Confession must be a pastoral priority, Pope Francis says

By Elise Harris

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Pope Francis told priests Friday to make confession a priority in their parishes, and, if they want to be good confessors, to have a strong prayer life focused on growing in humility and closeness to the Holy Spirit in order to evangelize.

“The confessor, in fact, is called daily to go to the peripheries of evil and sin,” the Pope said March 17, adding that “this is an ugly periphery,” but the priest is called to go “and his work represents an authentic pastoral priority.”

“To confess is a pastoral priority,” he said. “Please, may there not be those signs (that say): ‘confessions only Monday and Wednesday, from this time to this time.’”

“Confess each time they ask you,” he said, telling priests that if they are sitting in the confessional praying, “you are there with the confessional open, which is the open heart of God.”

Pope Francis spoke to participants in the Apostolic Penitentiary’s annual course on the internal forum.

The Internal Forum branch of the Apostolic Penitentiary is one of the three tribunals of the Roman Curia and is responsible for issues relating to the forgiveness of sins in the Catholic Church, particularly sins involving some types of grave matter which require a special form of absolution that only certain priests can administer.

Taking place March 14-17, the course is held every year in Rome and is designed to educate attendees on canon law regarding Confession, as well as what the internal forum does. It is attended by around 500 seminarians in their third year of studies and by priests who wish to participate.

In his speech, the Pope said that to be a good confessor, a priest must be a man of prayer, who is attentive to the Holy Spirit and knows how to discern well, and who also is a good evangelizer.

They must be “a true friend of Jesus the Good Shepherd,” he said, adding that without this friendship, “it will be very hard to mature that paternity which is so necessary in the ministry of Reconciliation.”

This friendship is cultivated primarily through prayer, he said, whether it's a personal prayer “constantly asking for the gift of pastoral charity,” or a special prayer for “ the exercise of the duty of confessors toward the faithful … who come to us looking for God’s mercy.”

A ministry of confession that is “wrapped in prayer” will be a “credible reflection of God’s mercy” and will help to avoid the “bitterness and misunderstandings” that can at times happen in the confessional.

Confessors must also pray for themselves, the Pope said, specifically to understand well that they themselves are sinners who have been forgiven.  

“One cannot forgive in the Sacrament without the knowledge of having been forgiven first,” he said, adding that prayer is “the first guarantee of avoiding every attitude of harshness, which uselessly judges the sinner and not the sin.”

Francis also stressed the need for priests to pray for the gift of “a wounded heart,” which is able to understand other wounds “and heal them with the oil of mercy,” like the Good Samaritan did to the man on the side of the road.

A priest must also pray for humility and invoke the Holy Spirit, who is the spirit “of discernment and compassion” that allows him to accompany others with prudence.

A confessor must also be “a man of the Spirit, a man of discernment,” who knows how to listen to the Holy Spirit in trying to discern the will of God.

“How much harm is done to the Church from the lack of discernment! How much harm comes to souls from an act that is not rooted in humble listening to the Holy Spirit and the will of God,” he said.

“The confessor does not act according to his own will and does not teach his own doctrine. He is called always to do the will of God alone, in full communion with the Church, of whom he is the minister, that is, a servant.”

Discernment, the Pope said, allows the priest to distinguish individual cases instead of generalizing and putting everyone together in the same category, which helps the penitent to open “the shrine of their own conscience” in order to receive light, peace and mercy.  

This discernment is necessary above all because many people who come to confession find themselves in “desperate situations.” They could also be “spiritually disturbed,” he said, explaining that these cases have to be discerned well, keeping all of “the existential, ecclesial, natural and supernatural” causes in mind.

“When the confessor becomes aware of the presence of genuine spiritual disturbances – that may be in large part psychological, and therefore must be confirmed by means of healthy collaboration with the human sciences – he must not hesitate to refer the issue to those who, in the diocese, are charged with this delicate and necessary ministry, namely, exorcists. But these must be chosen with great care and great prudence.”

Confession must also be a true place of evangelization, Pope Francis said, stressing that “there is no more authentic evangelization than the encounter with the God of mercy, with the God who is mercy.”

“The confessional is then a place of evangelization and therefore of formation,” he said, explaining that in the brief dialogue with the penitent, the confessor is called to discern “what is most useful and what is even necessary for the spiritual path of that brother or sister.”

At times this will mean re-explaining the most basic fundamentals of the faith, “the incandescent core, the kerygma,” without which the experience of God’s love and mercy would be “mute.” Other times it will mean explaining the basics of the moral life, “always in relation to the truth, to the good and to the will of the Lord.”

“It involves a work of ready and intelligent discernment, which can be of great benefit to the faithful,” the Pope said, urging the priests to be good confessors who are “immersed in relation with Christ,” and who are capable of careful discernment and attentive evangelization.

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