National Catholic Register


Confession’s Champion

American Cardinal Helps Sinners Find Forgiveness



June 29 - July 5, 2008 Issue | Posted 6/24/08 at 12:05 PM


Cardinal J. Francis Stafford helps Catholics around the world to deal with troubled consciences.

Cardinal Stafford, the former archbishop of Denver, has served since 2003 as the head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Vatican office that is responsible for issues related to confession and penance. He spoke with Register correspondent Edward Pentin in late May in Rome.

It has often been said in recent years that not enough Catholics are going to confession. How much of this continues to be a concern to your office?

It’s a very deep concern. One of the pieces of good news, probably the chief piece of good news that Jesus gave to us, was the forgiveness of sins, the call to conversion of that which is harmful to oneself and to God.

And without knowing and experiencing forgiveness in one’s life, one is missing one of the greatest — the greatest — grace and benediction that Christ has come to give us, that is, the knowledge that God in his mercy does forgive us, even of the vilest things we might have done.

All he asks us to do is accept his forgiveness, nothing else, and of course that comes through mediation of the Church, that is the community of people within the Church who mediate God’s forgiveness through their love, through their acceptance of the sinner, through their willingness to give a tough love, calling the sinner to repentance.

Yet there has also been talk of renewal of the sacrament of penance. Do you see that, too?

We do. People know the burden of guilt, the guilt that is truly rooted in a reality, that is, the harm that is done to themselves or to others, to the Church, to society, to God. And they need to be relieved of that terrible burden that they have carried about with them.

And Jesus, in the 18th chapter of St. Matthew, indicated the way of doing that. That chapter gives us the marvelous experience of what it means to experience forgiveness through the community of his disciples.

Your office also has the important role of administering indulgences.

One of the great riches that the Catholic Church offers is the richness of indulgences, which is a great pardon. Technically, it is to forgive the temporal punishment due to sin. Sin is forgiven by God, the actual sin, but the effects of sin are always with us.

Think of what rape is, and the harm it causes to the general community, not just to the woman herself, but to the family, perhaps to the child that might be coming forth from that, to the man and his family, and the larger community.

How does one deal with the series, the waves of effects, negative effects that come from our sinfulness?

One of the ways in which we deal with that is asking God not only to forgive the sin itself, but in some way to help forget about the effects of sin by doing penance. And one of the penances that we can do is ask for an indulgence from the Church.

That is a general pardon of this temporal punishment, this responsibility that we have of making up for the terrible things that we’ve done to others.

An indulgence is the way of doing that — that is, we ask God through prayer, through the corporal acts of mercy, to help us to overcome the punishment that is in store for us because of what we have done to others, to oneself, to God in the past.

How does one receive an indulgence?

An indulgence is done by certain actions, certain prayers, that the Church has attached grace to.

For example, going on a pilgrimage to St. Peter’s, to do that as a pilgrimage, not as a tourist but rather as a pilgrim who takes part in certain ascetical practices as a pilgrim; going to St. Peter’s praying for forgiveness for oneself, going to confession, to have that sin forgiven; asking God for the intercession of Mary and all of the saints, to forgive the effects of that sin, and the effects that would have upon oneself.

So we have, above all, confession, Communion, praying for the intentions of our Holy Father. Through the visit to St. Peter’s as a pilgrim one can gain a plenary indulgence, that is a forgiveness of all of the temporal punishment due to sin.

There’s one final condition: one must have an abhorrence of sin in the future, a complete abhorrence of sin, in the future.

If you can’t make it to St. Peters, is it still possible to receive an indulgence?

Yes, one can visit the Blessed Sacrament in a church and spend some time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. One can get a plenary indulgence for that.

One can gain a partial indulgence by praying the Rosary at home. The sick this year can get a plenary indulgence if they are homebound by praying to St. Paul because we are celebrating the anniversary of the birth of St. Paul this year.

There is a whole book out on indulgences and the possibilities of gaining those indulgences have just been translated into English, and you can get it in each of your dioceses.

You accompanied the Holy Father throughout his recent trip to the United States earlier this year. What reflections do you have of that historic visit?

It was a home run, in American slang.

The Holy Father showed himself for the first time, through television directly, that he is a man of humility, humor, intelligence, great love for God, for Christ, and for others. I’ve known Joseph Ratzinger since the late 1980s. I’ve known the type of man that he has been for all of these years. I’ve known him especially as a man of great joy.

When he walked into a room, even today, but when he was cardinal, he would walk in a room and things changed. I often wondered why. When he would come in, for example, to a meeting of the Wednesday meetings of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, why did the room change when he walked in?

And it dawned on me eventually that this man was a man who knew what joy is.

The Holy Father was recognized for who he is as an individual. He is a man of holiness, intelligence, firmness and of joy.

The second thing that I think was different: I was with the Holy Father in 1993 in the United States, and in 1995, and I saw two different things this time that I didn’t see then.

Firstly, the long number of people along the streets of Washington and the streets of New York who were part of the lay communities within the Church. I didn’t see that in 1993 in the United States and I didn’t see it in 1995, the last visit of John Paul.

This time they were everywhere: The Neocatechumenal community was everywhere. They came in tens of thousands from all over the United States. Communion and Liberation were also everywhere present, as were other groups. This is a new phenomenon in the United States and it’s very, very promising for the United States and its renewal.

The second thing I learned that was different was when he began speaking Spanish.

First of all, the Holy Father did not speak very much Spanish in the 1990s when he was visiting the United States. This time, he was urged to speak at length in Spanish including parts of his homilies. When he began speaking at Yankee Stadium in Spanish, the whole stadium erupted in cheering.

That would not have taken place in the ’90s. What’s the difference?

There has been a mass immigration of Catholic peoples from Latin American into the United States and many of those were present in New York and Washington.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.