A painting titled "The Return of the Prodigal Son," by an unknown artist, is pictured at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York. The parable exemplifies God's mercy. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)
A painting titled “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” by an unknown artist, is pictured at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York. The parable exemplifies God’s mercy. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Editor’s note: Following is the text of Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted’s pastoral letter to the priests of the Diocese of Phoenix, titled “Apostles of Mercy.”


Apostles of Mercy

A Pastoral Letter to the Priests of the Diocese of Phoenix from the Most Rev. Thomas J. Olmsted On the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation

January 25, 2013, The Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul

“The New Evangelization, therefore, also begins in the confessional, in the mysterious encounter between man’s endless plea … and the mercy of God.”1  In the midst of this Year of Faith and the renewed call to the New Evangelization, it is fitting to consider the experience of mercy that Christ offers in the sacrament of Reconciliation to us priests for our own sanctification and, through our ministry, to those whom we have the privilege to serve.

The Most Rev. Thomas J. Olmsted is the bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix. He was installed as the fourth bishop of Phoenix on Dec. 20, 2003, and is the spiritual leader of the diocese's 820,000 Catholics.
The Most Rev. Thomas J. Olmsted is the bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix. He was installed as the fourth bishop of Phoenix on Dec. 20, 2003, and is the spiritual leader of the diocese’s 820,000 Catholics.

With this letter, I invite you to consider with me our priestly calling to serve our people by hearing confessions.  Let us reflect on three things: our role as an apostle of mercy, second, our experience as a penitent, and third, our experience as a confessor.

Part 1 – Priest as Apostle of Mercy

Approaching the Apostles on the day of the Resurrection, Our Lord said “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you… If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”2  A sense of astonishment and awe must have filled the Apostles at that moment: Christ was sending them out with the power to do what only God could do: forgive the sins of others.

Equally astonishing is the fact that we ordained priests share with the first Apostles in the same sacred power through the sacrament of Holy Orders. Since the apostolic age, Christ has sent and still sends priests to sacramentally absolve sins in His name. This solemn responsibility continually makes available the gift of divine mercy offered by the Risen Lord, and makes present the proclamation that His mercy and life have the last word over sin and death. Through the sacrament of Penance, God bestows on His adopted children “peace and serenity of conscience with strong spiritual consolation.”3 Nourished by a joyful encounter with our Savior, penitents are renewed in their baptismal call to holiness and invited to live an increasingly vibrant and personal faith.

Preparing for the Eucharistic Encounter

The sacrament of Forgiveness is ordered to a worthy and fruitful reception of Holy Communion. Because the Holy Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Christian life, every pastoral initiative leads to the Eucharist and draws power from it.  All pastoral work depends on real and fruitful contact with Jesus Christ, without whom we can do nothing. Both Confession and the Eucharist provide this wondrous contact for us.

St. Paul did not hesitate to call the faithful to renewed holiness by pleading that they receive the Body and Blood of our Lord more worthily.4 It is the sacrament of Penance that reopens the door to the outpouring of grace that comes with a worthy reception of Holy Communion after this capacity has been lost through serious sin.5  In our own time, Blessed John Paul II asked us to “take great care to celebrate the Eucharistic Mystery with a pure heart and sincere love. The Lord recommends that we not become branches which are cut off the vine. Preach clearly and simply the right doctrine about the need for the sacrament of Reconciliation before receiving Communion when a person is conscious that he or she is not in God’s grace.”6 Only the sacrament of forgiveness allows the Eucharist, to the fullest extent, to take central place in our lives.

With this in mind, I encourage your prayerful consideration of strategies that will encourage the regular practice of the sacrament of Penance. Rather than being an option among many, this Sacrament is the only sure way Christ gave us to have mortal sins forgiven after Baptism. Any attempt to do “without the Church and the sacramental economy, is therefore deceptive and disastrous.”7 Conversely, Confession cannot fail to produce great fruit when it is promoted and practiced with renewed devotion and frequency.

