VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Catholic Church's ministry of granting absolution for sins and indulgences to remove the punishments those sins deserve is a ministry that builds communion, said speakers at a Vatican course.
Sacramental confession "is the place where communion is generated and regenerated," Father Luca Ferrari, a theology professor at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart's Piacenza campus, told priests and seminarians attending a course at the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican tribunal dealing with matters of conscience, the sacrament of reconciliation and indulgences.
"Sublime and irreplaceable is the contribution we can offer to fraternity and to the unity of the church and the world" by giving everyone the possibility of attaining "peace of heart," he said during one of the first sessions of the March 20-24 course.
When penitents go to confession, he said, they are not looking for a theologian or a psychologist, but for "a father and brother who welcomes them with sweet fortitude and readmits them to the joy of belonging, without shadows and without reservations."
According to Vatican News, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, told the priests and seminarians, "It is not mercy to lie about sin, and even less so to leave the faithful in a state of sin because of the confessor's fearfulness in speaking to the faithful as an authoritative father and caring physician."
"Only a misunderstood mercy, devoid of Christian realism, can abdicate the very serious task of judge and physician that Christ entrusts to the apostles and their successors and which Christ entrusts to every confessor," he said.
The sacrament of confession and the ancient practice of indulgences are closely linked, the cardinal said, and they both are signs and builders of communion.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines an indulgence as "a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven," therefore, confessing one's sin and being absolved is a prerequisite for obtaining an indulgence.
The church is "the first custodian" of Christ's abundance of mercy, "perpetually actualized and renewed in the sacrament of reconciliation," the cardinal told the students, according to Vatican News.
"Using the apostolic authority that Christ himself conferred on her," he said, "the church wisely and prudently draws from the treasury of divine mercy not only the forgiveness of sins committed by the faithful after baptism, but also the remission of the temporal punishments attached to them."
The church offers "plenary" or complete indulgences in special circumstances and on special occasions, for example: pilgrims visiting designated churches during a Holy Year; visiting the elderly and participating in Mass on the World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly; and participating in the annual March for Life and attending a Mass in conjunction with it.
In all those circumstances, in addition to meeting the requirements for the occasion, Cardinal Piacenza said, the person seeking the indulgence is required to do things that express and increase his or her communion with God and with the church: going to confession and receiving the Eucharist; professing the faith of the church by reciting the creed; and praying for the pope and his intentions.