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Is There Grace in Being Refused Absolution?
By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.
July 26th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
During my confession, I told Fr. Bourgeois that I had been a Catholic, that I was currently attending the Episcopal Church, but that I wanted to confess my sins. Fr. Bourgeois explained that he could not absolve me of my sins unless I agreed to return to Sunday Mass. As a Catholic, I had an obligation to attend Sunday Mass, he explained, and this obligation was not satisfied by the Episcopal liturgy. I told Fr. Bourgeois that I was not ready to agree to such an imposition. So he very kindly but resolutely refused me absolution, and he gave me a blessing instead.CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - "Receive the Holy Spirit," were the words of Jesus to his apostles, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." (John 20:22-23) The power to forgive sins is one of the most precious gifts Jesus left his Church. It is dispensed in the Sacrament of Confession, also referred to as the Sacrament of Penance or the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
The Sacrament of Confession is a great grace. The grace of God's forgiveness received through the words and hand of a Catholic priest--who, when he acts as alter Christus and in persona Christi ("as another Christ" and "in the person of Christ') as he does in Confession is as close to the mercy of Jesus as you will ever get to this side of Heaven--is indescribable. St. Thomas Aquinas says that the conversion of a soul is worth more than the entire universe. The Sacrament of Confession participates in that supernatural gift of infinite value, God's mercy and sanctifying grace.
Priests are taught to be generous in meting out God's mercy through this great Sacrament of Reconciliation. They are to err in giving absolution. The salvation of souls is the supreme law. But there are times where this great gift must be withheld, where absolution must be deferred or refused outright, and where it would be great error in dispensing it.
Unquestionably, there is great grace in receiving absolution, but is there grace in being refused absolution by a priest in the Sacrament of Confession? The answer (I speak from experience) is yes.
The Sacrament of Penance is part of the priest's cura animarum, his care of souls. The care of souls is a delicate art, an art both human and divine. In exercising his care for souls, the confessor must travel between rigorism and laxism, between being too harsh and too indulgent. St. Alphonsus Liguori the patron saint of confessors says in his Dignity and Duties of the Priest, that the priest must avoid these two extremes, and yet even in doing so he must know when to withhold absolution.
A priest must withhold absolution when the penitent is not properly disposed, such as when the penitent does not express at least attrition or sorrow for his sins, or when he does not evidence desire to amend his life, or when he refuses to abide by the moral teachings or disciplines of the Church.
It must be difficult to withhold absolution, and it calls at times for the virtue of fortitude as well as wisdom and prudence on the part of a priest. As St. Alphonsus reminds priests: "Great fortitude is necessary in correcting penitents and in refusing absolution to those who have not the requisite dispositions."
St. Alphonsus Liguori also says that a confessor must know not only when to withhold absolution, but how. "Though the confessor should be obliged to defer absolution, he ought to dismiss the penitent with sweetness, fixing a day for him to return, and pointing out the remedies that he must practice in the mean time, in order to prepare himself for absolution. Sinners are saved in this way."
All this is a preface to my experience many years ago in confessing to a priest at St. Mary's Cathedral in Austin, Texas. It was my great fortune that the priest--now dead, requiescat in pace--was Fr. Henry Bourgeois, a member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross.
At that time in my pilgrimage of faith, I--an errant Catholic who was yet unaware that I was being drawn back to Holy Mother Church by the Holy Spirit--was a member of the St. David's Episcopal Church in Austin. My brother--who had remained faithful to the Church--suggested one day that I go to confession. I'm not sure why I agreed, but I agreed.
During my confession, I told Fr. Bourgeois that I had been a Catholic, that I was currently attending the Episcopal Church, but that I wanted to confess my sins. Fr. Bourgeois explained that he could not absolve me of my sins unless I agreed to return to Sunday Mass. As a Catholic, I had an obligation to attend Sunday Mass, he explained, and this obligation was not satisfied by the Episcopal liturgy. I told Fr. Bourgeois that I was not ready to agree to such an imposition. So he very kindly but resolutely refused me absolution, and he gave me a blessing instead.
At first I was offended, almost insulted by what I took to be the audacity of Fr. Bourgeois to deny me absolution, but that soon passed into a sort of confusion. I could not criticize Fr. Bourgeois's behavior, as he had been unquestionably kind and gentle in his manner. He had dismissed in the most sweet manner as St. Alphonsus advised. Somehow--and I have not been able exactly to trace how--that refusal of absolution was a proximate cause to my becoming Catholic and reconciling myself to the communion of the Church which holds and teaches the one, catholic, and apostolic Faith. That refusal of absolution was a great grace, one of the greater graces of my life.
The message I received from Fr. Bourgeois in refusing me absolution was that the Catholic Mass was different than other services, the Catholic Mass was irreplaceable, the Catholic Mass had to be the center of my worship of God, that without the Mass I could not be fully Christian. I did not see it then, I only gradually came to see that.
I am not quite sure I would have come to see that truth at all, and I certainly would not have come to see that truth in the manner I did but for the fortitude of Fr. Bourgeois and his refusal of absolution.
Fr. Bourgeois left me in my sins, so that I might leave my sins. I was confounded, but the Lord would not let me be confounded in eternity.
Some years later, when I eventually was reconciled to the Church of my youth--the Church which I had wounded by my sin--and brought into full communion with God--the God who gives joy to my youth and whom I had also offended by my sin--I wrote Fr. Bourgeois and thanked him for what he did.
He wrote me back, and in his letter he included a holy card of St. Andrew the Apostle, and on the back he had written "God is Good!" Yes, Fr. Bourgeois, God is Good! And God was good to me through you.
At the ripe age of eighty, in his hometown of Taunton, Massachusetts, Fr. Henry Bourgeois died on Sunday, June 13, 2004. It was the Feast of Corpus Christi. His body was laid to rest at the Holy Cross Community Cemetery, Stonehill College, at Eaton, Massachusetts. I hope one day to visit his grave, and thank him again for the way Jesus--through the ministry of his priesthood--touched my life. He took care of my soul--the soul of a young student from Austin whom he did not know--and handled it with such care even while denying it God's great gift of forgiveness.
St. Pius V is supposed to have said "Give us fit confessors, and surely the whole of Christianity will be reformed." Dentur idonei confessarii; ecce omnium Christianorum plena reformatio.
Indeed. We need a whole army of Fr. Bourgeoises.
Lord of the harvest, send laborers into your harvest.
And Fr. Bourgeois: Thank-you. Thank-you again, and again, and again. God is Good!
Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is married with three children. He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum. You can contact Andrew at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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