The first briefing of the Synod hears about the experience of religious women in villages where priests visit very rarely. We cannot give absolution, they say, but we think of the comfort we bring that person.
“We are present everywhere and we do what a woman can do by virtue of her Baptism: we accompany the indigenous people, and when priests cannot be present, we perform baptisms. If someone wants to get married, we are present and we witnesses to the love of the couple. We have often had to listen to confessions, but we have not given absolution. In the depth of our hearts, though, we have said that with the humility with which this man or woman approached us because of illness, or because they were close to death – we believe God the Father intervenes there”.
These are the simple and direct words spoken by Sister Alba Teresa Cediel Castillo, of the Missionary Sisters of Mary Immaculate and of St. Catherine of Siena, who lives in Colombia among the indigenous communities. She describes the situation and the difficulties experienced in villages in the Amazon, and the fact that sometimes there are couples who swear allegiance to each other in a marriage pact in the presence of the women religious when there is no priest.
Then there are people at the end of their lives, or in difficult situations, who cannot make their confessions to a priest, because there isn’t one. These people too turn to the women religious and confide in them the sins they have committed. Obviously, the sisters cannot give absolution: they know they cannot perform the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and the people who trust them know it as well. But they can listen and they can pray. The sisters know they cannot celebrate weddings either, but they can attend them.
A few years ago, speaking of confession during an interview on mercy, Pope Francis explained: “It was Jesus who said to his Apostles: ‘Those whose sins you forgive will be forgiven; those whose sins you do not forgive will not be forgiven’. Therefore, the Apostles and their successors – the Bishops and priests who collaborate with them – become instruments of God’s mercy. They act ‘in persona Christi’. This is very beautiful. It has a profound meaning, because we are social beings.
“ If you can’t talk about your mistakes with your brother or sister, you certainly can’t talk about them with God either, so you end up confessing to the mirror, in front of yourself. We are social beings and forgiveness has a social aspect as well, because humanity, my brothers and sisters, society itself, are wounded by my sin”.
“Confessing before a priest”, added the Pope, “is a way of putting my life in the hands and heart of another, who at that moment acts in the name, and on behalf of, Jesus. It is a way to be concrete and authentic: to face reality looking at another person and not being reflected in a mirror”.
With regard to turning concretely to another and not to a mirror, Pope Francis recalled the story of Saint Ignatius: “Before changing his life and understanding he had to be a soldier of Christ, Ignatius fought in the battle of Pamplona. He served in the army of the King of Spain, Charles V of Habsburg, and faced the French army. He was seriously wounded and thought he was dying. There was no priest on the battlefield at that time. So Ignatius called one of his comrades, and confessed his sins to him. The comrade could not give him absolution because he was a layman. But Ignatius felt the need to be face to face with another at the moment of confession so strongly, that this is what he decided to do. It’s a good lesson”.
It’s a lesson that continues.