Here is the translation of Pope Francis’ address to members of the Apostolic Penitentiary who are meeting for the annual Course on the Internal Forum.
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I welcome you on the occasion of the annual Course on the internal Forum. I thank Cardinal Mauro Piacenza for the words with which he introduced our meeting.
For a quarter of a century the Apostolic Penitentiary has offered , especially to new priests and deacons, the opportunity of this course, to contribute to the formation of good confessors, aware of the importance of this ministry. I thank you for such a precious service and I encourage you to carry it forward with renewed commitment, making a treasure of the experience acquired and with wise creativity, to help the Church and confessors ever better to carry out the ministry of mercy, which is so important!
In this connection, I wish to offer you some reflections.
First of all, the protagonist of the ministry of Reconciliation is the Holy Spirit. The forgiveness that the Sacrament confers is the new life transmitted by the Risen Lord through his Spirit: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:22-23). Therefore, you are called to be always “men of the Holy Spirit,” witnesses and heralds, happy and strong, of the Lord’s Resurrection. This witness is read on the face, it is heard in the voice of the priest who administers with faith and with “unction” the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He receives the penitents not with the attitude of judge and even less so with that of a simple friend, but with the charity of God, with the love of a father who sees his son return and goes out to meet him, of the shepherd who has found the lost sheep. The priest’s heart is a heart that is able to be moved, not out of sentimentalism or mere emotiveness, but by the Lord’s “bowels of mercy!” If it is true that the tradition indicates to us the twofold role of doctor and judger for confessors, we must never forget that like a doctor he is called to heal and like judge to absolve.
Second aspect: if Reconciliation transmits the new life of the Risen One and renews baptismal grace, then your task is to give it generously to brothers — to give this grace. A priest who does not take care of this part of his ministry, be it in the quantity of time dedicated be it in the spiritual quality, is like a shepherd who does not take care of the sheep that are lost; he is like a father who forgets his lost son and neglects to help him. But mercy is the heart of the Gospel! Do not forget this: mercy is the heart of the Gospel! It is the Good News that God loves us, that He always loves sinful man, and with this love He attracts him to Himself and invites him to conversion. Let us not forget that for the faithful it is often an effort to approach the Sacrament, be it for practical reasons, be it because of the natural difficulty to confess to another man their sins. For this reason, it is necessary to work much on ourselves, on our humanity, so that we are never an obstacle but always foster the approach to mercy and forgiveness. However, it often happens that a person comes and says: “I haven’t been to confession for many years, I have had this problem, I left going to Confession because I met a priest and he said this to me,” and we see the imprudence, the lack of pastoral love, in what the person says. And they go away, because of a bad experience in their Confession. If there is a father’s attitude, which comes from God’s goodness, this will never happen.
And it is necessary to guard against two opposite extremes: rigor and laxity. Neither one is good because in reality they do not take charge of the person of the penitent. Instead mercy listens truly with the heart of God, and wishes to support the soul on the path of reconciliation. Confession is not a court of condemnation, but the experience of forgiveness and mercy!
Finally, we all know the difficulty that Confession often finds. There are so many reasons, be they historical or spiritual. However, we know that the Lord wished to make this immense gift to the Church, offering the baptized the certainty of the Father’s forgiveness. It is this: it is the certainty of the Father’s forgiveness. Therefore, it is very important that, in all the dioceses and in the parish communities, the celebration of this Sacrament of forgiveness and salvation is particularly taken care of. It is good that in every parish the faithful know when they can find available priests: when there is fidelity, the fruits are seen. This is true in a particular way for the churches entrusted to Religious Communities, which can assure the constant presence of confessors.
We entrust to the Virgin, Mother of Mercy, the ministry of priests and all Christian communities, so that they understand increasingly the value of the Sacrament of Penance. I entrust all of you to our Mother and bless you from my heart.[Original text: Italian] [Translation by ZENIT]