This spring I spent nearly a week with the friars who live at and minister in the great Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. During my stay I explored this modern church—consecrated in 1969—each day with my camera, photographing the contemporary artwork and striking architecture which helps the visitor come closer to the mystery of the Incarnation.
The Basilica of the Annunciation is divided into an upper and lower church. The lower church contains the inscription under the altar, “Here, the Word was made flesh,” on the spot which recalls the visit of the Angel Gabriel to Mary.
The upper church contains soaring concrete arches and contemporary artwork. Over the confessionals, four marble inlaid panels, created by an Italian artist named Alessandrini, and depict Gospel passages relating to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
As I took a closer look at these four panels, I began to think about what Pope Francis has written and preached during this year—particularly about our practice of confession, and its part in the larger understanding of mercy.
Most of the scenes of the Risen Jesus and the apostles in the Upper Room following his Resurrection have to do with “Doubting Thomas.” But Thomas gets a pass in the scene memorialized in the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, over the confessionals, which depicts another moment in that apparition (John 20). There, Jesus “breathes” the Holy Spirit upon them and says, “Whose sins you forgive, are forgiven them” (John 20:22-23).
This is an appropriate image for the place in this great shrine church where pilgrims come constantly for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The image is also appropriate, in this Year of Mercy, for recalling what Pope Francis has said about the ministry of confessor.
And while his written and spoken words obviously pertain to the priest, I believe it’s good for all Catholics to know what the Holy Father is asking of us confessors.
In the “bull of indiction,” Misericordia Vultus (MV), the proclamation of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, he makes reference to the scene depicted in the Basilica in Nazareth: “We priests have received the gift of the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins, and we are responsible for this” (MV, 17). But the Pope also surrounds that “official responsibility” with his insistence that this ministry be exercised with mercy:
“I will never tire of insisting that confessors be authentic signs of the Father’s mercy. We do not become good confessors automatically. We become good confessors when, above all, we allow ourselves to be penitents in search of his mercy. Let us never forget that to be confessors means to participate in the very mission of Jesus to be a concrete sign of the constancy of divine love that pardons and saves....None of us wields power over this Sacrament; rather, we are faithful servants of God’s mercy through it” (MV, 17).
In a number of events for the Jubilee year, Pope Francis has talked to priests about how they are to administer the sacrament. He’s reminded us that we are not to treat a confession as a “case study”; nor are we to ask too many questions. These instructions are in keeping with his descriptions of the sacrament, that it is not meant to be either a “dry cleaner” or a “torture chamber.”
I recommend to anyone struggling with the Sacrament of Reconciliation to read The Name of God is Mercy, the pope’s interview with Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli. There, the Holy Father has much to say about the sacrament. (Included with the book is the “bull of indiction” proclaiming the Year of Mercy, Misericordiae Vultus, also worth reading.) The book is based on his love for the sacrament which comes from the many, many hours he spent as a confessor in Buenos Aires before he became a bishop.
For me, the main “takeaway,” if you will, from this Year of Mercy is Pope Francis’ wish for me and my fellow priests to take seriously the gift of the Holy Spirit from the Risen Jesus, and to model our sacramental ministry on Jesus, “the face of the Father’s mercy.”
“Your sins have been forgiven, go in peace” (Luke 7:36-50).