A priest hears a man's confession in Saint Peter's Basilica during the Holy Year of Mercy.

An Amazing Moment

He is one of the thousands of Missionaries of Mercy invited by the Pope for the Jubilee. Fr. Emiliano Antenucci, a young Capuchin, explains what the Sacrament of Confession is–and is not. Because when you meet Him face to face...
Alessandra Stoppa

“Because the Church, in the midst of this historic change, is called to offer greater signs of the presence and the closeness of God.” This is the explanation that Pope Francis gave during Easter last year for the Holy Year dedicated to Mercy. Then, in the Bull of Indiction, he announced: “I intend to send out the Missionaries of Mercy. They will be a sign of the Church’s maternal care for the People of God, so that they may enter more deeply into the richness of this mystery that is so fundamental for faith.”

Fr. Emiliano Antenucci. Fr. Emiliano Antenucci is one of the thousands of Missionaries of Mercy chosen by the Pope. He is a Capuchin friar, ordained a priest in Manopello in 2011 at the Sanctuary of the Holy Face, where he had been sent for his summer assignment to be a guide for pilgrims. Thirty-six years old with a volcanic personality, he was born in Vasto, but his vocation took him to Assisi, Foligno, L’Aquila (before and after the earthquake), to Penne, and now to Chieti, in the Convent of Mater Domini.

For one year, he lived in hermitages and in monasteries all across Italy, researching the topic of silence. From this came the Course on Silence that now accompanies many young people in Italy, in Ecuador, in Mexico, and in other countries, where it is growing. “What does a friar and silence have to do with my life?” He laughs: “The answer is that silence is the greatest teacher. When I speak with young people, I sense much sadness. This means that it is difficult to hear what God wants to tell us.” Saint Bonaventure used to say that friars are the “workers of the second shift.” He was referring directly to their duty to preach and to confess, sustaining the spiritual life of the people and parish priests as well. And he drew attention to the fact that the most important thing is not getting lost in administering, organizing, and holding down the fort, but instead says Brother Emiliano: “The most important thing is tending to souls.”

What did the Pope ask you before sending you off?
First of all, to be “the living sign of the love of the Father.” But this goes for all priests, who are all Missionaries of Mercy. Not just priests, but all Christians are called to bear witness to what is known as “the second name of love.” This is mercy. In my mind, there is one specific image: the cry of the heart of Christ on the Cross. Mercy is the gaze of the heart on ourselves and on everyone. Truly, everyone. But it is only because God is merciful on us that we can be merciful.

Your task as Missionaries of Mercy is to “celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation with their people so that the time of grace made possible by the Jubilee year makes it possible for many of God’s sons and daughters to take up once again the journey to the Father’s house.” It is also to be “heralds of the joy of forgiveness.”
Yes, we are called to hear confessions, with the possibility of absolving some of the sins that are reserved to the Holy See: profaning the Eucharist, physical violence towards the Pontiff, the violation of the sacred seal by the confessor and participating in the violation of the Sixth Commandment. The absolution for abortion, during this Holy Year, is granted to all priests. In addition to Confession, we Missionaries are called to teach catechesis, and to preach about mercy through the “missions to the people” organized by the Dioceses. I feel supported in a special way, because we Capuchins can look to our “expert” saints, including Saint Leopold Mandic and Saint Padre Pio.

What do they teach you?
First of all, hearing a confession is not the same as making a black list. It is not even an exoneration in order to come before the Eucharist. Instead, it is a walk of conversion. I prefer to call it Reconciliation: even more so than Penance or Confession, this is the name that harkens back to the fundamental character of this Sacrament, which does not merely consist of accusing oneself of sins, but of the increase of Grace. Confession is the place where Grace is received. In fact, the Pope says that the very act of going to Confession is already a grace. It is called the grace of acknowledgement.

And Francis says, “Shame itself is a grace.”
This is so true. The veil of shame is transformed into tears of remorse and joy. We must recognize that we are sinners to know what mercy is. But this does not mean that Jesus became Incarnate for the sake of sin: Jesus became Incarnate because He loves us. This is very important. I believe that through a certain form of catechesis on sin we have demoralized many people, we have created a kind of “asceticism of sadness.” Instead, in the beginning, it was about joy, light, Grace. Not about sin and the shadows.

During the Audience with CL last year, Pope Francis said: “The privileged place of encounter is the caress of the mercy of Jesus Christ regarding my sin.”
Yes! This asks us to respond freely. Let us reflect on what the French writer Léon Bloy said: “A saint can fall in the mud and a prostitute can reach the light.” This is the experience all of us have when we receive mercy. The parable of the Prodigal Son does not have a happy ending, because the choice is left up to us: to continue on a path of sanctity or in the shadows. It is a matter of freedom. We do not know how the story continues, where the older son goes or what the younger son does. We decide how our story ends. “Then the angel departed from her”: just as it happened to the Virgin Mary after the Annunciation. The Lord gives us Grace, the gifts; He shows us good and evil: “I placed you... on the holy mountain of God”; after that, it is your choice. This also allows us to remember that Confession is not psychoanalysis: the priest gives you God’s Grace, the psychoanalyst does not.

