Pope Francis tells confessors that Catholics who come to the Sacrament of Reconciliation have the right to be heard with faith and with the charity which the Father reserves for His children.
“Forgiveness is a human right” which priests at the confessional should dispense by welcoming, listening to and accompanying penitents, thus helping contribute to a “spiritual ‘ecology’ of the world.”
“Forgiveness is a ‘right’ in the sense that God, in the Paschal Mystery of Christ, has given it in a total and irreversible way to every person willing to accept it, with a humble and repentant heart.”
Pope Francis made those remarks on Friday to some 400 participants in the 32nd course on the Internal Forum, organized in the Vatican by the Apostolic Penitentiary, held on 21-25 March.
Spiritual ‘ecology’ of the world
“By generously dispensing God’s forgiveness,” the Pope said, “we confessors cooperate in healing people and the world; we cooperate in bringing about that love and peace for which every human heart yearns so intensely; we contribute, if I may say so, to a spiritual ‘ecology’ of the world.”
He regarded the participation of some 800 clerics in the hybrid course as encouraging, given that today’s widespread mentality finds it hard to understand the supernatural dimension, or even wants to deny it.
He lamented the temptation to reduce confession to a dialogue of two or three psychological advice, which he said deprives the sacrament of its essence.
With regard to the Internal Forum, which consists of sacramental confession and the privacy of one’s conscience before God, the Holy Father urged confessors on the path of welcoming, listening to and accompanying penitents, to which he said we must add joy which always accompanies confession.
By welcoming, the confessor helps the penitent to open himself or herself to the fatherhood of God.
“Welcoming is the measure of pastoral charity, which matures in the course of a priest’s formation, bearing rich fruits both for the penitent and for the confessor himself, who lives his fatherhood, like the father of the prodigal son, full of joy at the return of his son.”
Listening is more than hearing. A confessor needs attention, willingness, patience, which helps the confessor leave behind his own thoughts and patterns.
“If, while the penitent is speaking, you are already thinking about what to say, what to answer, then you are not listening to him or her, but to yourself. Listening is a form of love that makes the other person feel truly loved,” said Pope Francis. A confessor who listens to himself is not doing his duty of listening and pardoning.
Pope Francis asked confessors to avoid the habit of inquisitiveness at the confessional. At times, penitents feel ashamed to say their sins and don’t know how to express themselves but only give a hint. “Don’t ask further questions about how it happened or how many times, as if to evaluate whether to impart forgiveness.” “Please,” the Pope pleaded, “you are not a torturer; you are a loving father!” “Would Jesus treat you this way?” he asked, drawing applause from his listeners. Listening, he said, is a form of love that makes the other person feel truly loved. “Don’t be a judge. Forgive what you have understood. Period! It is true, sometimes it is a judgement, but it is also mercy.”
In this regard, Pope Francis recalled watching a pop opera on the Parable of the Prodigal Son in a modern setting. In the final part, the poor son soiled by sins wants to return home but is not sure if his father will receive him. A friend advises him to write to his father that he is repentant and wants to return but is afraid that he may not be received. So the son writes to his father asking him to put a white handkerchief in the window, so he can return home, otherwise, he would go away. In the last act of the opera, the Pope said, as the son walks down the road leading to his father, he finds the house full of white handkerchiefs. “That,” the Pope said, “is God’s mercy; it has no limits.” And the mercy of a confessor is the same.
Often, the confession becomes an examination of conscience for the confessor, the Pope said, adding it has happened to him. It helps the priest to empty himself of his ego to welcome the other.
Penitents have the right to be heard with faith, and with that charity which the Father reserves for His children, which generates joy.
By accompanying the penitent, the Pope pointed out, the confessor does not decide for the other, as he is not the master of the conscience of the other.
The confessor simply accompanies, with all the prudence, discernment and charity of which he is capable, the recognition of the truth and the will of God in the concrete experience of the penitent.
In giving advice to the penitent, the Pope encouraged only a few right words but not a “Sunday homily”, otherwise, the person would want to walk away as soon as possible.
Here, he said, one should distinguish between the seal of confession and the dialogue of spiritual accompaniment, which is also reserved, although in a different form.
The Pope expressed concern that in certain quarters of the Church, the seal of confession or the sacramental seal is being relativized, saying only the part of narrating sins has the seal, not which precedes and follows the sins. The Pope said, “everything is under seal.” It is the common doctrine, at least in this pontificate, that the seal is from the beginning to the end and not “up to here” and “up to there”. And this is the doctrine to be followed.
God’s mercy for all
The confessor should always have as his objective the universal call to holiness. From his conversation, he clearly discerns the needs of the penitent and accompanies him or her to an understanding and acceptance of God’s will, which is always the way to the greatest good, the way to joy and peace.
Pope Francis also encouraged confessors to confess themselves saying it is healthy for us.
“Everyone needs forgiveness, that is, to feel that they are loved as children by God the Father.”
The confessor’s final absolution is a very powerful medicine for the soul, and also for everyone’s psyche.
The Pope set aside his text and recalled two great confessors whose testimonies he still carries in his heart. One was a 93-year old priest, Father Aristi, who was the confessor of all the clergy in Buenos Aires. Even the lay people, including himself, went to him.
One Easter Sunday, the future pope came to know Fr. Aristi had died and his coffin was in the basilica with only two old ladies praying the rosary. He felt pained that the man who forgave the sins of so many had no flowers at his funeral.
So the Pope bought flowers and while arranging them noticed Fr. Aristi’s rosary and wanted to have its cross. The Pope said, “I stole the cross of the rosary, praying to him, ‘Give me half of your mercy”, thinking of Elijah and Elisha.” Pope Francis said he asked for that grace and still carries the crucifix with him always.
The other testimony is of a 96-year-old Capuchin priest, who still continues to hear confessions at the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii in Buenos Aires. At his confessional, there is always a long queue of priests, bishops, nuns, young people, old people, poor people, rich people, everyone …
One day, the priest came to Pope Francis, who was then Archbishop of Pompei, asking him to be relieved of “this torture”. When the Pope asked why, he answered, “You know I always forgive, I forgive everything, I forgive too much. Sometimes I feel the scruples.” So the Pope asked him what he does when he feels the scruples. The Capuchin priest said he goes to the chapel and asks the Lord for forgiveness. “But immediately I feel something inside: ‘But be careful Lord, because it was You who gave me the bad example’.”
In conclusion, Pope Francis reminded the Apostolic Penitentiary of the 2025 Jubilee Year. He said that penitence is the “profound nucleus” of every Jubilee, and hence they should take care to make the Holy Year as fruitful as possible, so that God’s mercy may reach everywhere and to everyone.
With thanks to Vatican News and Robin Gomes, where this article originally appeared.