Chief Promoters of Confession

We priests have the privilege and duty of promoting the sacrament of Reconciliation.  Not only are we ministers of God’s mercy in the confessional, we are also called to be its chief promoters and catechists.  Like St. John Vianney, Christ charges us to bring the good news of God’s infinite mercy to His people. Regular preaching and systematic catechesis about the sacrament is valuable, even essential today, for a number of reasons:

  • First, by encouraging the sacrament of Penance, we promote authentic faith in Christ’s power to forgive, heal and renew His people. Jesus inaugurated his public ministry with a public call to conversion by crying out, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel!”8 This call to conversion reverberates whenever priests encourage the celebration of this sacrament.
  • Second, promotion of Confession requires proper formation of the faithful about the reality of sin. “Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity.”9 The consequences of this proclamation are truly serious since “ignorance of the fact that man has a wounded nature inclined to evil gives rise to serious errors in the area of education, politics, social action and morals.”10
  • Third, preaching on the sacrament of Penance allows us to put forth an understanding of the sacramental economy in the life of the Church. By way of the sacraments, Christ reveals Himself to us and communicates the fruits of His paschal mystery along with the sacramental signs.  Often we hear comments such as, “I can just go right to God without a priest;” or “Well, His love is unconditional, so I don’t need to go to confession;” or “The offer of forgiveness is not dependent on whether I confess to a priest, so it is an unnecessary step.” While these ideas may be well-intended, they are nonetheless incomplete ideas that disregard the loving plan of conversion and transformation that Jesus Himself has given us. Clear catechesis and personal invitation can inspire many to move beyond these false ideas to the firsthand experience of God’s infinite love.
  • Fourth, promoting the sacrament of Penance helps to avoid two common misunderstandings. The first is the minimization of sin to such an extent that the faithful become unconcerned or unaware of the need to approach His mercy. The second is an exaggeration of sin’s power such that it hinders belief in the infinitely greater power of Christ’s love. Both of these errors discourage frequent confession. Only by proclaiming the reality of sin and the power of God’s mercy will we authentically invite the faithful to approach this sacrament with honesty, humility and confidence.
  • Fifth, promoting the sacrament includes fostering frequent confession. This has long been “strongly recommended by the Church”11 and attested to by the lives of the saints. Frequent confession allows the Holy Spirit to inform us of areas of weakness that need particular attention. Over time, with conformity to the grace of Confession, we are able to see virtue increase and vice decrease.

Time and Place

Encouraging and welcoming penitents as well as accompanying them on the journey of conversion are a real measure of a priest’s pastoral charity.12 The most influential factor for renewing the sacrament of Penance is our commitment to offering sufficient opportunities for the faithful to approach the sacrament. The Church asks priests to provide the faithful the “opportunity to approach individual confession on days and at times established for their convenience.”13 Experience shows that merely offering the sacrament “by appointment” is insufficient.  Merely offering an hour on Saturday afternoons rarely meets the needs of our faithful. In this regard, Blessed John Paul II wrote:

Local Ordinaries, and parish priests and rectors of churches and shrines, should periodically verify that the greatest possible provision is in fact being made for the faithful to confess their sins. It is particularly recommended that in places of worship confessors be visibly present at the advertised times, that these times be adapted to the real circumstances of penitents, and that confessions be especially available before Masses, and even during Mass if there are other priests available, in order to meet the needs of the faithful.14

It is worth noting that historically, Catholic churches have the venerable tradition of building beautifully ornate confessionals that are conspicuously placed in the church. More than merely offering a suitable place for confessions, the confessionals in our churches should be clear expressions of the importance of this sacrament in Christian life. Confessionals, according to Church law,15 are to provide a fixed screen for the sake of both the priest and the penitent.16

Part II – Priest as Penitent

The precious gift of forgiveness from our Savior, we must remember, is also a gift for us priests As Blessed John Paul II said, “Despite being called to exercise the sacramental ministry, we have shortcomings of our own that need forgiveness. The joy of forgiving and of being forgiven go hand in hand.”17

In our daily lives, we are reminded of our own need for the mercy that we offer to the faithful. How often do we gather and, in the words of the Salve Regina, acknowledge that we are “poor banished children of Eve” who send up to our Blessed Mother “our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.” How easily we can relate to St. Augustine, who prayed, “I beg you to reveal myself to me as well, O my God, so that I may confess the wounded condition I diagnose in myself to my brethren who will pray for me.”18 We can at times feel the weight of our sins and be tempted to respond with the words of St. Peter who said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Nonetheless, Jesus exhorts him as He exhorts you and me, saying, “Feed my sheep.”19

