Understanding the sacraments: Pope Francis on the sacrament of penance

Priests must remember that in the confessional it is Christ who listens, forgives

By Father Randy Stice

In a recent message for National Liturgical Week in Italy, Pope Francis wrote that “all the liturgy is a place where mercy is encountered and welcomed in order to be given; a place where the great mystery of reconciliation is made present, announced, celebrated, and communicated.”

The sacraments and sacramentals reveal the mercy of God, the pope said, “according to the diverse circumstances,” but “the gift of mercy is resplendent in a particular way in the sacrament of reconciliation.”

In this column I would like to review Pope Francis’ teaching on the sacrament of penance, which is so central to the Jubilee of Mercy.

In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis described this sacrament as “an encounter with the Lord’s mercy which spurs us on to do our best.” He also noted that “a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life that appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties.” Everyone needs to be touched by the comfort and attraction of God’s saving love,” he concludes, “which is mysteriously at work in each person, above and beyond their faults and failings.”

As part of the Jubilee of Mercy, Pope Francis sent out missionaries of mercy, priests from around the world sent as “living signs of the Father’s readiness to welcome those in search of his pardon” (Bull of Indiction). In his address to these missionaries on Feb. 9, he highlighted three aspects of the sacrament of penance: the motherhood of the Church, the desire for forgiveness, and shame.

Pope Francis began by summarizing the three ways in which the Church is Mother. “The Church is Mother because she always generates new children in the faith; the Church is Mother because she nourishes the faith; and the Church is Mother also because she offers God’s forgiveness, regenerating a new life, the fruit of conversion.” The celebration of the sacrament must express the Church as a forgiving Mother.

“We cannot run the risk,” said the pope, “that a penitent not perceive the maternal presence of the Church, which welcomes and loves each one. Should this perception fail, due to our rigidity, it would do serious harm in the first place to the faith itself, because it would impede the penitent from feeling included in the Body of Christ. Moreover, it would greatly limit the penitent’s sense of belonging to a community.” The missionaries of mercy (and indeed every priest) must remember that in the confessional “it is Christ who welcomes, it is Christ who listens, it is Christ who forgives, it is Christ who grants peace.”

The second aspect addressed by the pope is the desire for forgiveness. He explained the birth and fruit of this desire, so crucial in the life of every Catholic. “This desire is the fruit of the grace of God’s action in people’s lives, which allows them to feel nostalgia for him, for his love and for his house. Let us not forget that this very desire is at the start of conversion.

The heart turns to God acknowledging the evil committed, but with the hope of obtaining forgiveness. This desire is reinforced when we decide in our own hearts to change our lives and want to sin no more. It is the moment in which we entrust ourselves to the mercy of God, and have full trust in being understood, forgiven and supported by Him. He urged the missionaries and all priests to nurture this life-giving desire: “Let us give great space to this desire for God and for his forgiveness; let us help it to emerge as the true expression of the grace of the Spirit which impels the conversion of heart.”

Finally, Pope Francis spoke about shame, an aspect that he acknowledged “is seldom mentioned, but which instead is determinant,” because it can make it difficult for one to approach the sacrament. “It is not easy to place ourselves before another man, especially knowing that he represents God, and confess our sins. We feel ashamed both of what we have done and of having to confess it to another. Shame is an intimate feeling which influences our personal life….So often shame silences us.”

He then recalled the account of the sons of Noah, who covered their father’s nakedness (Genesis 9:20-23). The pope offered this as an image of the sacrament: “Being a confessor in accordance with the heart of Christ is the equivalent of shielding sinners with the garment of mercy, so they may no longer be ashamed and may recover the joy of their filial dignity, and may also know where to find it.”

In The Face of Mercy, Pope Francis noted signs of new interest in the sacrament that 32 years ago St. John Paul II noted was in crisis. “So many people, including the youth, are returning to the sacrament of reconciliation; through this experience they are rediscovering a path back to the Lord, living a moment of intense prayer and finding meaning in their lives. Let us place the sacrament of reconciliation at the center once more in such a way that it will enable people to touch the grandeur of God’s mercy with their own hands. For every penitent, it will be a source of true interior peace.” May we be docile to the prompting of the Holy Spirit and touch the grandeur of God’s mercy during this Jubilee of Mercy. ■

Father Stice is pastor of St. Mary Church in Athens and directs the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at frrandy@dioknox.org.

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