Pope Francis Meet With Confessors. Photo: Vatican Media

Pope Addresses Confessors and Future Confessors: Never Be a Psychiatrist or Psychoanalyst in the Confessional

Address to the participants in the Course on the Internal Forum organized by the Apostolic Penitentiary.

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(ZENIT News / Vatican City, 03.23.2023).- The 33rd Course on the Internal Forum was held in Rome from March 20-24; it was addressed especially to priests or those preparing to be priests. The Course reflected in depth on aspects of the Sacrament of Confession. In this context, on Thursday morning, March 23, Pope Francis received the participants in audience. 

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Thank you for coming to the annual Course on the Internal Forum, organized by the Apostolic Penitentiary, now in its 33rd edition. I thank Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, Major Penitentiary for his kind words and for what he does; I say the same to the Regent, Monsignor Nykiel, who works so much, to the Prelates, Functionaries and Personnel of the Penitentiary  — thank you all! — , the College of the Penitentiaries of the Pontifical Basilicas, and all of you who took part in the Course. 

For over three decades the Apostolic Penitentiary has offered this important and valid time of formation, to contribute to the preparation of good confessors, fully conscious of the importance of the ministry at the service of penitents. I renew my gratitude to the Penitentiary and encourage it to continue this commitment of formation, which does so much good to the Church, because it helps to make the sap of mercy circulate through her veins. If someone doesn’t want to be a giver of the mercy received from Jesus, he must not go to the confessional. In one of the Pontifical Basilicas, for example, I said to the Cardinal: “There is one who listens and reprimands, he reprimands and then gives a penance one can’t do.” Please, this doesn’t work; no. Mercy: you are there to forgive and to give a word so that the person can go forward, renewed by the forgiveness. You are there to forgive: put that in your heart.

The Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium states that the Church going forth “lives an inexhaustible desire to offer mercy, fruit of having experienced the infinite mercy of the Father and its power of diffusion.” (n. 24). Hence, an inseparable bond exists between the Church’s missionary vocation and the offering of mercy to all men. Living of mercy and offering it to all, the Church fulfils herself and fulfils her apostolic and missionary action. We could almost say that mercy is included in the characteristic “notes’ of the Church, in particular she makes holiness and apostolicity shine.

Since time immemorial the Church has expressed this “identity of mercy,” with diverse styles in different epochs, directed both to the body as well as the soul, desiring, with the Lord, the person’s integral salvation. And the work of divine mercy thus coincides with the very missionary action of the Church, with evangelization, because in it shines the face of God just as Jesus showed us.

Hence, it’s not possible, especially in this time of Lent, that care be neglected in the exercise of pastoral charity, which is expressed in a concrete and eminent way, in the full availability of priests, without any reservation, in the exercise of the ministry of reconciliation. 

The confessor’s availability is manifested in certain evangelical attitudes. 

First of all, in receiving all without prejudices, because God alone knows what grace can do in hearts, in any given moment; then, in listening to brethren with the ear of the heart, wounded as Christ’s heart; in absolving penitents, dispensing generously God’s forgiveness; in accompanying the penitential path, without forcing it, following the faithful’s rhythm, with patience and constant prayer. 

Let us think of Jesus, who before the adulterous woman chose silence, to save her from being condemned to death (cf. John 8:6); so also the priest in the confessional must love silence, be magnanimous of heart, knowing that each penitent calls him to his personal condition: to be sinner and minister of mercy. This is his truth; if someone doesn’t feel himself a sinner, he must not go to the confessional: sinner and minister of mercy go together. This awareness will make it so that confessionals are not abandoned and the priests not lacking in availability. The Church’s evangelizing mission passes in great part through the rediscovery of the gift of Confession, also in view of the coming Jubilee of 2025. 

I am thinking of the pastoral plans of the particular Churches, in which the service of sacramental Reconciliation must never lack a place of its own. I am thinking, in particular, of the penitentiary of every Cathedral, of the penitentiaries of Shrines; I am thinking , especially, in the regular presence of a confessor, with sufficient time, in every pastoral realm, as well as in the churches cared for by Communities of Religious, so that there is always a penitentiary on guard — always. Never empty confessionals! However, it will be said, “the people don’t come!” Read something, pray, wait , and someone will come. 