Humbly, we can acknowledge with St. Paul that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.”20

Frequent Recourse to Mercy

It follows that we priests, who regularly experience the mercy of God by going to Confession, grow in our capacity as Christ-like confessors. Having been encouraged ourselves, we are better able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God.21

Our own frequent experiences of God’s mercy in confession help us to be understanding and patient with other penitents in their weaknesses. We then are able to speak convincingly of our Lord’s mercy, awakening in others a greater desire for conversion and sanctity.

As previous councils of the Church had done, Vatican II promoted frequent confession.22  Still today, the Church invites us to “hold in high esteem the frequent use of this sacrament. It is a practice which increases true knowledge of one’s self, favors Christian humility and offers the occasion for salutary spiritual direction and the increase of grace.” Therefore, “desiring closer union with God, [we] should endeavor to receive the sacrament of penance frequently, that is, twice a month.”23 Indeed, through frequent confession we are given the grace to strive toward that “spiritual perfection, upon which the effectiveness of … [our] ministry principally depends.”24

Part III – Priest as Confessor

In our role as confessor in the sacrament of Penance, we are not merely passive but “an active instrument of divine mercy.”25 As a living sign of both Christ the Good Shepherd who welcomes and heals the lost sheep as well as Christ the Merciful Judge who brings justice, the way that we fulfill our role as a confessor can greatly affect the way in which the penitent experiences this living encounter with Christ.

We must remember that in hearing confessions, a priest is “equally a judge and a physician and has been established by God as a minister of divine justice and mercy, so that he has regard for the divine honor and the salvation of souls.”26 Since in Christ “justice and peace have kissed,”27 we priests, operating in persona Christi, must seek to maintain in harmony these two aspects of the sacrament of Penance: Divine Mercy and Divine Justice.

  • Minister of Divine Mercy

The priest embodies Christ the Good Shepherd and the loving Father who welcomes his lost son home. The sacrament is essentially liturgical, festive, and joyful. Along these lines, the rite encourages us to welcome the penitent with fraternal charity, and, if need be, to address them with friendly words. After the sign of the cross, we briefly encourage the penitent to have confidence in God. The extending of the hands (or at least the right hand) over the penitent’s head during the prayer of absolution is a gesture of healing. In this, a priest truly is a spiritual father in a unique way during a sacramental confession; accordingly, charity, gentleness, prudence, and genuine warmth can be a great encouragement to the penitent in receiving the grace of the sacrament.28

  • Minister of Divine Justice

In the confessional, we also embody Christ the Merciful Judge, who calls the penitent to deeper conversion. We fulfill this role in various ways: proclaiming the Word of God to the penitent (either in a reading or a short scriptural blessing, as needs dictate), assisting the penitent to make a complete confession, and encouraging the penitent to repent sincerely. When necessary, we ask questions and offers practical advice and instruction on the duties of Christian life. We then impose a suitable act of penance, in the form of prayer, self-denial, or works of mercy. Finally, having carefully prayed the prayer of absolution, we bid the Penitent to go in peace, directing the heart of the penitent toward the passion of Christ and the communion of Saints.29

Ministering to Married Persons

Sadly, there are many who live in irregular marriages or quasi-marital arrangements. These situations, which can present complex challenges to confessors, demand great pastoral sensitivity and delicacy, as well as a consistent dedication to the truth about marriage. Confession plays a key role in keeping marriages strong as the Lord bestows mercy and grace on both husband and wife. In cases where there is an irregular marriage, we are presented with a precious opportunity to lovingly invite the couple to discern whether they are being called to move beyond the present situation, and to take the steps necessary toward returning to the fullness of the sacramental life that would allow for the reception of absolution and Holy Communion.

