Books blog: The role of the Church made blindingly clear

Pope Francis hears confession during a penitential liturgy in St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican in March (CNS)

Patrick’s Madrid’s recently published book, Why be Catholic?, is written as a defence and explanation of the Church’s role and mission in history. It is a work of apologetics, written with the grave abuse scandals concerning priests obviously fresh in his thoughts. Implicit to his argument is the question, why would anyone want to join such a dreadful institution, especially in this day and age?

Madrid’s answer is that we humans are sinners; once that fact is accepted, the role of the Church becomes blindingly clear: to heal us. He quotes the popular blogger Mark Shea: “Once you’ve faced the fact that humans are sinners, you are halfway to understanding the real essence and purpose of the Catholic Church: to satisfy our need for salvation in Christ.”

Echoing Pope Francis’s own metaphor, Madrid describes the Church as “a hospital for sick people like you and me”. The greatest danger, therefore, is complacency, which he calls “comfortable self-contentment”; the subtle temptation to think “we are not really all that bad; and we are getting on fine just as we are” – as if merely fulfilling the obligation to go to Mass on Sunday and not committing murder is enough.

Madrid is eloquent on the need for sacramental Confession, admitting that “for me [it] is a huge part of my answer to the question, why be Catholic?” He relates the story of a woman he once met, a lapsed Catholic, furious with the Church for not dissuading her from having an abortion many years before. Intending to say something sympathetic and emollient, instead Madrid blurted out “You need to go to Confession.” Weeks passed and he berated himself for not having been more sympathetic to her. Then she contacted him to say that she had returned to her faith; his words had plagued her incessantly until she had made a full sacramental confession and had received the consolation of knowing that she was forgiven, healed from all her hidden anger and bitterness.

Madrid is convinced that, “with all their faults and failings, Catholics who regularly receive the Sacrament of Confession are perhaps the most psychologically healthy people on earth. I believe this because I know firsthand the profoundly healing effects of this sacrament.” Reading all this reminds me of the Cure of Ars, St John Marie Vianney, whose feast day was on Monday. He converted his poor, lukewarm, post-revolutionary parish by means of the confessional. As his fame as a confessor grew, he regularly spent 17-odd hours every day and, as this article explains, a special ticket office had to be set up in Lyons railways station for the 300-odd people who travelled daily to Ars for the Cure to hear their confession.

Pope Francis alluded to the same subject in a recent visit to an Italian town. Asked by a local priest for advice on the place of popular piety in parish renewal, he recalled that after hearing Confessions at a popular shrine in Buenos Aires “I would return renewed by that experience, I would return shamed by the holiness I would find in simple people…And the faithful, when they come to confess…you see behind [them]the grace of God that guides them to this moment. “ He added that “This contact with the People of God…helps us a lot in our priestly life.” This suggests that in arranging parish activities and programmes, priests should not ignore the traditional faith of ordinary people – and how encouraging regular Confession in the laity helps priests have a deeper appreciation of their own ministry.


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