The Faith of Our Fathers Part 32

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That a minister of the Baptist or the Methodist church should deny the power of priestly absolution I readily understand, since these churches disclaim, in their confessions of faith, any such prerogative for their clergy. But I cannot well conceive why a Protestant Episcopalian should repudiate the pardoning power, which is plainly a.s.serted in his standard prayer-book.

Whenever an Episcopalian Bishop imposes hands on candidates for the ministry he employs the following words, which are found in the Book of Common Prayer: "Receive the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a Priest in the Church of G.o.d, now committed unto thee by the imposition of our hands. Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained."(460) If these words do not mean that the minister receives by the imposition of the Bishop's hands the power of forgiving sin, they mean nothing at all. When the Bishop p.r.o.nounces this sentence, either he intends to convey this power of absolution, or he does not. If he intended to confer this power, he could not employ more clear and precise language to express his idea; if he did not intend to confer this power, then his language is calculated to mislead.

Just imagine that prelate addressing a candidate for Holy Orders, in the morning, with the words: "Whose sins thou dost forgive they are forgiven;"

and after Divine service saying to the young minister: "Remember, sir, you have no power to forgive sins. The words of ordination are a mere figure of speech."

When a Catholic Bishop ordains Priests he uses the precise words which I have quoted, because the Book of Common Prayer borrows them from our Pontifical. But he means exactly what he says, viz: That the Priest receives through the ministration of the Bishop the power of forgiving sins.

To sum up: We have seen that the Sacrament of Penance and absolution by the Priest is taught in Scripture, proclaimed by the Fathers, upheld not only by Roman Catholics throughout the world, but also by all the schismatic Christians of the East. It is inculcated in those old and genuine editions of the _Book of Common Prayer_, which have not been enervated by being subjected to the pruning-knife in this country, and the same practice is encouraged by an influential portion of the Protestant Episcopal church in England, and I will add, also, in the United States.

Again, some object to priestly absolution on the a.s.sumption that the exercise of such a function would be a usurpation of an incommunicable prerogative of G.o.d, who alone can forgive sins. This was precisely the language addressed by the Scribes to our Savior. They exclaimed: "He blasphemeth! who can forgive sins but G.o.d only?"(461) My answer, therefore, will be equally applicable to old and modern objectors. It is not blasphemy for a Priest to claim the power of forgiving sins, since he acts as the delegate of the Most High. It would, indeed, be blasphemous if a Priest pretended to absolve in his own name and by virtue of his own authority. But when the Priest absolves the penitent sinner he acts in the name, and by the express authority, of Jesus Christ; for he says: "I absolve thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." Let it be understood once for all that the Priest arrogates to himself no Divine powers. He is but a feeble voice. It is the Holy Spirit that operates sanct.i.ty in the soul of the penitent.

Not a few Protestant Episcopalians, I believe, still admit that original sin is washed away in the Sacrament of Baptism. If the minister is not guilty of blasphemy in being the instrument of G.o.d's mercy, in forgiving sins by Baptism, how can a Priest blaspheme in being the instrument of Divine mercy, in absolving sinners in the Sacrament of Penance? The same Lord who inst.i.tuted Baptism for the remission of original sin established Penance for the forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism. Did not the Apostles exercise Divine power in raising dead bodies to life, and in raising souls that were dead to the life of grace? And yet no one but Scribes and Pharisees accused them of usurping G.o.d's powers. Cannot the Almighty, without derogating from His own glory, give to men in the nineteenth century privileges which He accorded to them in the first age of the Church?

Far, then, from dishonoring, we honor G.o.d by having recourse to the earthly physician whom He has appointed for us, and, like the mult.i.tude in the Gospel, we "glorify G.o.d, who hath given such power to men."(462)

Others object thus: Why confess to a Priest, when you may confess to G.o.d in secret. I will retort by asking, why do you build fine temples when you can wors.h.i.+p G.o.d in the great temple of nature? Why pray in church when you can pray in your chamber? Why listen to a minister expounding the Word of G.o.d when you can read the Gospel at your leisure at home. You answer that the Lord authorizes these things. So does He authorize priestly absolution. This objection is not new. It is very old.

