Fr. Anthony Stephens: Post-Lenten Healing and Holiness Through Reconciliation

Fr. Anthony Stephens of the Fathers of Mercy explains how we can continue to grow in holiness after the Lenten season.

Father Anthony Stephens of the Fathers of Mercy
Father Anthony Stephens of the Fathers of Mercy (photo: Register Files)

“Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s Mercy… We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it,” said Pope Francis said in Misericordiae Vultus.

Fr. Anthony Stephens of the Fathers of Mercy recalled this document when I interviewed him a couple of weeks ago. He answered many questions as to how we can carry out the Jubilee Year of Mercy throughout Lent, Easter, and the remainder of the liturgical year. He most especially focused on the sacrament of Reconciliation: its importance in our own lives, and how we can influence others to take advantage of it, even those who may have not been to confession a very long time. Below you can listen to the full interview and read the main concepts Fr. Stephens discussed.

Listen full interview on iTunes or below on Soundcloud:

Mercy is not something that’s cheap grace. It’s freely given—it’s asked for.

“Wrapped up in the whole concept of mercy, if you need to ask for mercy, it means something has gone wrong. So you need to be aware of that. Mercy is not something that’s cheap grace. It’s freely given. You have to ask for it. Like the younger son in the Prodigal Son story…we have to come to our senses. The whole Lenten journey in trying to eliminate some legitimate good and making a legitimate sacrifice, and showing our Lord that “I sacrifice this out of sorrow for my own sins, but also in the sharing in the suffering of Your mystical body.” It helps us to quiet down and to hear where God might speak to us as well. Those penances can aid us in that.

By going into confession, ultimately, we tell God we are sorry for our sins. We say our sins to another member of the human race, and in a certain sense, that the wound with humanity is healed.”

The priest is an instrumental cause in that sacrament because the source and the origin of that forgiveness that comes about in the sacrament of confession is Christ himself. The priest is the intermediary—the instrumental cause, and he has that authority of service to give that absolution.

In sinning, we hurt our relationship with God and those around us, because there’s no such thing as a solitary sin. Even the creepy little sins that we think nobody sees, in some way, shape, or form, they affect those around us. And obviously, we hurt ourselves through our sins. So the sacrament of confession heals where there is a three-fold wound with God, neighbor, and ourselves.

You have to lay claim to what you’re guilty of and hear yourself say it. People really struggle with that.

People are ashamed, and that’s good. That means there’s shame, you feel guilty for what you’ve done, your conscience is still active and you want to be sorry for breaking God’s law. But you need to just abandon yourself and trust. Father doesn’t recognize your voice, and even if he does, he won’t remember your sin. I think most priests have “holy amnesia.” After they leave the confessional, they forget. They don’t want to hang onto someone’s sins. The penitents have confessed those sins before God. The priests I know take that very seriously. They do not break the seal of confession. They don’t sit around the table and talk about sins, because it’s sin. It doesn’t build us up. Sin breaks us down. It damages the image and the plan that God has for us.

Why do I need to go confess my sins to another human being?

People forget that a priest has been ordained to serve people in precisely that way…Jesus said to the apostles, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (Jn. 20:23) In this scripture, we see Him giving the apostles the authority to forgive sins, or to bind and to loose from sin.

It’s interesting because none of this happens in a vacuum. No one saves themselves. So people who think they can save themselves and say, “Well I can just go straight to God. I can go under a tree and tell my sins straight to God—I don’t need another human being.” When people tell me that, I’m like, “I hope you do go out under your tree. I hope you pray every day under your oak tree in your backyard…But your oak tree is not going to give you words of encouragement. If you confess under your oak tree, all that’s going to happen is that an acorn may fall on your head. But it’s certainly not going to say, “and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” because a tree is a tree. It doesn’t talk.

We need one another, we need the Church and we need what Christ has given to us through the Church in the sacraments to really have this rich life of grace and to have this opportunity for confession. There’s this human encounter in the sacrament of confession, just like all the other sacraments.

To the souls who are hesitant to embrace the Sacrament of Reconciliation: It’s like learning to ride a bicycle. It takes getting the confidence to do it, then it becomes very simple.

