Cardinal Stafford, Major Penitentiary

An annual appointment on the Vatican calendar is the March course on the “internal forum” for young priests and those soon to be ordained.

I took it a couple of years ago and it was a window into a part of the Church that few ever see, even priests. It concluded this year on March 27, with Cardinal Francis Stafford presiding.

The course is organized within the Apostolic Penitentiary, which itself is something of a well-kept “secret” in Vatican press coverage. The penitentiary deals, on behalf of the Holy Father, with all matters related to the “internal forum,” matters that are secret under the seal of confession or spiritual direction.

While dating from the 12th century, its work rarely gets attention because it is necessarily secret. Or, as Cardinal Stafford likes to put it, the work is like grace, which is powerful but invisible.

The course itself devotes an enormous amount of time to quite-rare phenomena in the life of a parish priest: what to do about sins reserved to the Holy See or how to lift penalties associated with various crimes in canon law. The procedures themselves for communicating cases to the penitentiary for a judgment are careful and deliberate, developed to ensure a quick response while retaining the complete confidentiality of the penitent. I hope I don't have to consult my notes on that anytime soon.

But the lasting sense I took from the course was the seriousness with which the Church treats the sanctuary of conscience. That the penitentiary exists — a whole congregation devoted entirely to matters that might never be discussed — illustrates the lengths to which the Church will go to protect consciences in its exercise of the power of the keys.

The power of the keys. When most observers think of the Church's power, they are inclined to think of her ability to sway public opinion, run hospitals or schools, or influence leaders in society. Yet the greatest power the Church has is that given to the apostles — the power “to bind and to loose” on Earth matters that would likewise be bound or loosed in heaven. The “keys to the Kingdom of heaven” given to Peter are exercised on behalf of his successors by the Apostolic Penitentiary.

Which makes it remarkable that when Cardinal Stafford was appointed head of the penitentiary last Oct. 4 (on his patronal feast day), it was said he had been kicked upstairs or sidelined. He had become a less-powerful presence in Rome.

Cardinal Stafford himself is aware of that commentary and told me not long after the appointment that the reaction to his posting to the penitentiary could serve as a “Rorschach test” for determining different conceptions of the Church. There is no doubt that at his former post at the Pontifical Council for the Laity there was a greater public profile and the chance to speak on a wide array of topics. But in moving to the “tribunal of mercy” has he taken a step up or a step down?

It is worth noting that, at least at the level of canon law, the penitentiary is given pride of place. During a vacancy in the See of Peter, after the death or resignation of a pope, all Vatican congregations cease all business — with the exception of the penitentiary, for the dispensing of mercy and the care of souls cannot be interrupted. The challenge for many Churchmen, in Rome and elsewhere, is to see the Church as she sees herself.

Cardinal Stafford is such a Churchman. During my years as the Register's Rome correspondent, he was always kind and generous to me, both as an aspiring priest and a journalist. Many of my colleagues, though, found him too theologically nuanced in interviews and not given to pithy sound bites.

All of which is true enough, which means it was no doubt an act of Providence that he was chosen, along with Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, to address the high-octane press conference at the end of the cardinals’ summit on sexual abuse in April 2002. At that time he said the Church had “spiritual resources” with which to deal with such scandals. He spoke of mercy and penance and conversion and healing. No one paid much attention. Except perhaps the Holy Spirit.

Now Cardinal Stafford marshals those spiritual resources as the Church's chief confessor in the Church's ultimate confessional. The confessional is a hidden place, too, but hardly a step down for any priest.

Father Raymond J. de Souza writes from Kingston, Ontario.

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