St. Augustine, who lived fourteen hundred years ago, will answer the objection for me: "Let no one," remarks this ill.u.s.trious Doctor, "say to himself, I do penance to G.o.d in private; I do it before G.o.d. Is it, then, in vain that Christ has said: 'Whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven'? Is it in vain that the keys have been given to the Church?" The question for us is not what G.o.d is able to do, but what _He has willed to do_. G.o.d _might_ have adopted other means for the justification of the sinner, as He might have created a world different from the present one. But it is our business to take our Father at His word, and to have recourse with grat.i.tude to the system He has actually established for our justification. Now, we are a.s.sured by His infallible word that it is by having recourse to His consecrated ministers that our sins will be forgiven us.(463)

It is related in the Book of Kings that Naaman, the Syrian, was afflicted with a grievous leprosy, which baffled the skill of the physicians of his country. He had in his household a Jewish maid-servant. She spoke to her master of the great prophet Eliseus, who lived in her native country, to whom the Lord had given the power of performing miracles. She besought her master to consult the prophet. Naaman, accordingly, set out for the country of Israel and begged Eliseus to heal him. The prophet told him to go and wash seven times in the Jordan; but Naaman, instead of doing as he was directed, became very angry, and said: "I thought he would have come out to me, ... and touched with his hand the place of the leprosy, and healed me. Are not the Abana and the Pharfar rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel, that I may wash in them, and be made clean?"(464) But the servants of Naaman remonstrated with him, and besought him to comply with the prophet's injunction, telling him that the conditions were easy and the Jordan was at hand. Naaman went and washed and was cleansed. Our opponents, like Naaman, cry out: "Why should you go to a Priest, a sinner like yourself, when secretly, in your own room, you can approach G.o.d, the pure fountain of grace, to be washed from your sins?" I answer, because Jesus Christ, a prophet, and more than a prophet, has commanded you to do so.

The last charge that I will notice is the most serious and the most offensive. We are told that private confession is lawless; that the conscience soon becomes "enfeebled and chained and starved" by it, and, worse and worse, that sins are more readily committed, if followed by an absolution conveying pardon-in other words, that the more attached Catholics are to the practice of their holy religion the more depraved and corrupt they become. Or, if they remain faithful to G.o.d, this is not by reason of, but in spite of, their religious exercises.

Surely, this was not the sentiment of the late Dr. Ives, once Protestant Bishop of North Carolina, and of many other ill.u.s.trious converts, who, from the day of their conversion to the hour of their death never failed to receive consolation and strength from the sacred tribunal.

Nor is it the sentiment of Rev. Father Lyman, a Catholic Priest, of Baltimore, and brother of the a.s.sistant Protestant Bishop of North Carolina, nor of the present Archbishops of Baltimore and Philadelphia, of the Bishops of Wilmington, Cleveland, Columbus and Ogdensburg, and a host of others, both of the Protestant clergy and laity, who within the last fifty years have entered the Catholic Church.

If we compare the Protestant and Catholic systems for the forgiveness of sins, the Catholic system will not suffer by the comparison. According to the Protestant system, repentance is necessary and sufficient for justification. The Catholic system also requires repentance on the part of the sinner as an indispensable prerequisite for the forgiveness of sin.

But it requires much more than this. Before the penitent receives absolution he must carefully examine his conscience and confess his sins, according to their number and kind. He is obliged to have a firm purpose of amendment, to promise rest.i.tution, if he has defrauded his neighbor, to repair any injury done his neighbor's character, to be reconciled with his enemies and to avoid the occasions of sin. Do not these obligations afford a better safeguard against a relapse into sin than a simple internal act of contrition?

Many most eminent Protestant, and even infidel writers, who were conversant with the practical workings of the confessional in the countries in which they lived, bear testimony to the moral reformation produced by it. The famous German philosopher, Leibnitz, admits that it is a great benefit conferred on men by G.o.d that He left in His Church the power of forgiving sins.(465)

Voltaire, certainly no friend of Christianity, avows "that there is not perhaps a more useful inst.i.tution than confession."(466)

Rousseau, not less hostile to the Church, exclaims: "How many rest.i.tutions and reparations does not confession cause among Catholics!"(467)

The Protestant authorities of Nuremberg, in Germany, shortly after the establishment of the reformed doctrines in that city, were so much alarmed at the laxity of morals which succeeded after the abolition of confession that they pet.i.tioned their Emperor, Charles V., to have it restored.