If mercy is the mission of the Church, and it is the mission of the Church, we must facilitate the greatest access of the faithful to this “encounter of love,” taking care of it from children’s First Confession and extending this attention to places of care and suffering. When there can be no longer a cure of the body, one can and must do much for the health of the soul! In this connection, individual Confession is the privileged path to follow, because it fosters a personal encounter with the Divine Marcy, which every repentant heart awaits. Every repentant heart awaits mercy. In individual confession, God want to caress personally with His mercy every sinner. The Shepherd alone, knows and loves the sheep one by one, especially the weakest and most wounded. And community celebrations should be promoted on specific occasions, without giving up individual Confession as the ordinary way to celebrate the Sacrament. 

In the world, unfortunately, we see every day foci of hatred and revenge. We, confessors, must multiply  the “foci of mercy.” Let’s not forget that we are in a supernatural battle, a battle that seems particularly virulent in our time, although we already know that final result of Christ’s victory over the powers of evil. 

The fight, however, continues there and victory truly comes about every time a penitent is absolved. Nothing drives away and overcomes evil more than divine mercy. And I would like to say something to you about this: Jesus taught us that we must never converse with the devil — never! To the temptation in the desert He responded with the Word of God, but did not engage in dialogue. Be careful in the confessional: never dialogue with “evil,” never. You offer what is right for forgiveness and you open some doors to help to go forward, but never try to be a psychiatrist or a psychoanalyst. Please, don’t get involved with these things! If one of you has that vocation, he must exercise it elsewhere, but not in the tribunal of penance. It’s a dialogue that it’s not appropriate to have in the moment of mercy. There, one must only think of forgiveness and how to “be conformed ” with forgiveness. “Do you repent?  — “No.” “But doesn’t it weigh on you?” — “No” — “But would you like, at least, to be repentant?” — “Hopefully.”

There is a door, there is always a door to enter with forgiveness. And when one can’t enter by the door, one enters through the window, but one must always try to enter with forgiveness. With magnanimous forgiveness; “it must be the last time, the next time I won’t forgive you.” No, not like that. Today it’s my turn. At 3 o’clock the confessor comes! And something else: think that God forgives in abundance. I said it last year, but I want to repeat it. A few years ago there was a show about the Prodigal Son, set in the current culture, where the young man talks about his adventures and how he left home. And at the end he talks with a friend, to whom he says he must feel nostalgia for his father, and that he wants to go back home. And the friend advises him to write to his father, asking him if he wants to receive him again and, in the affirmative case, asks him to put a white scarf in a window of the house: that will be the sign that he will be received. The show goes on and, when the young man approaches the house, he sees it full of white scarves. This is the message: abundance. God says to us: “Only this . . . ; He says: “All!” Is God naïve? I don’ know if He is naïve, but He is abundant, He always forgives more, always! I have known good confessors and the good confessor is able to arrive. 

Dear brothers, I know that tomorrow, at the end of the Course, you will have a penitential celebration. This is good and significant: receive and celebrate personally the gift we are called to give to our brothers: to experience the tenderness of God’s merciful love.  He never tires of showing us His merciful Heart, He never tires of forgiving. We are the ones who get tired of asking for forgiveness, but He never tires. 

I accompany you in prayer and I thank the Penitentiary for the work it does tirelessly for the Sacrament of Forgiveness. And I invite you to rediscover, to deepen theologically and to spread pastorally  — also in view of the Jubilee — that natural extension of mercy which are the Indulgences, according to the Will of our heavenly Father of having us always and only with Him, both in this life as well as in eternal life.

Thank you for your daily commitment and for the rivers of mercy that, as humble channels, you shed and will shed in the world, to put out the fires of evil and light the fire of the Holy Spirit. I bless you all from my heart. And I ask you, please, to pray for me. Thank you.


Translation of the Italian original into Spanish by ZENIT’s Editorial Director and, into English, by Virginia M. Forrester

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