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Pope Francis and confession

Pope Francis confesses and hears confessions in Saint Peter’s in Rome

Celebrate God’s forgiveness

On Friday 4 March 2016, in the context of the ‘24 hours for the Lord’ initiative, Pope Francis emphasised to what extent absolution is a ‘celebration’ for the heart by himself confessing to a priest in Saint Peter’s Basilica before hearing confessions for nearly one and a half hours. He had already performed this public gesture, unique for a Pope, on 28 March 2014 and again on 13 March 2015, both of which drew a lot of media attention. On this latter occasion he announced the extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.
In his address of 4 March 2016, the Pope asked priests to be ‘fathers’ for penitents who come to ask for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, thus being an image of the ‘Heavenly Father’. The Holy Father also received some 500 confessors – both current and future – who were participating in a course for administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The Pope asked them to ensure that absolution was a ‘Jubilee’: “Every absolution is, in a certain way, a jubilee of the heart, which brings joy not only the faithful and the Church, but first of all to God Himself”.

Homily of Pope Francis

“Let me see again” (Mk 10:51). This is what we ask of the Lord today. To see again, because our sins have made us lose sight of all that is good, and have robbed us of the beauty of our calling, leading us instead far away from our journey's end.

This Gospel passage has great symbolic value because we all find ourselves in the same situation as Bartimaeus. His blindness led him to poverty and to living on the outskirts of the city, dependent on others for everything he needed. Sin also has this effect: it impoverishes and isolates us. It is a blindness of the spirit which prevents us from seeing what is most important, from fixing our gaze on the love that gives us life. This blindness leads us little by little to dwell on what is superficial, until we are indifferent to others and to what is good. How many temptations have the power to cloud the heart’s vision and to render it short-sighted! How easy and misguided it is to believe that life depends on what we have, on our successes and on the approval we receive; to believe that the economy is only for profit and consumption; that personal desires are more important than social responsibility! When we only look to ourselves, we become blind, lifeless and self-centred, devoid of joy and freedom.
(...)

But Jesus is passing by; he is passing by, and he halts: the Gospel tells us that “he stopped” (v. 49). Our hearts race, because we realize that the Light is gazing upon us, that kindly Light which invites us to come out of our dark blindness. Jesus’ closeness to us makes us see that, when we are far from him, there is something important missing from our lives. His presence makes us feel in need of salvation, and this begins the healing of our heart. Then, when our desire to be healed becomes more courageous, it leads to prayer, to crying out fervently and persistently for help, as did Bartimaeus: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (v. 47).

Unfortunately, like the ‘many’ in the Gospel, there is always someone who does not want to stop, who does not want to be bothered by someone else crying out in pain, preferring instead to silence and rebuke the person in need who is only a nuisance (cf. v. 48). There is the temptation to move on as if it were nothing, but then we would remain far from the Lord and we would also keep others away from Jesus. May we realise that we are all begging for God’s love and not allow ourselves to miss the Lord as he passes by. “I fear the Lord passing by” said Saint Augustine. Let us voice our truest desire: “[Jesus], let me see again!” (v. 51). This Jubilee of Mercy is the best time to welcome God’s presence, to experience his love and to return to him with all our heart. Like Bartimaeus, let us cast off our cloak and rise to our feet (cf. v. 50): that is, let us cast aside all that prevents us from racing towards God, unafraid of leaving behind those things which make us feel safe and to which we are attached. Let us not remain sedentary but let us get up and find our spiritual worth again, our dignity as loved sons and daughters who stand before the Lord so that we can be seen by him, forgiven and recreated.
(...)

Today, more than ever, we Pastors are especially called to hear the cry, perhaps hidden, of all those who wish to encounter the Lord. We need to re-examine those behaviours of ours which at times do not help others to draw close to Jesus; the schedules and programmes which do not meet the real needs of those who may approach the confessional; human regulations, if they are more important than the desire for forgiveness; our own inflexibility which may keep others away from God’s tenderness. We must certainly not water down the demands of the Gospel, but we cannot risk frustrating the desire of the sinner to be reconciled with the Father. For what the Father awaits more than anything is for his sons and daughters to return home (cf. Lk 15:20-32).

