Pope Francis: The heart of repentance is God’s ‘infinite love,’ ‘boundless mercy’

Pope Francis addresses members of the Apostolic Penitentiary on March 8, 2024 Pope Francis addresses members of the Apostolic Penitentiary on March 8, 2024, in the Clementine Hall in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican. | Credit: Vatican Media

Pope Francis in an address on Friday morning stressed the importance of confession during the season of Lent, underscoring that the richness of the sacrament is seen in the Act of Contrition, a testament to God’s mercy and love.

“Repentance,” the pope said during his address to the members of the Apostolic Penitentiary’s course on the internal forum, “is neither the fruit of self-analysis, nor of a psychic sense of guilt, but arises entirely from an awareness of our wretchedness in the face of God’s infinite love, his boundless mercy.” 

The Apostolic Penitentiary is one of the three main tribunals of the Holy See and is responsible for dealing with the deeply sensitive matters related to the conscience of individual Catholics, called the “internal forum,” along with certain reserved cases under the seal of confession. 

The dicastery is also charged with the formation and staffing of confessors appointed in the papal basilicas. It has been described by Pope Francis as “the tribunal of Mercy.”

The pope centered his March 8 speech, held in the Clementine Hall in the Apostolic Palace, on the Act of Contrition, the prayer recited by each penitent during the sacrament of reconciliation. While its language may be “somewhat old-fashioned,” the pope said, he expressed that it is a “simple and rich prayer” built upon three main pillars: repentance, trust, and resolve. 

Francis explained that the first pillar, or attitude, of repentance is characterized by the words “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee.” It is the recognition of our “wretchedness in the face of God’s infinite love,” which creates an “experience that moves our soul to ask him for forgiveness, confident in his fatherliness.” 

The pope noted that this “sense of sin is proportional precisely to the perception of God’s infinite love. The more we feel his tenderness, the more we desire to be in full communion with him and the more the ugliness of evil in our life becomes apparent to us.”

The Holy Father said this awareness, which can be thought of as “repentance” or “contrition,” is the catalyst for self-reflection and conversion, with the Holy Father noting: “Let us remember that God never tires of forgiving us, and on our part, let us never tire of asking for forgiveness.” 

Building upon the centrality of God’s love in the sacrament, the pope observed that for priests “it is beautiful to hear, on the lips of a penitent, the acknowledgment of both God’s infinite goodness and his primacy, in one’s own life, of love for him.”

“To love ‘above all else,’” the pope continued, “means to place God at the center of everything, as the light on the path and the foundation for every order of values, entrusting everything to him. And this is a primacy that inspires every other love.” 

The pope united this reflection on God’s love and mercy with the third principle of resolve, which is a fundamental component that allows for attrition to transform into contrition. Reading from the Act of Contrition — “I firmly resolve with the help of Thy grace to sin no more” — the pope explained that these words express “an intention, not a promise.”

“None of us can promise to God to sin no more, and what is required to receive forgiveness is not a guarantee of impeccability but a current resolve, made with a righteous intention at the moment of confession,” the pope continued.

On Friday afternoon Pope Francis heard confessions at St. Pius V Parish in Rome, about two miles from the Vatican, a moment that opened the 11th edition of the Lenten initiative “24 hours for the Lord,” based on the theme “Walk in Newness of Life.”

This annual celebration, which the pope established in 2014, is promoted by the Dicastery for Evangelization and is held on the eve of the fourth Sunday in Lent, or Laetare Sunday. This year’s iteration is the second time the pope will preside over the event outside of the Vatican. In 2023, the pope visited the Roman parish of Santa Maria delle Grazie al Trionfale.

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