Cardinal James Francis Stafford heads the Vatican department that is charged with helping the guilty find forgiveness and reconcile with God and the Church.

The Apostolic Penitentiary is one of the most circumspect of departments, owing to the gravity of sins it considers. It also deals with extremely serious sins, such as priests who have broken the seal of confession; priests who have offered sacramental absolution to their own sexual partner; desecrating the Eucharist; and making an attempt on the life of the Pope.

Cardinal Stafford discussed the role of the penitentiary, the importance of the sacrament of penance, and how these issues were addressed at a recent symposium in Rome.

You recently held a symposium on the sacrament of penance, looking at its historical, legal, theological and pastoral perspectives and the reforms that have changed the purpose and modus operandi of the Apostolic Penitentiary. How important was this reflection to the Church as a whole? What did it achieve?

It was designed to help us understand how we came to where we are today — to the decline within the Western Church, at least, of the practice of forgiveness, either as a virtue or as a sacrament.

Our hope was to study the past and development within the past in order to understand how we arrived at where we are and to anticipate some hints of the future. So we looked at six or seven specific eras within the Church.

Could you tell more about the importance of moving back to this ideal? How was this issue discussed?

It was discussed in the historical context that I have just outlined — how do we understand how we got to where we are now, in terms of a kind of forgetfulness of responsibility before one another and before God?

Today, many believe that forgiveness is impossible, as [philosopher Jacques] Derrida underlines in his post-modernist semiotics — how do we get beyond his aporias [philosophical puzzles]? Or move beyond those seeming dead-ends even in the Church?

Contrast the decline in the practice of reconciliation within the Church to its ascendancy in some sectors of secular life. I am referring to the experience of reconciliation in South Africa in the 1970s and later in other conflicted societies; such practice has now been extended to more than 40 other countries.

They are generally called “Truth and Reconciliation Committees.” Whole libraries have been established to house the research and reflection on civil reconciliation and truth within the secular community. Their intention has been to bring about more socially cohesive communities.

Contrast that civil experience with the decline in penitential practice within the Church, the great instrument and sign which mediates God’s forgiveness.

What we are doing today then, at the Apostolic Penitentiary, is to our dicastery’s practice to that ancient, rediscovered understanding, as articulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

There are four parts of the Catechism, with one of them dealing with morality. That is the possibility of the Christian disciple who is Trinitarian by baptism, that is, rooted in the Trinitarian life through baptism.

What does that mean for everyday life? It means that we pursue the instinct of the Holy Spirit, given to us through grace.

We pursue the mystery of Jesus, the kenosis, the self-emptying, poverty of spirit, the gaping void out of which arises our anxiety, the emptiness, the “unfelt fullness” of God’s forgiveness.

More specifically, how did the symposium address the problem today of many not going to confession?

First of all, I would say that I do not know what in reality is meant when one says “not many” go to confession.

The African bishops report that the sacrament of penance is flourishing in their local churches. Secondly, we have the experience of World Youth Days; for example, in Rome in 2000, there were 150,000-200,000 young people who took part in the sacrament of reconciliation and penance.

Not as many at Sydney in 2008, but still large numbers. So those two observations are important.

However, the fact of the decline of the practice of the sacrament in the West is a sign of the need of people to reflect more deeply on their own sins and take responsibility for their own actions — their own actions in light of what Jesus spoke about in the great 18th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel on the community as the forgiving center of the Church.

There, Jesus insists that Christians take responsibility and accept the burden of anxiety (since for Christ anxiety is redemptive) for their sinful acts. The mediation of a community of faith is essential.

So, one of the implications of the decline of the sacrament of penance is the decline of experience of community within the Church and within the wider society.

Jesus insists that the Christian community is a mediator of friendship, as a place of friendship, a grace-filled space where human beings are willing to be open and honest with one another about their need for help in their moral vulnerabilities.

Of course, this requires a minimum trust in others, a belief that others are willing to accept one as one is, both one’s virtues and one’s sinfulness. We sinners must have the courage and maturity to ask the ecclesial community for forgiveness in light of the community’s responsibility, that is, an ecclesial duty to mediate the forgiveness of Jesus.

As Augustine says, this can be done by fraternal correction, intercessory prayers, tears, etc.

You seem to be emphasizing here the horizontal relationship with God. Do you feel this horizontal dimension needs to be greater emphasized?

I use the word mediation, and mediation has a vertical thrust.

There is only one mediator between God and man, and that is Jesus Christ. The key is that Jesus and Paul and the whole New Testament speaks about the community of faith as being an intermediary, as having a priestly role between the sinful human being, the individual, and God.

Of course, that is the body of Christ — the Church. It requires a rediscovery of the great insight of St. Irenaeus of the triform body of Christ — the glorified body of Jesus standing as though slain before the Father in heaven, his mystical body, and his Eucharistic body.

One cannot know one of these in faith without acknowledging the other.

How can you encourage the faithful to regularly receive the sacrament of penance?

For priests, one of the most important things would be to reflect on the meaning of sinfulness in their own lives and their unworthiness to be in the presence of God.

