Get thee to a confessional: Pope goes and wants you to as well

IMAGE: CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano v

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Go to confession. Soon.

For Pope Francis, the Year of Mercy is all about sharing the
experience of God’s mercy with others. But first, he wants people to
experience it themselves, in the confessional.

Lent is the perfect time for that kind of spring cleaning
and at the Vatican, in Rome and in many dioceses around the world, Catholic
churches were to have extended hours for confessions March 4-5 in a project
called “24 Hours for the Lord.” Afterward, for those who did not
make it to a local church, there were still three weeks left before Easter.

The pope has said he goes to confession every two weeks, and
he has done so very publicly, most noticeably in 2014 during a Lenten penance
service in St. Peter’s Basilica. He also went Feb. 11, on the eve of his trip
to Cuba and Mexico, when he stopped by the Basilica of St. John Lateran where
the priests of the Diocese of Rome were holding their Lenten meeting. Pope
Francis heard the confessions of several priests, then went to confession.

At St. John Lateran, as in almost every speech he has given
to priests in the three years since his election March 13, 2013, Pope Francis
gave the priests advice, exhortations and pleas that they dedicate time to
hearing confessions and that they do so with warmth, care and a father’s love.
He wants them to acknowledge the reality of the penitent’s sin, but pay even
more attention to the penitent’s desire for forgiveness and a fresh start.

He spends less time telling Catholics to get to a
confessional than he does telling priests they have a serious obligation to
ensure the experience is not so horrible that the faithful never come back. A
lot of that probably has to do with the fact that a turning point in his own
life — and the beginning of his discernment about becoming a priest — began
with an unplanned confession on the way to a school picnic when he was 17. He said
he felt that the priest, whom he’d never seen before, was waiting there to show
him God’s mercy.

Rather than trying to convince people that they are sinners who
need to go to confession, Pope Francis tries to take seriously the reasons
people say they do not go and gives them another point of view.

“Some say, ‘I confess only to God.’ Yes, you can say,
‘God forgive me,’ but our sins are also against our brothers and sisters, against
the church,” he said at a general audience in February 2014. “This is
why it is necessary to ask forgiveness from our brothers and sisters and from
the church in the person of the priest.”

Embarrassment or shame is another reason people stay away
from the confessional, which the pope sees as a normal feeling, but one that
should be overcome. “Sometimes when you’re in line for confession, you
feel all sorts of things, especially shame, but when your confession is over,
you’ll leave free, great, beautiful, forgiven, clean, happy — this is what’s
beautiful about confession,” he said.

In the recent book-length interview, “The Name of God Is Mercy,” Pope Francis also spoke about confession as an important means
of helping people be truly honest before God. “It’s a way to be real and
authentic,” he said. “We face the facts by looking at another person
and not in the mirror.”

The pope repeatedly has told priests that in the
confessional they should ask only questions that help penitents recognize their
sins rather than conducting “a heavy, finicky and invasive

But that does not mean penitents should approach the
sacrament without doing their own examination of conscience and even a detailed

In “The Name of God Is Mercy,” the pope was asked
how one should prepare for confession. His answer: “He ought to reflect on
the truth of his life, of what he feels and what he thinks before God. He ought
to be able to look earnestly at himself and his sin. He ought to feel like a
sinner, so that he can be amazed by God.”

As he said in December 2014, “Go to confession to clean
up a bit. This is good for you.”

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Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden.

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