Along these same lines, Blessed John Paul II gave us sound guidance:

…reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.30

Nonetheless, those who are not yet in the position to receive the sacrament of Penance are still to be encouraged in their efforts toward sanctity. “The church’s manifestations of maternal kindness, the support of acts of piety apart from sacramental ones, a sincere effort to maintain contact with the Lord, attendance at Mass and the frequent repetition of acts of faith, hope, charity and sorrow made as perfectly as possible can prepare the way for full reconciliation at the hour that providence alone knows.”31

Confession, Spiritual Direction and Counseling

Inherent in the practice of Confession is the spiritual guidance given by the priest to help “the penitent to walk on the demanding path of holiness with an upright and informed conscience.”32 The sacrament of Penance is ordered toward the forgiveness of sin, reconciliation with God and the Church, and the healing of the penitent. It is a liturgical act, solemn in its dramatic nature, yet humble and sober in the grandeur of its meaning.”33

Prudence will determine the amount of guidance needed for each penitent. Generally, in-depth spiritual direction and lengthy counseling are more properly handled outside the sacrament, even though spiritual guidance is certainly a part of the sacrament.

General Absolution

It remains the case that an individual, complete confession and the reception of absolution remain the only ordinary way for the faithful to obtain reconciliation with God and the Church, unless physical or moral impossibility excuses from this kind of confession.34 General absolution may be given in the case of danger of death. This practice does not apply to situations where there is simply a large number of penitents since one who receives general absolution is required to approach individual confession as soon as is possible.35


In light of the great importance of this aspect of our ministry and in order to have a unified and consistent approach to this sacrament of Divine Mercy, I am asking that we spend the first three weeks of Lent preaching on confession.36 As with our teaching about the Mass to prepare for the implementation of the Roman Missal, we have an opportunity to enliven in the faithful of our diocese a renewed love for this sacrament.

Finally, I am deeply grateful to all of you who, in faithful service to the Lord, give a generous portion of your time to the ministry of reconciling souls to our Merciful Lord.

May St. John Vianney and St. Padre Pio be our constant inspiration and our heavenly intercessors. We ask them and Holy Mary, Mother of Mercy, to pray for us.

Promulgated by the Most Rev. Thomas J. Olmsted
Bishop of Phoenix
On January 25, 2013, The Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul

1 Pope Benedict XVI, Address to Clergy, March 9, 2012

2 John 20: 21-23

3 CCC, 1468

4 Cf. 1 Cor. 11: 27-29

5 Cf, CIC 988

6 John Paul II, Annual Course on the Internal Forum, March, 8, 2005

7 John Paul II, Address to the Apostolic Penitentiary, March 31, 2001

8 Mark 1:15

9 CCC, 1849

10 Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 34

11 CCC 1458.

12 Congregation for the Clergy, Priest, Minister of Divine Mercy, page 3

13 CIC, 986

14 John Paul II, Misericordia Dei, 2

15 CIC, 964 and Misericordia Dei, 9

16 The penitent may choose to confess face to face, but in the confessional, the choice to confess anonymously with a fixed screen must be available.

17 John Paul II, Annual Course on the Internal Forum, March, 27, 2004

18 Augustine, Confessions X, 37, 62

19 Lk 5:8, Jn 21:17

20 2 Cor 4:7

21 2 Cor 1:4

22 Cf. Paul VI, Christus Dominus, 30

23 Congregation for Religious and the Secular Institutes, Decree on Confession for Religious, 3

24 Benedict XVI, Address to the Congregation for the Clergy, March 16, 2009

25 Benedict XVI, Address to Confessors of the Four Papal Basilicas of  Rome, February, 19, 2007

26 CIC, 978; cf. John Paul II, Reconciliatio et Penitentia

27 Psalm 85:11

28 Priest, Minister of Divine Mercy, 31

29 Ibid, 41

30 John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 84

31 Reconciliatio et Penitentia, 34

32 Benedict XVI, To the Apostolic Penitentiary, March 12, 2009

33 Reconciliatio et Penitentia, 31

34 Rite of Penance, 31

35 CIC 961-963

36 One such way to divide the catechesis into three weeks would be preaching on (1) sin and our need for redemption, (2) confession as established by Christ as the means for forgiveness of mortal sin after Baptism and, (3) the practicalities of frequent confession and making a good examination of conscience.