Confessor and penitents in the Year of Mercy



In his Feb. 9 address to the Missionaries of Mercy, Pope Francis urged: “Whatever sin may be confessed — or if a person dare not voice it, but makes it understood, it is sufficient — every missionary is called to remember his own existence as a sinner and to humbly act as a ‘channel’ of God’s mercy.”

Therefore, Pope Francis emphasized: “Be able to perceive the desire for forgiveness present in the heart of the penitent. This desire is the fruit of the grace of God’s action in people’s lives, which allows them to feel nostalgia for him, for his love and for his house. Let us not forget that this very desire is at the start of conversion. The heart turns to God acknowledging the evil committed, but with the hope of obtaining forgiveness. This desire is reinforced when we decide in our own hearts to change our lives and want to sin no more. It is the moment in which we entrust ourselves to the mercy of God, and have full trust in being understood, forgiven and supported by him. Let us give great space to this desire for God and for his forgiveness; let us help it to emerge as a true expression of the grace of the Spirit which impels the conversion of heart.”

Moreover, His Holiness asked the Missionaries of Mercy to “understand not only the language of words, but also that of gestures. Should someone come to you, feeling that he must unburden himself of something, but perhaps is unable to say it, but you understand … and that is all right, express it this way, with a welcoming gesture. That is the first condition.”

“The second is, that he is contrite. If a person comes to you it is because he does not want to fall into these situations, but dares not say it, is afraid to say it and then cannot. But if you do not make him do so, ad impossibilia nemo teneturr (“no one is bound to the impossible’). The Lord understands these things, the language of gestures. Arms wide open, in order to understand what is inside the heart that cannot be said, or is said in such a way … a bit shamefaced …. You understand. Receive everyone with the language by which you are able to communicate.”

The most fundamental gesture of person who wants to “unburden himself of something” and is “contrite” remains, therefore, simply to approach a confessor. On Feb. 9, Pope Francis insisted: “A Missionary of Mercy remembers to bear the sinner on his shoulders, and to console him or her with the strength of compassion.” The Holy Father commented: “Let us not forget” before us is not a sin, but a contrite sinner, a sinner who does not want to be like this but who cannot help it. A person who is anxious to be heard and forgiven. A sinner who promises to no longer want to be separated from the Father’s house and who, with the little strength he or she can muster, wants to do everything possible to live as a child of God: Bear “the burden of those who are weakest.”

Your sacramental confession is not an occasion for interrogation. In his Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, Pope Francis wrote: “May confessors (that is, the priests who hear confessions) not ask useless questions, but like the father in the parable, interrupt the speech prepared ahead of time by the prodigal son, so that confessors will learn to accept the plea for help and mercy pouring from the heart of every penitent. In short, confessors are called to be a sign of the primary of mercy always, everywhere, and in every situation, no matter what” (Misericordiae Vultus, no. 17).

Addressing the Missionaries of Mercy who the Holy Father sent out as “living signs of the Father’s readiness to welcome those in search of his pardon” (Misericordiae Vultus, no. 18), Pope Francis said: “You have heard, as have I, many people who say: ‘No, I never go (to confession), because I went once, and the priest lambasted me, he really scolded me, or I went and he asked me rather obscure questions, out of curiosity.’ Please, this is not the good shepherd, this is the judge who perhaps believes he has not sinned, or the poor sick man who questions out of curiosity. I like to tell confessors: If you do not feel you are a father, do not enter the confessional…. Because so much harm can be done … to a soul that is not welcomed with a father’s heart.”

Declaring this Year of Mercy, Pope Francis wrote: “I direct his invitation to conversion even more fervently to those whose behavior distances them from the grace of God” (Misericordiae Vultus, no. 19). So the Holy Father stressed: “To overcome” a “legalistic perspective, we need to recall that in Sacred Scripture, justice is conceived essentially as the faithful abandonment of oneself to God’s will”; but such an “appeal to a faithful observance of the law must not prevent attention from being given to matters that touch upon the dignity of the person” especially since we see that Jesus “goes beyond the law; the company keeps with those the law considers sinners makes us realize the depth of his mercy” (Misericordiae Vultus, no. 20). If we abandon ourselves to God’s will, no one’s sin is too great to preclude the sacrament of reconciliation: “In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God makes even more evident his love and its power to destroy all human sin” (Misericordiae Vultus, no. 22).

Hoping to “enable people to touch the grandeur of God’s mercy,” he noted: “many people, including the young, are returning to the sacrament of reconciliation; through this experience they are rediscovering a path back to the Lord, living a moment of intense prayer and finding meaning in their lives. … For ever penitent, it will be a source of true interior peace” (Misericordiae Vultus, no. 17).

Msgr. Joseph W. Pokusa is a senior priest at Holy Child Parish, Runnemede. Pope Francis appointed him a Missionary of Mercy on Feb. 10.