It is a favorite custom for the adversaries of the Catholic Church to refer to the alleged loose morals prevailing in France and in other Catholic countries as a proof of the inferior standard of Catholic morality. This is a safe, and at the same time not the most honorable, mode of attack, as the people of those nations are too far off to defend themselves. For my part, I have spent a considerable time in various portions of France, and more edifying Christians I have never witnessed than those I met in that country. For six years I had for my professors French Priests, whose exemplary lives were a daily sermon to all around them.

I submit that the cosmopolitan city of Paris (waiving, for the present, the enormities of which it is accused), is not to be adduced as a fair criterion of French morality. Let us stay at home and judge of Catholic morals by the examples furnished under our eyes.

The influence of the confessional has been fairly tested in this country since the foundation of our Republic. Are practical Catholics enfeebled in conscience? Is their conscience chained and starved? Has the absolution they received whetted their appet.i.tes for more sin? Are they monsters of immorality? I think that an enlightened Protestant public will p.r.o.nounce a contrary verdict.

I feel that I can say, with truth, that Catholics who frequent the confessional are generally virtuous in their private lives, just and honorable in their dealings with others, and that they cultivate charity and good-will toward their fellow-citizens.

It will not do to reply that it is the system, not the individual, that is attacked. How can we judge of a system unless by its practical working in the individual? "By their fruits ye shall know them," says our Redeemer.

Vices, indeed, we have to deplore among certain of our people, which are often superinduced by their migratory habits and irregular mode of life. But they are commonly sins of frailty, and these are not the persons that are accustomed to approach the confessional. If they did their lives would be very different from what they are.

The best of us, alas! are not what we ought to be, considering the graces we receive. But if you seek for canting hypocrites, or colossal defaulters, or perpetrators of well-laid schemes of forgery, or of systematic licentiousness, or of premeditated violence, you will seek for such in vain among those who frequent the confessional.

There is another objection which it is difficult to kill. It dies hard and, like Banquo's ghost, it will not down. If you drive it from the city, it will fly to the town. If you expel it from the town, it will take refuge in the village. If you eject it from the village, it will hide itself like some noxious animal, in some desert place until it makes its rounds again.

I allude to the charge that a price has to be paid for remitting sins.

"You have only (say these slanderers) to pay a certain toll at the confessional gate, and you can pa.s.s the biggest load of sin."

It is hard to treat these objections seriously. I have been hearing confessions for fifty years, and of all who have come to me, not one has had the sense of duty to offer me any compensation for absolving them, and this is true of every Priest with whom I have been acquainted. The truth is, the Priest who would solicit a fee for absolution knows that he would be guilty of simony, and would be liable to suspension.

But we are told that confession is an intolerable yoke, that it makes its votaries the slaves of the Priests.

Before answering this objection, let me call your attention to the inconsistency of our adversaries, who blow hot and cold in the same breath. They denounce confession as being too hard a remedy for sin and condemn it, at the same time, as being a smooth road to heaven. In one sentence they style it a bed of roses; in the next a bed of thorns.

In a preceding objection it was charged that the votaries of confession had no moral constraint at all. Now it is said that their conscience is bound in chains of slavery. Surely, confession cannot be hard and easy at the same time.

I have already refuted, I trust, the former charge. I shall now answer the second. I am not aware in what sense our people are less independent than those of any other cla.s.s of the community. The only restraint, as far as I know, imposed on Catholics by their Priests is the yoke of the Gospel, and to this restraint no Christian ought to object. In my estimation, no body of Christians enjoys more Apostolic freedom than those of the Catholic communion, because they are guided in their conduct, not by the ever-changing _ipse dixit_ of any minister, but by the unchangeable teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ.

But if to love their Priest, to reverence his sacred character, to obey his voice as the voice of G.o.d; if to be willing to make any sacrifice for their spiritual father; if, I say, you call this slavery, then our Catholic people are slaves, indeed, and, what is more, they are content with their chains.

