BOSTON – Catholics should build networks of reconciliation to nurture and support one another, U.S. Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, head of the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary, said during a visit to Boston.
The cardinal, a former auxiliary bishop of Baltimore, spoke about penance and reconciliation at St. John’s Seminary, addressing lay people Feb. 3 and priests Feb. 5.
The Apostolic Penitentiary is a Vatican court that deals with indulgences, matters of conscience and the lifting of certain excommunications and other censures that are reserved to the Holy See.
In his remarks to the laity, Cardinal Stafford said they must step up to form a nurturing society within the church that takes the spirit of reconciliation beyond the physical rite.
He said when he was archbishop of Denver one year more than 2,000 people preparing to enter the church at Easter attended an archdiocesan Mass for them on the first Sunday of Lent. When they were invited back for Pentecost, only a few hundred came back.
“That tells me we can get them, but we can’t keep them,” he said.
The falloff in Mass attendance indicates a failure to integrate the laity fully into a rich parish life, he said. Other churches do a better job of integrating their members, he said.
He said that when he was bishop of Memphis, Tenn., in the 1980s he would sometimes attend Southern Baptist services and gatherings in plain clothes to learn how they built their communities. He saw that one of the keys was a wider expression of reconciliation among the laity, he said.
The cardinal said he witnessed one example of a husband and father, who confessed to his congregation he was tempted to commit adultery during his extended business trips.
It was painful for the man, but more painful to the wife, who was there also, he said, but that community was strong enough to support the husband as he battled his temptations. More importantly, he said, it was strong enough to support the wife, who was humiliated by her husband’s public confession.
Priests should embrace and encourage the laity as they build up social networks capable of spreading reconciliation, he said.
“They are the new prophets of our time – I really mean that, and you can take it for what it is worth,” he added.
Because of his position in the church, Cardinal Stafford said it was important for him to come to Boston in the wake of the scandal of sexual abuse by priests.
He said he was struck by a homily he heard the previous day in which a priest told his parishioners, regarding life after the scandal: “If forgiveness is not part of the process, I don’t want anything to do with it.”
The priest was right, he said. There has to be forgiveness, but first there must be tears.
“Tears of sorrow, tears of anger and finally tears of joy as we realize that God is calling us together again,” he said.