Hearing the pope’s confession: Vatican confessor reflects on sacrament

Pope Francis receives sacrament of reconciliation Pope Francis confesses in St. Peter's Basilica. | Credit: L’Osservatore Romano

A 91-year-old Franciscan has spoken about his time as confessor to Pope Francis and stressed the enduring and essential role of the sacrament of reconciliation.

Brother Otmar Egloff served for several years as chief confessor at the Lateran — the storied cathedral of the bishop of Rome — according to CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner.

He described being asked to move from his native Switzerland to serve at the basilica in 2004, toward the end of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate. “It was probably my talent for languages that was decisive, as I speak Italian, German, and French,” the priest said in an interview published Dec 7 by Swiss portal kath.ch. 

The friar recalled being told: “Tomorrow the pope is coming for confession!” — but that the experience was not so different from hearing confessions from other Catholics.  

“The only difference was that my confessional was cleaned very thoroughly beforehand,” the Franciscan said.

“When you come to the confessional in the morning and see a whole team cleaning and scrubbing your confessional, that’s really something else. I used to go and dust it myself with a cloth.”

“It was also special that Pope Francis confessed kneeling in public and used my confessional afterwards to hear confessions from other priests,” Egloff said.

Ninety-one-year-old veteran Vatican confessor Brother Otmar Egloff. Credit: Franciscan.ch
Ninety-one-year-old veteran Vatican confessor Brother Otmar Egloff. Credit: Franciscan.ch

Upholding both the sacred seal of confession and his sense of humor, when asked by the Swiss interviewer what penance Pope Francis would receive from him today, the Franciscan answered with a laugh: “Today, I would give the pope a different penance. A penance of the tongue. His tongue is sometimes too quick.”

Asked by the Swiss journalist where priests live when appointed a confessor at the Lateran, Brother Otmar replied: “Above the roof of the church are the apartments of the eight Franciscan friars who sit in the eight confessionals during the day.” 

Egloff added that Franciscans from all over the world had always been assigned to this service in the Lateran: “That has always been the case and will remain so,” he said.

Celibacy and vocation

From his long experience as a confessor, Egloff stressed that the sacrament “remains important.”

Noting “a decline of the practice in German-speaking countries,” the Swiss religious added: “This is a human need and gives you the chance of a real new beginning. Your conscience shows you what was wrong. God forgives.”

Pope Francis, who has encouraged Catholics to go to confession, recently reiterated his call to German Catholics to remember “the importance of prayer, penance, and adoration.”

In his interview, Egloff also said that celibacy and abuse have nothing to do with each other: “It’s more because unsuitable candidates were accepted due to a shortage of priests. Pedophilia is a serious disorder and an atrocity.”

Asked whether you can already know in your mid-20s whether you can spend your whole life celibate, the Franciscan said: “You do know. You know whether you’ve had relationships, whether you long for a partnership or not. You have to deal with these issues. That was probably not discussed enough [in the past]. For me, it was always important to help the respective priests and candidates to the priesthood — and, if necessary, to advise them against it.”

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