The Beauty of the Sacrament of Penance

The Inspiration Behind the Support of Six Alumni Priests

BY Fr. Anthony Stephens, CPM ’99

“Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:23)

With these words, Our Lord gave to His Church the wonderful and mysterious sacrament where a sinner has the opportunity to be washed clean by the Precious Blood of Christ in confession.  The discipline regarding the sacrament has changed over the years, from once in your life after your baptism, to being a frequent (even daily, in the lives of some saints) occurrence.  Ordinarily, when a person receives this sacrament of healing, it takes place in a room, or in times past, a “box,” known as the confessional.

This might sound judgmental, but it is meant as an observation: A great barometer to the life of faith in a parish is how prominent the Sacrament of Confession is, and even the confessional itself. The baptismal font will have a place of importance, since it is the ordinary place where a person becomes an adopted son or daughter of God.  The altar and the Tabernacle will (should) have a place of prominence, being the place where the one Sacrifice is offered and the Body of Christ is reserved.   The position of these fixtures in the Church, and the ways they are taken care of, speaks of the importance that they’ll have as the sacred liturgy is conducted.

But since the end of the Second Vatican Council, the confessional seems to have lost its former prominence in many churches.  It has always been intended to be the place for the cleansing of a sinner’s soul and ensuring that the individual temple of the Holy Spirit is in right relationship with God.  Sadly, in some churches today, the confessional seems to be the place of choice to keep cleaning supplies and dust mops to merely keep the physical church clean.  There is something special about having “the box” present in or near the body of the Church.  It points to the fact that the members of Christ’s Church recognize their sinfulness.

The Congregation of the Priests of Mercy (more commonly known as the Fathers of Mercy) are a religious community whose primary work is itinerant mission preaching and the staffing of neglected parishes in rural areas.  As itinerant preachers, our work is to preach and teach what Holy Mother Church teaches.  Being the visiting priest in a parish, it is usually the case that a Father of Mercy will hear many hours of confessions while preaching a week-long parish mission.  Sometimes, people are nervous to go to confession to their pastor, but they’ll be more comfortable with the anonymity of confessing their sins to a visiting priest.

The Fathers of Mercy have been blessed by an association with Christendom College over the years.  Six of the priests from the Congregation have spent a portion of their academic formation at the college.  These priests benefitted from the good example and fidelity of the college chaplains who have served the college over the years.  Confession was available because the college chaplains, as dedicated priests, made hearing confessions a regular part of their priestly duty in serving the student population on campus.

When the current Superior General of the Fathers of Mercy, the Very Reverend David Wilton ’89, heard that Christendom College was preparing to build a new Chapel of Christ the King, he got in touch with several of the Christendom alumni in the community and asked their opinion on donating money toward the sponsorship of one of the confessionals to be installed in the new chapel.  Of course, the priests were happy to help support the college in this important and unique way.

As Christendom College prepares to build a new Chapel of Christ the King, it will be necessary to ensure that there are proper confessionals in the new chapel for students to encounter God’s mercy in this sacrament.  One of the hallmarks of Christendom College is that it is a place where the Catholic Faith is lived out authentically.  Part of living out that faith is recognizing that we Catholics are in a state of conversion.  We know that this sacrament is the ordinary way for Catholics to receive the forgiveness of grave sins, but it has added graces to heal us and guard us against future sin (CCC 1497).  We know all too well from sad personal experience that our personal sin can affect the Mystical Body of Christ.  But the inverse is true as well.  The more that people strive to grow in holiness, the more it builds up the Body of Christ.  “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”  (Luke 15:7)

A member of the Class of 1999, Fr. Anthony Stephens is the Director of Field Education, the Director of Pastoral Interns at the Athenaeum and Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary of the West in Ohio. He joined the Fathers of Mercy in 2000 and was ordained a priest in 2005. Fr. Stephens’ parish retreats, also known as “parish missions,” have taken him all over the United States, into Canada, and also to different parts of the Australian Continent.