During the pontificate of the warrior Pope Julius II, in 1510, Martin Luther visited Rome. On entering the city, he dropped to his knees, exclaiming “Salve, Sancta Roma!” He was in awe of this great city. Here Peter and Paul had walked. Here both apostles preached the Gospel. Here the Prince of the Apostles and the Apostle to the Gentiles both died for the faith. Luther went to Rome with pious thoughts of martyrs and saints. He left the city disappointed. The young monk from Erfurt had found a city steeped in sin and corruption.
Luther’s stay in Rome left him with little good to praise about the Eternal City. He is reported to have said, “If there be a hell, Rome is built over it.” Nothing escaped his stinging criticism. Only one place was spared: the Hospital of the Holy Spirit. Both pilgrims and Romans held this hospital and its adjacent Church of the Holy Spirit in high esteem.
Today, the Church of the Holy Spirit stands across the street from the world headquarters of the Jesuit order. It is one block south of the Via della Conciliazione and one block east of St. Peter’s Square. As early as the 8th century, a church had stood on this site. It bore the name Santa Maria in Sassia, because many pilgrims going there came from Saxony (Sassia). These pilgrims from Northern Europe were welcomed and given both spiritual and material assistance. In the 12th century, Pope Innocent III ordered the very first hospital in Europe dedicated to the Holy Spirit to be built on this site. Thus, today’s Church of the Holy Spirit stands on a spot made sacred by a long history of bringing mercy to those in bodily or spiritual need.
Pope Francis has taken a cue from the history and location of the Church of the Holy Spirit in Sassia. On Dec. 15, 2013, when he announced his program for pastoral reform, he made a surprising request of the senior members of the Roman Curia. He asked them to take turns hearing confessions in this church located just a few blocks away from their offices.
The media and the masses have instinctively taken to the way that our Holy Father expresses in visible actions the heart of the Gospel. Images of the pope’s reaching out to the marginalized, the poor and the disabled have warmed the hearts of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. While the media delights in headlining his request of the curia members to hear confessions, the same media gives no attention to the Holy Father’s words about the inherent value of individual confession.
When it comes to the mercy of God available to us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Pope Francis speaks with great clarity. The Holy Father’s enthusiastic advocacy for individual confession comes from his own personal understanding of it, both as penitent and as priest. Again and again, (that is, on April 30, 2013; June 14, 2013; Sept. 30, 2013; Oct. 25, 2013; Nov. 20, 2013; Dec. 15, 2013; and Feb. 19, 2014), the pope has returned to the theme of individual confession.
In the first few months of his pontificate, I dare say, he has spoken about confession more frequently than any other pope in the same time span. Beneath the catching headlines of his daily reflections and talks, Pope Francis has dished up a healthy portion of sound teaching about the need for confession. As we enter Lent, I wish to offer a brief overview of the solid and needed encouragement that he has given to all of us.
In his famous interview with the Italian Jesuit magazine Civilta Cattolica, Pope Francis, in characteristically pointed style, said, “I see the Church as a field hospital after a battle.” A hospital for the wounded. This is the key to understanding the pope’s teaching on confession. It is precisely in the Sacrament of Reconciliation that Christ “heals wounds and warms the hearts of the faithful.” All of us are sinners. We are wounded and we need to bring our wounds to Christ for healing. The pope has said that we may “think that going to confession is like going to the dry cleaners to get out a stain, but it isn’t. It’s an encounter with Jesus who waits for us to forgive us and offer salvation.”
Today, in our age of individualism and subjectivism, many people, even faithful Catholics, think that confession is not necessary. At his weekly general audience on Nov. 20, 2013, Pope Francis confronted this misconception head on. He said, “Certainly, God forgives every repentant sinner, but the Christian is bound to Christ and Christ is united to his Church. God, in his sovereign mercy, forgives everyone, but he wants those who belong to Christ and his Church to receive forgiveness through the community's ministers. Through the presence and words of a priest, penitents have the certainty of forgiveness in the name of the Church.”
The forgiveness of sins in the Sacrament of Penance is the fruit of the Paschal Mystery. On Easter Sunday night, the Risen Lord appeared to the disciples. They were locked in the Upper Room. He said to them “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Then, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained’” (Jn 20:21-23). Thus, Jesus ordained that sins were to be forgiven through the ministry of the Church.
When we sin, we sin against God and one another. Every sin is not just a “me-and-God” affair. Our sins hurt one another. They soil the holiness of the Church, the Bride of Christ. In Confession, the priest represents the whole Church and all those against whom we have sinned. This is why it is necessary to confess our sins before him.
Very beautifully, the Holy Father reminds us that “forgiveness of our sins is not something we can give ourselves. I cannot say: I forgive my sins. Forgiveness is asked for, is asked of another, and in Confession we ask for forgiveness from Jesus. Forgiveness is not the fruit of our own efforts but rather a gift; it is a gift of the Holy Spirit who fills us with the wellspring of mercy and of grace that flows unceasingly from the open heart of the Crucified and Risen Christ.”
To place ourselves humbly and honestly before a priest, to lay bare our soul, is not easy. Many people feel embarrassed at the idea of confessing their sins. Once again, with frank and direct speech, Pope Francis acknowledges this. “Even embarrassment is good,” he says. “It's healthy to have a bit of shame... it does us good, because it makes us more humble… The Sacrament of Reconciliation is a sacrament of healing…To go to Confession…is to encounter the love of Jesus with sincerity of heart and with the transparency of children, not refusing, but even welcoming the ‘grace of shame’ that makes us perceive God’s forgiveness.”
The pope urges us, “Don't be afraid of confession.” What better time than Lent to make a good confession! A general confession of our sinfulness in a communal setting may make us feel good. But, it is naming specific sins that we have committed, asking for forgiveness and receiving the absolution from the priest that leads to true repentance and conversion. So important is the confessing of sins to the priest, that Pope John Paul II taught that “Individual and integral confession and absolution are the sole ordinary means by which the faithful, conscious of grave sin, are reconciled with God and the Church” (Misercordia Dei, April 7, 2002).
In light of the pope’s teaching, it is good to recall what makes for a good individual confession and what does not. The penitent confesses all mortal sins in so far as they can be recalled, not just one or two. If there are no mortal sins to confess, it is not enough simply to express one’s sinfulness in a general way. The penitent must confess specific sins.
The penitent approaches the priest in private and alone. Never is it permitted for a family or group of individuals to approach a priest and together make a general statement of sinfulness. This does not constitute the sacrament. In fact, it robs the individual of the gift that the Church is so eager to offer: the gift of personal encounter with our merciful Lord and the grace of true repentance and conversion.
“Concreteness and honesty and a sincere ability to be ashamed of one’s mistakes,” Pope Francis reminds us, are essential for making a good confession. “There are no shadowy lanes that can serve as an alternative to the open road that leads to God’s forgiveness, to the awareness, in the depths of the heart, of His forgiveness and His love.”
Pope Francis wisely offers us the Church’s rich understanding of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He reminds us, “Confession of sins, done with humility, is something the Church requires of all of us.” The Holy Father does not want us to be the elder son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, standing on the doorstep of the Father’s house, unable to participate fully in his banquet of love. He wants each of us to know the warm embrace of our all-loving God.
Posted with permission from The Beacon, official publication of the Diocese of Paterson, N.J.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.