a comparative innocent babe, maybe the problem of clerical sex abuse, could have been brought to resolution sooner. Better still, if the confessor had withheld Absolution until the penitent had shown penitence enough to hand himself over to the police, maybe some innocent children would have been spared. Had the clerical abuser, been shown a vivid vision of Hell, by a failure to receive Absolution, perhaps the child, and the child who later grew into an adult, would not have had to live a life of Hell. St. Gregory the Great reminds us very explicitly in his The Book of Pastoral Rule, about the sacredness and responsibility of the priestly ministry:“ Whoever, therefore, gives off the appearance of sanctity but destroys another by his words or example, it would be better for him that his earthly acts, demonstrated by worldly habits, would bind him to death than for his sacred office to be a source for the imitation of vice in another. Indeed, his punishment in hell would be less terrible if he fell alone.” (Part I, ii)
Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
This article was published in The Church and Life Newspaper, November 2018
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