In many ways, one of the ways to arrive at a more profound understanding of oneself is to delve more deeply into the Christian tradition of how one discovers the depths of the interior life. For priests and for laity, but especially for priests, I would urge them to read the 10th and 11th chapters of St. Augustine’s Confessions, where he speaks of his capacity to address his own sinfulness in relationship to the holiness, goodness and purity of God.

His understanding of God’s love and mercy leads him to a sense of his own unworthiness before God and, consequently, to a deeper understanding of the role that the heavenly Father has given to Jesus as the one mediator between God and man and to a similar understanding of the role of the body of Christ, which is the whole Christ, in mediating that divine love, mercy and forgiveness.

So it would be very important for priests first to become deeply aware of their own interiority, their own spiritual life that is unfolding for them and their sense of unworthiness in the presence of thrice-holy God and his infinite goodness.

Augustine says if one wishes to come to know oneself more deeply one must come to know the mystery of God. If one wants to come to know the depths of the burden of life, one must come to know God.

Jesus said in the Gospel of St. Luke that we are to know the joy of those angels in heaven over one sinner who repents.

We are called to know the joy that we share with the angels in God’s Kingdom over one wayward sheep who has been found in the wilderness by the restless Shepherd.

Is there a danger that too much self-examination, too much recollection can lead to one becoming inward-looking rather than outward-looking?

One isn’t centered on oneself when one is centering on God. The paradigm for this would be to find Jacob wrestling with a stranger at the river Jabbuk.

The stranger is eventually identified as an angel of God, or God himself. It was only through a hard encounter with the divine Other that Jacob was able to come to recognize his own sinfulness in his relationship to his brother Esau, who was prepared to meet him the next day. So it was only with relationship to God, the God of Abraham, that Jacob understood his interior identity.

Thus, we understand the reason for the change of his name from Jacob to “Israel” — one who strives with God. So he only discovered the depths of his own unworthiness in the violent encounter with God, before what one can almost say was the violence of God, which left him with a limp.

How serious is the problem of “spiritual deafness” on the part of penitents?

Much of this is rooted in the great, overarching sin, which is pride. If I sense that in the confessional I am being superficial in diagnosing my relations with myself and with others, then the great challenge is to recognize that Christ identified himself not so much with the Lion of Judah but with the Lamb of God, the same victim Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.

This self-identity of Jesus is called a kenosis, his self-emptying.

Similarly, his followers are called to take on a like poverty of spirit before God and before the Church. It requires the honesty of verbally articulating the organic relation between the truth of being and its meaning before the Church.

Recall that Jesus wouldn’t exorcise the evil from the demoniac unless he spoke his name — the name of Legion. So we must have sufficient honesty, humility and poverty of spirit in accepting responsibility by verbally acknowledging them, if we wish to have happiness.

That’s the intimate connection with happiness or beatitude that Jesus gave to Christian morality. Happiness is rooted in poverty of spirit, in kenosis, in weakness, and the living out of purity of heart.

All of the great Eight Beatitudes and roads to happiness begin with the first: the poverty of spirit. And only then do we come to the great joy, which is, at the very end, to know the joy of what it means to be persecuted for the sake of Jesus.

That also ties in with what you were saying before, that there has to be a centering on God.

Each of us has to recognize that there’s a great deal of violence that we have within ourselves, and if we don’t have that recognition, then we are like blind men or blind women.

In Sophocles’ Antigone, the Chorus describes man as the being who is the most violent, the strangest of all of the strange beings that are in creation.

If we should not recognize ourselves as the strangest, we would become also the most blind. We are violent with others in family life, with wives, with husbands, with children. We are violent in our relationship with others at work.

The Book of Wisdom refers to us as “exiles from eternal Providence.” So a daily examination of conscience is not a bad way of coming to a purity of heart or poverty of spirit, which is the beginning of happiness.

That is leading us to the way of truth, who is Jesus. “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,” he declared.

How should the layperson prepare for the sacrament of penance?

As I mentioned earlier, there is no way that the layperson can come to an understanding of the profundity and significance of their lives unless they’re in touch with the mystery of God. Augustine saw that; [Martin] Heidegger and other contemporary philosophers came to some grasp of the dignity of the human person by reading Augustine’s Confessions and by reflecting on the Third Council of Constantinople, which dealt with the two wills of Christ.

How does one come to an understanding of the dignity of the human person? Many scholars have indicated that no other peoples have expressed the dignity and mystery of the human person, especially their reflections on human freedom, so profoundly as Europeans. This is due to their Christian roots. So laypersons should retrace the historical origins of the sense of their own human dignity as responsible beings on earth in dialogue with God.

That means a contemplation of the holiness of God. Jeremiah stammered as an abandoned child before God’s word.

Isaiah was filled with the anxiety of the good when addressed by the terrifying God. Jesus’ disciples discovered their deepest dignity when John the Baptist pointed out to them the Innocent One passing by near the Jordan river. John identified him as “the Lamb of God.”

In seeing Christ crucified, they were seeing the glory of the Father, the purity and holy simplicity, the omnipotence of the Father and his unconditional forgiveness: “In him we beheld his glory, the glory as the only begotten Son of the Father.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.