Even our Manuals of Devotion have not escaped the lash of wanton criticism. They have excited the pious horror of some modern Pharisees because they contain a table of sins for the use of those preparing for confession. The same flower that furnishes honey to the bee supplies poison to the wasp; and, in like manner, the same book that gives only the honey of consolation to the devout reader has nothing but moral poison for those that search its pages for nothing else.

How can anyone object to the table of sins in our prayer-books and consistently advocate the circulation of the Bible, which contains incomparably plainer and more palpable allusions to gross crimes than are found in our books of devotion? Let us not forget the adage, "_Honi soit qui mal y pense._"

I may be permitted, in concluding this subject, to add the testimony of my own experience on the beneficent influence of the confessional; for, like my brethren in the ministry, I am, in the language of Dryden,

"One bred apart from worldly noise, To study souls, their cures, and their diseases."

Since the time of my ordination up to the present hour I have been accustomed to hear confessions almost every day. I have, therefore, had a fair opportunity of ascertaining the value of the "system." The impressions forced upon my mind, far from being peculiar to myself, are shared by every Catholic Priest throughout the world charged with the care of souls. The testimony of ten experienced confessors ought, in my estimation, to have more weight in enabling men to judge of the moral tendencies of the confessional than the gratuitous a.s.sertions of a thousand individuals who have no personal experience of it, but who draw on their heated imaginations or on the pages of sensational novels for the statements they offer.

My experience is that the confessional is the most powerful lever ever erected by a merciful G.o.d for raising men from the mire of sin. It has more weight in withdrawing people from vice than even the pulpit. In public sermons we scatter the seed of the Word of G.o.d; in the confessional we reap the harvest. In sermons, to use a military phrase, the fire is at random, but in confession it is a dead shot. The words of the Priest go home to the heart of the penitent. In a public discourse the Priest addresses all in general, and his words of admonition may be applicable to very few of his hearers. But his words spoken in the confessional are directed exclusively to the penitent, whose heart is open to receive the Word of G.o.d. The confessor exhorts the penitent according to his spiritual wants. He cautions him against the frequentation of dangerous company and other occasions of sin, or he recommends special practices of piety suited to the penitent's wants.

Hence missionaries are accustomed to estimate the fruit of a mission more by the number of penitents who have approached the sacred tribunal than by the number of persons who have listened to their sermons.

Of all the labors that our sacred ministry imposes on us, there is none more arduous or more irksome than that of hearing confessions. If I may make a revelation of my own life, I deferred receiving Holy Orders for two years, from a sense of the dread responsibility connected with the confessional. It is no trifling task to sit for six or eight consecutive hours on a hot summer day, listening to stories of sin and sorrow and misery. It is only the consciousness of the immense good he is doing that sustains the confessor in the sacred tribunal. He is one "who can have compa.s.sion on the ignorant and erring, because he himself is also encompa.s.sed with infirmity."(468)

I have seen the man whose conscience was weighed down by the acc.u.mulated sins of twenty winters. Upon his face were branded guilt and shame, remorse and confusion. There he stood by the confessional, with downcast countenance, ashamed, like the Publican, to look up to heaven. He glided into the little mercy-seat. No human ear will ever learn what there transpired. The revelations of the confessional are a sealed book.

But during the brief time spent in the confessional a resurrection occurred more miraculous than the raising of Lazarus from the tomb-it was the resurrection from the grave of sin of a soul that had long lain worm-eaten. During those precious moments a ray from heaven dispelled the darkness and gloom from that self-accuser's mind. The genial warmth of the Holy Spirit melted his frozen heart, and the purifying influence of the same Spirit that came on the Apostles, "like a mighty wind from heaven,"

scattered the poisonous atmosphere in which he lived and filled his soul with Divine grace. When he came out there was quickness in his step, joy on his countenance, a new light in his eye. Had you asked him why, he would have answered: "Because I was lost, and am found. Having been dead, I am come to life again."(469)

II. On The Relative Morality Of Catholic And Protestant Countries.

The Faith of Our Fathers Part 32

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