The shocking letter of a priest with the care of souls. Fewer and fewer penitents, and less and less repentant. The counterproductive effects of a “door” thrown open too wide
by Sandro Magister
ROME, January 9, 2016 – One thing that made the news at the end of the year was the data furnished by the prefecture of the pontifical household on attendance in 2015 at the public audiences with Pope Francis, with numbers down almost by half compared to the previous year:
At the Wednesday general audiences there was a drop from 1,199,000 visitors in 2014 to 704,100 in 2015. While for the Sunday Angelus the fall was from 3,040,000 to 1,585,000.
This does not change the fact that Pope Francis remains overwhelmingly popular. His popularity ratings are not enough, however, to determine what level of effective religious practice corresponds to them.
Other revelations are much more indicative in this regard. For example, the official figures that ISTAT compiles every year in Italy on the daily life of a gigantic sampling of citizens, made up of almost 24,000 families, for a total of 54,000 individuals residing in 850 cities large and small.
In the most recent annual report made public, relative to 2014, the “percentage of persons over the age of 6 who go to a place of worship at least once a week” turned out to be 28.8 percent.
The fact that more than a quarter of Italians go to church at least once a week can be seen as significant, in itself and in comparison with other countries. But if this figure is compared with the results of previous years, here as well a clear drop can be seen.
During the seven years of the pontificate of Benedict XVI, this same indicator was consistently above 30 percent in Italy, on average around 32-33 percent. Decisively higher than in 2014, the first full year of the pontificate of Francis and the one in which his popularity reached its peak.
The following letter takes these statistical indicators into account. But it evaluates the real “Francis effect” on religious life with the more up close and direct gaze of the pastor of souls, of the confessor. Who writes that during this pontificate he has experienced not only a further drop in the practice of sacramental confession, but also a deterioration in the “quality” of the confessions themselves. A deterioration that does not seem unrelated to the use of certain remarks of pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio that have had enormous success in the media.
The author of the letter is a churchman with a high level of scholarly specialization and with significant teaching appointments in Italy and abroad, but who also dedicates a great deal of time and energy to pastoral care.
His evaluations reflect those of a growing number of pastors, who – in a private capacity – do not fail to confide similar concerns to their respective bishops.
And “www.chiesa” also guarantees confidentiality to the author of the letter, who would be too exposed to the predictable retaliation of an ecclesiastical “new establishment” – as he calls it – whose conformist fawning over this pontificate is one of its most deleterious vices.
A confidentiality that allows that “parresia” or frankness of speech so greatly encouraged by Pope Francis himself, who even during a synod wants the attention to be on “what” is said in the assembly, but not on “who” says it.
“Who are you to judge me?” The confessions of a confessor
Not a little has been written on the impact of the pontificate of Pope Francis “ad intra” and “ad extra Ecclesiae,” when it comes to the renewal of the spiritual life of the faithful and their communal participation in that of the Church, as also on the hoped-for return to evangelical and sacramental practice by those who had distanced themselves from it in recent decades. And it has been written from different perspectives: theology, anthropology, history, sociology, culture, communication, and politics. I do not believe it is necessary to add anything in this regard, in part because many of these facts and considerations still need to be digested through calm, critical reflection.
There nevertheless remains open – and in part undecided – the identification of a robust spiritual and pastoral indicator for measuring the effect of a change of personality, discipline, or teaching on souls and on the people of God.
I am aware of this. “Souls” and “people of God” are two theological and ecclesial categories that are decommissioned today, particularly in the statements of the current pontiff and his “new establishment.” But barring evidence to the contrary they are still part of the Catholic faith as confirmed by Vatican Council II itself. And negligence of them carries the risk, which is anything but transitory, of exchanging the “salus animarum” for the “vota aliquorum” and the “bonum populi Dei” for the “popularis consensus.” I translate: the health of souls for the wishes of a few and the good of the people of God for popularity.
I leave to the devotees of the sociology of religion, of the public communication of the faith, and of ecclesiastical politics every consideration on the mass participation of the faithful and of nonbelievers in public events at which the Holy Father is present (general audiences, Angelus, liturgical celebrations, etc.) – the official statistics on which as furnished by the prefecture of the pontifical household show a marked decrease from the first to the third year of the pontificate of Pope Francis – and on the possible significance that these numbers might present in terms of conversion to the Gospel and adherence to the pontiff’s message “urbi et orbi” for a “new springtime” of the Church, characterized by the “doors” being thrown open with facility for all (if memory serves, however, the Gospel of Luke speaks of a “narrow gate” through which one must “strive” to enter, make an effort, and of the “many who will seek to enter but will not be able”).
I would like instead simply to communicate the experience – the facts as they present themselves in the daily like of pastoral work on the periphery, so that “contra factum non valet illatio” – of a priest who dedicates his remaining time and energy, after fulfilling the primary ministry that the bishop has entrusted to him, to the work of sacramental reconciliation, convinced that the mercy of God passes above all, in the ordinary and always accessible way, through the discretion of the dim partition and the narrow window of the confessional, and not by entering, in the beacon lights of the basilica and before the eyes of all, through the great doors of the Holy Year (the merit of which is another: that of obtaining remission before God of the temporal punishment for sins already remitted, as for their guilt, in the sacrament of confession, which remains the first and fundamental vehicle of God’s mercy toward us sinners, after baptism).
