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."
(Story continues below)
Subscribe to our daily newsletter
At Catholic News Agency, our team is committed to reporting the truth with courage, integrity, and fidelity to our faith. We provide news about the Church and the world, as seen through the teachings of the Catholic Church. When you subscribe to the CNA UPDATE, we'll send you a daily email with links to the news you need and, occasionally, breaking news.
As part of this free service you may receive occasional offers from us at EWTN News and EWTN. We won't rent or sell your information, and you can unsubscribe at any time.
"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.
Elise Harris was senior Rome correspondent for CNA from 2012 to 2018.