The father [in the story of the Prodigal Son], even though the younger son hurt him and disrespected the older son and the household, the father let the younger son go and let him make his mistakes because he has free will, just like all of us. God doesn’t kick down the door of our hearts and make us come back to confession because we have the gift of human freedom and we have to want that mercy. God is there, and when the Father saw the younger son from a distance, ran out, embraced and kissed him, he desired that reunion and the fruit from that reunion. The younger son said, “Father, I’m sorry.” And there was the joy in that reunion. Hopefully people will come to see that one of the fruits of confession is that firstly, their sins are forgiven, so long as they haven’t held anything back and confessed everything that they can remember.

When I leave the confessional and I’ve not held anything back, God doesn’t hold back either. He showers me with his mercy and His love, and he casts my sins in to the ocean of his mercy. It is a far greater gift than I deserve, and far more than I could ever ask for myself.

The joy—that’s what people don’t realize—all they see is some silly skit from a parody or people making fun of the sacrament, or they hear mean stories about how “mean the priest was when I was seven years old in the confessional.” Those are unfortunate events, and I’m sorry that those ever happened to anyone. But if that did happen to someone, I just encourage them: that was a long time ago and maybe Father was having a bad day, and that priests are not perfect. But don’t let that one bad instance taint the good that can come about from making a good sacramental confession…The devil doesn’t like it. He will throw up road blocks to prevent people from going to confession…We delight God when we go and seek that mercy.

Other ways to make the most of this Jubilee Year: Examine your conscience. Have I harmed someone and never told them I’m sorry? Has someone harmed me and have I ever really forgiven them?

Don’t be dependent on your feelings as a barometer as to whether or not you forgive someone who hurt you. If someone hurt you, they may or may not come and ask for forgiveness. At least for your peace of mind, and for your clear conscience, you say, “God I want to forgive this person.”

Try writing a letter of forgiveness to the person who hurt you and place it in your journal. (You do not have to send the letter). This letter is kind of a sacramental. It’s not something that’s going to be blessed in the sense of your scapular, a crucifix, or a rosary. It’s a little start point. It’s something tangible—a little contract with God and yourself.” It is something you can point to, just like Jesus’ wounds. The fruit of the crucifixion is resurrection and new life, especially as we look forward to Easter. He wants that new life for us, but we must be willing to put aside the old wounds and say, “Yes it hurt deeply, it was awful, and it was unjust, but I love through the pain, just like Jesus did.”

Nowhere in the Gospel does Jesus say, “Forgive and forget.” Jesus said, “Love your enemies.”

Even after the resurrection, Jesus still bore the wounds in his hands, feet and side. Even Jesus—of course he forgave, but he didn’t forget…St. Thomas put his hands in Jesus’ side. Jesus did that for Thomas and for all of us. No one forgot, but the forgiveness was abundant. So love, mercy, and forgiveness is a decision, so we choose to forgive.  

For people who are hanging onto hurt during this Year of Mercy: ask God for the grace to really move on. You’ve got to put that love in action.

You’ve got to get out of your head and you can’t stew over it. That’s why I think, too, that the Holy Father has emphasized the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy

You’re asking for God’s love to be put into action in a very specific way by exercising the Works of Mercy. Our society, spends so much time on electronic devices that we’re not in reality. We’ve got to get back to the world around us because God himself took on flesh and dwelt among us and lived as a carpenter… He knew what it was to bleed, to sweat, suffer, love and laugh.

Grow in Holiness During This Jubilee Year: Change Your Life in Little Ways and Strive for Holiness

One of the blessings with any holy year or Jubilee year is that there are indulgences that are associated with the Holy Year. with the Holy year and many dioceses around the world, --at least in the cathedral and probably in some places around the dioceses, there are Holy Doors, which are there for us to pass through to evoke that concept of forgiveness—that God is a merciful God. So for people to make a pilgrimage to one of these sites where there is a Holy Door, [allows the opportunity for a plenary or partial indulgence.

People get discouraged [in regards to plenary indulgences.] I’ve talked to folks who say, “Father, how can I possibly gain a plenary indulgence ever in my life? It seems like all I have to do is open my mouth and I sin.” One of the requirements is to be in a state of grace and to be detached from all sins.

…Ask for those graces to be able to gain a plenary indulgence. If a person is really strives, it will cause a change in the way they live and the way they treat those around them. It’s a beautiful thing when that little, still, small voice is at work in people’s lives enticing them to grow more in love with God and neighbor.

Father Anthony Stephens’ talk “Making the Most of the Year of Mercy,” is available on CD on the Fathers of Mercy website.

*Note: All information quoted from Fr. Anthony Stephens. *