The Missionaries of Mercy with Pope Francis.

What can help a person be conscientious when experiencing Confession?
What is helpful for me are the three passages pronounced by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini: the confessio laudis, the confessio vitae, and the confessio fidei. First of all, the confessio laudis: before making my confession, I must thank God for all the gifts that I have received. For being given life, a vocation, a family–which many do not have–health, studies, work, friends...for everything. Everything is given. The point is this: having a grateful heart. As for everything else, the fundamental sin is being “forgetful.” Being forgetful of God’s love. To sin is not to break a law, but to betray the Beloved and His love for me. Then there is the confessio vitae. The act of confessing to a priest–who is a man just as I am, a sinner, weak like me–all of my contradictions, my misery: “My misery; your mercy,” St. Augustine used to say. What strikes me is that often we confess sins that have already been confessed. I am not referring to those that we always fall back into, but the sins that have been committed and are already forgiven, which we drag back out. This is because we do not forgive ourselves. The drama is inside of us. Most of all, because we still do not believe in God’s forgiveness. But this forgiveness is not an emotion!

Could you explain this further?
For God, to forgive is to forget: for Him, it is as if you never did that thing. For us, though, this mercy is a scandal.

Is this what the confessio fidei is about?
Yes, it is being certain that the mercy of God is greater than my misery. I do not know if the sun will rise tomorrow, but I know that mercy will come before the dawn. The point is to grow in this certainty: God envelops us in his cloak of infinite mercy, which is far greater than our problems, which He has cast down to the bottom of the ocean.

What is your experience of Confession? In particular, of the objectivity that you mediate: acting in persona Christi?
For me, the experience of welcoming each one of God’s masterpieces, each individual, is amazing. And I am very conscious of the fact that when I administer a confession, I am not the one speaking. It is Another who speaks through me. I have photographic images of the faces in my mind, but I do not remember the things that I say. In that moment, it is the Holy Spirit. It is an experience that I have on the other side as well: for example, I went to have my confession heard by a Benedictine monk, with an urgent question inside about what prayer is; we begin, and he starts to talk about prayer. Without me even saying a word. Just like that, you experience God speaking to you. This is exactly why it is important to prepare oneself for Confession, and not come “cold” as is often the case, but “warm.” It is also essential to first invoke the Holy Spirit: on ourselves, so that we may receive the grace to recognize our sins, and on the confessor, so that he is given grace and words to speak to us.

The Pope says that the mystery of the mercy of Christ is that He “goes beyond the law and he forgives, caressing the wounds of sin, just like a confessor.”
Jesus does not use the law to judge, because the greatest law is love. Instead, we burden ourselves with fear of God, that God will condemn us and punish us. The way we “communicate” God in the Church is part of our responsibility. God does not look at our sinful follies: He is crazy about us. God became Incarnate despite our sins, He loves us in spite of what we do. Because he loves us as a father would. Then, this also becomes a method of catechesis. To speak of Christianity as mortification, as a reduction of life... on the contrary! It is a fuller life. Is this not what Father Giussani taught us?

What does it mean that a confessor is merciful?
Mercy is not a reward. The confessor must help the person become aware of the encounter that he is living. It is not a conversation between friends: the other person is not meeting Fr. Emiliano; he is meeting Christ. And when you meet Christ you are afraid and trembling, yet you are filled with amazement and wonder, like a child. From this wonder emerges a new way of life. Therefore, the confessor should not pry, as the Pope reminded us, but he should not stay silent either: he must give words of healing. Words of consolation and of hope. We must pay attention to the words that we say.

The Pope puts the words mercy and justice side by side and says: “Sinners yes, not the corrupt.” To be merciful does not mean covering up scandals with a secretive silence.
The Pope also talks about this issue within the Church. We cover up, and cover up... but this causes great suffering. We all live corruption when we get used to sin: we are so immersed in it, to the point that we no longer see the harm that we do. We must keep watch, never stay settled. To be ready and alert, allowing ourselves to be awakened by daily life.

How does the confessor experience the relationship between truth and charity?
In this sense, it is also the duty of priests to educate. In other words: to lead the other gently to the truth about himself. To lead him “outside of himself”: from amor sui, amor proprio, to amor Dei. It means liberating him from himself: from the false image of himself, from the burdens he carries, and it also means liberating the gifts and charisms he has. We priests must not be administrators of what is sacred; we must be educators. We must be able to sanctify and to discern, but also to educate souls. I had the blessing of spending some time at the Certosa di Serra San Bruno, a place familiar to André Louf, one of the great masters of discernment, who said: “It is necessary to walk with a soul through everything, but always a step behind, so that at every crossroads it may choose.” Freely. Lastly, I think that we confessors should remove this word from our vocabulary: rigidity.

What do you mean?
Rigidity creates soldiers. God wants us to be His children, not soldiers: a soldier obeys, but his heart may not; the child is gentle and obeys out of love. Because he feels loved.