May our words be those of the disciples who, echoing Jesus, said to Bartimaeus: “Take heart; rise, he is calling you” (Mk 10:49). We have been sent to inspire courage, to support and to lead others to Jesus. Our ministry is one of accompaniment, so that the encounter with the Lord may be personal and intimate, and the heart may open itself to the Saviour in honesty and without fear.

May we not forget that it is God alone who is at work in every person. In the Gospel it is he who stops and speaks to the blind man. It is he who orders the man to be brought to him, and who listens to him and heals him. We have been chosen to awaken the desire for conversion, to be instruments that facilitate this encounter, to stretch out our hand and to absolve, thus making his mercy visible and effective.
(...)

The conclusion of the Gospel story is significant. Bartimaeus “immediately received his sight and followed him along the road” (v. 52). When we draw near to Jesus, we too see once more the light which enables us to look to the future with confidence. We find anew the strength and the courage to set out on the way. “Those who believe, see” (Encyclical Lumen Fidei, 1) and they go forth in hope, because they know that the Lord is present, that he is sustaining and guiding them. Let us follow him, as faithful disciples, so that we can lead all those we encounter to experience the joy of his love.
And after the Father’s embrace, the Father’s forgiveness, let us celebrate in our hearts, for the Lord himself celebrates.

Putting the ‘focus back’ on the Sacrament of Reconciliation

The Pope’s address to confessors

Inviting confessors to put the sacrament of Confession back ‘at the centre’, Pope Francis states that  “in this time of ours, marked by individualism, by so many wounds and the temptation to close oneself off, it is a true and proper gift to see and accompany people who draw near to divine mercy”. He stressed that, as a consequence, “this demands from us all, too, an even greater duty to evangelical coherence and fatherly benevolence. We are guardians, not masters, both of the sheep and of grace.”  “Let us put the focus back on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and not just for this Jubilee Year; it is the true space of the Spirit in which all, confessors and penitents, are able to experience the unique, definitive and faithful love that God has for every one of His children, a love that never disappoints”, said Pope Francis. He emphasised one of the effects of sacramental absolution. “Every absolution is, in a certain way, a jubilee of the heart, which brings joy not only to the faithful and the Church, but first of all to God himself.”

Address of Pope Francis

Dear Brothers, good morning!

I am happy to meet with you during this Lent of the Jubilee Year of Mercy. I cordially greet the Regent – who has a very kind face, he must be a good confessor! - and all of you participating in the course, which is intended to aid new priests and seminarians approaching ordination in their formation for administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In fact, the celebration of this Sacrament requires an adequate and updated preparation, so that all those who approach it can “touch the grandeur of God’s mercy, source of true interior peace” (Cf. Bull Misericordiae Vultus, 17).

This word, mercy, “might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith. Mercy has become living and visible in Jesus of Nazareth, reaching its culmination in him” (Ibid., 1). In this sense, rather than being an attitude or a human virtue, mercy is God’s definitive choice for the eternal salvation of every human being, a choice sealed with the blood of the Son of God.

Divine mercy can freely reach all those who invoke it. Indeed the possibility of forgiveness is truly open to all. It is open wide, like the greatest of the “Holy Doors,” because it coincides with the very heart of the Father, who loves and awaits all His children, particularly those who have erred most and are far away. The Father’s mercy can reach every person in many ways: through the opening of a sincere conscience; through reading the Word of God, which converts the heart; through an encounter with a merciful sister or brother; in the experiences of life that speak to us of wounds, of sin, of forgiveness and of mercy.

There is, however, a “sure way” of mercy, through which one passes from possibility to reality, from hope to certainty. This path is Jesus, who has “authority on earth to forgive sins” (Luke 5:24) and has handed this mission down to the Church (Cf. John 20:21-23). The Sacrament of Reconciliation is therefore the privileged place where we experience God’s mercy and where we celebrate the joy of our encounter with the Father.

