I came in from the cathedral a short while ago. The third and last evening of the Triduum was very well attended. His Excellency, Bishop Slattery presided from the throne and went to the altar to give Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament. The veneration of the first class relic of Saint John Mary was very touching. Folks of all ages, including wide-eyed little children, came forward to kiss a humble fragment of the saint’s mortal body and to ask for his intercession. I was especially gratified to see a number of our seminarians there this evening. Heartfelt thanks to all who joined in the Triduum from their homes!
“He stood up as a fire, and his word burnt like a torch” (Ecclus 48:1).
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Love Crucified Here and Now
I left off last evening by quoting Saint John Mary Vianney on the Mass. “”What a good thing it is,” he said, “for a priest each morning to offer himself in sacrifice.” Saint John Mary Vianney’s identification with Love Crucified was so complete that his only glory was in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, not in a remote Cross, not in the mere symbol of a sacrifice that happened in a place far away and long ago, but in the Cross made present, actualized, brought out of the historical “there and then” of another place and time, into the immediacy of the real “here and now,” and this by the miracle of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Into the Hands of the Living God
When the parish priest of Ars ascended the steps of the altar in his village church, it was to say “Yes” to all the exigencies of Redeeming Love. It is a terrifying and risky thing for a priest to ascend to the altar . . . to the place of sacrifice, morning after morning. He does so with the words of Jesus crucified on his lips, “Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit” (Lk 23:46), not forgetting for a single moment what is written in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:1).
Between the Wood of the Cross and the Sin of the World
Saint John Mary Vianney, like Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, like the soon-to-be-Saint Damien of Molokai, like the fiery Irish Jesuit Father Willie Doyle, and like so many other priests through the ages, knew that he could not hold the Body of Crucified Love in his hands, and raise the Chalice of Love Crucified’s Blood, without yielding to the embrace of Love Crucified. Only in the embrace of Love Crucified does the priest begin to understand — and this in a partial and shadowy way — the utter horror of sin. Even as God draws the priest into the mystery of the Sacrifice he offers at the altar day after day, the Divine Hand shields the priest from too close an understanding of what sin is. Were the priest — any priest — to grasp, even for an instant the enormity of a single sin, that realization would annihilate him. But that is not all. Were the priest — any priest — to grasp even for an instant the immensity of Crucified Love, that realization would incinerate him. The priest, like Jesus whom He represents, accepts in every Mass to place himself between the wood of the Cross and the sin of the world. This is the place of the priest: between the wood of the Cross and the sin of the world. “God forbid that I should glory save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified to me and I to the world” (Gal 6:14).
From the Altar to the Confessional
It is this identification with Love Crucified and with the sin of the world that compels the priest to go from the altar to the confessional. One might say that the priest who consents, day after day, to the mystical crucifixion of the Mass — and mystical does not mean spooky; it means hidden — will be driven by the Holy Spirit into the confessional. Altar and confessional are but two faces of a single mystery: what sin does to Love, and what Love does to sin.
The Horror of Sin
In his letter for the Year of the Priesthood, Pope Benedict XVI says that “this deep personal identification with the Sacrifice of the Cross led Saint John Mary Vianney — by a sole inward movement — from the altar to the confessional.” The Holy Father goes on to say that, “Priests ought never to be resigned to empty confessionals or the apparent indifference of the faithful to this sacrament.” “In France,” he says, “at the time of the Curé of Ars, confession was no more easy or frequent than in our own day, since the upheaval of the revolution had long inhibited the practice of religion.” Saint John Mary Vianney lived in the wake of the bloody French Revolution (1789-1799); we live in the wake of the sexual revolution, and in the throes of a cultural revolution that has spawned and abetted the undoing of Christian principles in every area of life. In both cases, the revolutionary animus has blunted our awareness of the horror of sin as an offense against God, and led to a disaffection for the Sacrament of Penance.
The Return to the Confessional
At the same time, changes in liturgical and pastoral practice, such as the introduction of the Saturday Vigil Mass, displaced or reduced the weekly availability of priests for confessions. In most places, there was little critical reflection on the long-term consequences of this displacement, and only minimal efforts at making the Sacrament of Penance readily available at other times. At no other time in the history of the Church hav we seen such long lines for Holy Communion, and such short ones for Confession. One of the aims of this Year of the Priesthood is the return of both priests and people to the confessional. The Babylonian Exile of confessors and penitents is over! Confession is back! The confessional cannot be separated from the altar any more than sin can be separated from the blood-soaked Cross on Calvary.
The Restoration of the Sacrament of Penance
Pope Benedict XVI present Saint John Mary Vianney as our model in the restoration of the Sacrament of Penance. Monsignor Halpine has more than once preached eloquently on this very subject here in Holy Family Cathedral! Saint John Mary Vianney “sought in every way, “says the Holy Father, “by his preaching and by his powers of persuasion, to help his parishioners to rediscover the meaning and beauty of the Sacrament of Penance, presenting it as an inherent demand of the Eucharistic presence. He this created a “virtuous circle.”
A Virtuous Circle
It is this “virtuous circle” going from the altar to the confessional, and from the confessional to the altar, that the Holy Spirit wants to regenerate during this Year of the Priesthood. Our parishes must become what the village of Ars had become under its saintly pastor: “a great hospital of souls.” The Divine Physician of our souls and bodies waits to disinfect the fetid wounds of our sins with His Precious Blood; He waits to anoint them with the healing balm of the Holy Spirit — and this He wills to do through the ministry of His priests.
The Needs of Souls
Saint John Mary Vianney adapted his treatment of souls to the particular needs of each one. Listen to what Pope Benedict XVI writes:
Those who came to his confessional drawn by a deep and humble longing for God’s forgiveness found in him the encouragement to plunge into the ‘flood of divine mercy’ which sweeps everything away by its vehemence.
If someone was troubled by the thought of his own frailty and inconstancy, and fearful of sinning again, the Curé would unveil the mystery of God’s love in these beautiful and touching words: ‘The good Lord knows everything. Even before you confess, He already knows that you will sin again, yet He still forgives you. How great is the love of our God: He even forces Himself to forget the future, so that He can grant us His forgiveness.’ To those who made a lukewarm and rather indifferent confession of sin, he clearly demonstrated by his own tears of pain how abominable this attitude was. ‘I weep,’ he used to say, ‘because you don’t weep.’
This final evening of our Triduum — and the two previous evenings we have spent together — send us to three Sacraments: 1) to the altar, that is, to the Sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist; 2) to the confessional, that is, the Sacrament of Penance; and 3) to the priest, that is, to the Sacrament of Holy Orders without which we would have neither the one nor the other.
A Quickening of Sacramental Life
The Sacerdotal Pentecost — the New Pentecost of the Priesthood — for which we are praying will be revealed, not in a might wind and tongues of fire, not in a profusion of extraordinary charisms, but in a quickening of sacramental life in every parish, in every diocese, and in the Church throughout the world. Let the sacramental dance begin: from the altar to the confessional, from the confessional to the altar, and then into the darkness of a world waiting for the light of Christ, into the coldness of a world waiting for His warmth, into the infirmity of a world waiting for His healing touch. Eucharistic Face of Jesus, sanctify Thy priests!