The facts are these. Since the opening of the Holy Year backed by Pope Francis and on the occasion of the Christmas festivities of 2015 – as also since Jorge Mario Bergoglio has been sitting on the throne of Peter – the number of faithful who approach the confessional has not increased, neither in ordinary time nor in festive. The trend of a progressive, rapid diminution of the frequency of sacramental reconciliation that has characterized recent decades has not stopped. On the contrary: the confessionals of my church have been largely deserted.
I have sought comfort for this bitter consideration by imagining that the basilicas connected to the Holy Year in Rome or in other cities, or the shrines and convents, have been able to attract a larger number of penitents. But a round of phone calls to some fellow priests who regularly hear confessions in these places (using the opportunity of the Christmas wishes that I extend every year) has confirmed my observation: lines of penitents that are anything but long, everywhere, even less than at the festivities of past years.
And there is also less and less news of memorable conversions of sheep lost for many years and returning to the sheepfold of the Good Shepherd through the “useless servants” of his mercy that we priests are. When this happens, very rarely, there is neither explicit nor implicit reference to the person or the word of the current pope more than there was in the past for his predecessors (how many young people came back from the World Youth Days and put into practice their resolution of frequent confession!).
Distrusting the value of the numbers, because even the salvation of one soul has an infinite value in the eyes of God, I reviewed the “quality” of the confessions I have heard and I asked – while respecting the secret of the confessional concerning the identity of the penitent – for news from a few fellow confessors of long experience. The picture that presents itself is certainly not a happy one, both concerning the awareness of sin and in reference to the awareness of the prerequisites for obtaining God’s forgiveness (in this case as well, I know that the term “forgiveness” is giving way to “mercy” and is in danger of being mothballed soon, but at what theological, spiritual, and pastoral cost?).
Two examples stand for all. One middle-aged gentleman whom I asked, with discretion and delicacy, if he had repented of a repeated series of grave sins against the seventh commandment “do not steal,” of which he had accused himself with a certain frivolity and almost joking about the circumstances, certainly not attenuating, that had accompanied them, responded to me with the words of Pope Francis: “Mercy knows no limits” and by showing surprise that I would remind him of the need for repentance and for the resolution to avoid falling back into the same sin in the future: “I did what I did. What I will do I will decide when I go from here. What I think about what I have done is a question between me and God. I am here only to have what everyone deserves at least at Christmas: to be able to receive communion at midnight!” And he concluded by paraphrasing the now archfamous expression of Pope Francis: “Who are you to judge me?”
One young lady, to whom I had proposed as an act of penance connected to the sacramental absolution of a grave sin against the fifth commandment “do not kill” that she kneel in prayer before the Most Holy Sacrament exposed on the altar of a church and perform an act of material charity toward a poor person to the extent of her means, responded to me with annoyance that “no one must ask for anything in exchange for God’s mercy, because it is free,” and that she had neither the time to stop at a church to pray (she had to “run around doing Christmas shopping downtown”), nor money to give to the poor (“who don’t even need it that much, because they have more than we do”).
It is evident that a certain message, at least as received from the pope and come down to the faithful, easily lends itself to being misunderstood, mistaken, and therefore of no help in the maturation of a sure and upright conscience in the faithful concerning their sins and the conditions of their remission in the sacrament of reconciliation. With all due respect to Msgr. Dario Viganò, prefect of the secretariat for communication of the Holy See, the “zigzag course” through concepts without ever pausing to clarify any of them – which he recognizes as a gem of the “communication style of Pope Francis,” capable of “making him so irresistible” to the modern listener – presents a few spiritual and pastoral inconveniences, far from trivial if they have to do with grace and the sacraments, the treasury of the Church.
I will stop here, so as not to exploit your patience in reading me. I am not making the claim of proposing as a thermometer of ecclesial faith and life the quantity or quality of confessions and, more in general, of recourse to the sacraments, nor of making them an exclusive parameter for the evaluation of a pontificate or of the state of the Church’s health. This would not be fair and would lose sight of other dimensions of life according to the Gospel and the ecclesial mission.
But we should also not neglect to take into consideration some worrying signals that are coming from the churches of the “periphery,” as also from those of the “center.”
Those bishops were not entirely wrong who, at least until Vatican Council II and in many cases even afterward, during pastoral visits in their dioceses asked the priests above all how many confessions and how many communions they administered in a year, comparing them to the number of baptized entrusted to their care.
Nor were those popes wrong who, in the past, had the bishops on their visits “ad limina apostolorum” deliver to them the overall number of sacraments administered in their dioceses.
They were bishops and popes who drew useful indications on the state of the care of souls and the holiness of the people of God simply from the medicine of souls and from the vehicle of sanctifying grace.
They certainly did not have at hand the whole apparatus of institutions, communications, technology, and organization made possible by religious sociology and by the print and broadcast media, but they did have the humble certainty that it is not by coddling the cultural and anthropological fashions of the time that souls are saved, nor by following in the wake of individual and social (re)sentiments and demands inside and outside the Church that the people of God are strengthened on the path of holiness.
Thank you for your attention and many cordial greetings, “ad maiorem Dei gloriam.”
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.