We all too easily forget this last aspect: I go, I ask for forgiveness, I feel the embrace of forgiveness but I forget to celebrate. This is not theological doctrine but I would say, stretching the point, that celebration is part of the Sacrament: it is as if penance were also part of the feast I must celebrate with the Father who has forgiven me.

When, as confessors, we enter the confessional to welcome our brothers and sisters, we must always remember that we are instruments of God’s mercy for them. Let us, therefore, be careful not to put obstacles in the way of this gift of salvation! The confessor is himself a sinner, a man ever in need of forgiveness. He is the first who cannot do without the mercy of God who “chose” him and “appointed” him (Cf. John 15:16) for this great task. Therefore, you must always be ready with an attitude of humble and generous faith and the sole desire that every believer experience the love of the Father. In this we have no shortage of holy brother priests to look to. Think of Leopold Mandic and Pio of Pietrelcina, whose mortal remains we venerated in the Vatican a month ago. I would also mention, if I may, one of my own family: Father Cappello.

After the priest’s absolution, every repentant member of the faithful has the certainty, through faith, that his sins are no more. They no longer exist! God is omnipotent. I like to think that He has one weakness: a bad memory. Once He has forgiven you, He forgets. And this is great! The sins no longer exist; they have been wiped away by divine mercy.

Every absolution is, in a certain way, a jubilee of the heart, which brings joy, not only to the faithful and the Church, but first of all to God Himself. Jesus said so: “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who have no need of repentance” (Luke 15:7). It is important, therefore, that the confessor also be a ‘channel of joy’ and that the faithful, after being pardoned, no longer feel the oppression of guilt, but can relish God’s work which has freed them to live in thanksgiving, ready to repair the harm done and to go meet their brothers and sisters with a good and willing heart.

Dear brothers, in this time of ours, marked by individualism, by so many wounds and the temptation to close oneself off, it is a true and proper gift to see and accompany people who draw near to divine mercy. This demands from us all, too, an even greater duty to evangelical coherence and fatherly benevolence. We are guardians, not masters, both of the sheep and of grace.

Let us put the focus back on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and not just for this Jubilee Year; it is the true space of the Spirit in which all, confessors and penitents, are able to experience the unique, definitive and faithful love that God has for every one of His children, a love that never disappoints. Saint Leopold Mandic used to say that, “the mercy of God exceeds our every expectation”. He also used to say to those who suffered: “We have in Heaven the heart of a mother. The Virgin, our Mother, endured all the suffering possible for a human being at the foot of the cross. She understands our troubles and she consoles us.” May Mary, Refuge of sinners and Mother of Mercy, always guide and sustain the fundamental ministry of Reconciliation.

And what should I do if I find myself in difficulty and cannot give absolution? What should I do? First of all, try to see if there is a way; there frequently is.

Second, do not consider only spoken language, but also the language of the body. There are people who cannot speak and who, by their actions, express their repentance and their sorrow.
 And third, if absolution cannot be given, speak to them like a father: “Listen, because of this I cannot [absolve you], but I can assure you that God loves you, that God is waiting for you! Let us pray together to Our Lady, to protect you; and come, come back, I will wait for you just as God is waiting for you,” and give them a blessing. That way, this person leaves the confessional and thinks, “I found a father and he did not hit me.” How many times have you heard someone say, “I never go to confession, because I went once and he shouted at me”?

Even in the extreme case in which I cannot give absolution, let him or her feel the warmth of a father who blesses him and tells him to come back and who also prays a little with him or her. This is always the point: there is a father there. This is also a celebration. God knows how to forgive things better than we do.  At least we can be an image of the Father.

I thank the Apostolic Penitentiary for its valuable service, and with all my heart I bless you all and the ministry you carry out as channels of mercy, especially in this Jubilee time. Remember, please, also to pray for me.

And today I will go with you to confess in Saint Peter’s.