Here is a ZENIT translation of the address Pope Francis gave today when he received in audience participants in the 28th annual course on the “Internal Forum,” organized by the Apostolic Penitentiary (Rome, Chancellery Palace, March 14-17, 2017):
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Dear brothers, I am happy to meet with you in this first audience with you after the Jubilee of Mercy, on the occasion of the annual Course on the Internal Forum. A warm greeting goes to the Cardinal Major Penitentiary, and I thank him for his courteous expressions. I greet the Regent, the Prelates, the Officials and the Personnel of the Penitentiary, the Colleagues of the ordinary and extraordinary Penitentiaries of the Papal Basilicas in the City , and all of you participants in this Course.
In reality, I confess to you, the Penitentiary is the type of Tribunal that I truly like! Because it is a “tribunal of mercy,” to which one turns to obtain that indispensable medicine for our soul that is Divine Mercy!
Your course on the Internal Forum, which contributes to the formation of good confessors, is all the more useful and I would say even necessary to our days. One certainly does not become a good confessor thanks to a course, no: that of the confessional is a “long school,: which lasts one’s whole life. But, who is the “good confessor”? How does one become a good confessor?
I would like to point out three aspects in this respect.
- A “good confessor” is, first of all, a true friend of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Without this friendship, it will be very difficult to mature that paternity, which is so necessary in the ministry of Reconciliation. To be friends of Jesus means first of all to cultivate prayer. Be it personal prayer with the Lord, asking incessantly for the gift of pastoral charity; be it a specific prayer for the exercise of the confessor’s task and for the faithful, brothers and sisters who approach us in search of God’s mercy.
A ministry of Reconciliation “made up of prayer” will be a credible reflection of God’s mercy and will avoid the harshness and misunderstandings that, sometimes, can also be generated in the sacramental encounter. A confessor who prays knows well that he himself is the first sinner and the first forgiven one. One cannot forgive in the Sacrament without the awareness of having been forgiven first. And, therefore, prayer is the first guarantee to avoid every attitude of harshness, which uselessly judges the sinner and not the sin.
It is necessary to implore in prayer for the gift of a wounded heart, capable of understanding others’ wounds and of healing them with the oil of mercy, what the Good Samaritan poured on the wounds of that victim, for whom no one had mercy (cf. Luke 10:34).
We must ask in prayer for the precious gift of humility, so that it always appears clearly that forgiveness is a free and supernatural gift of God, of which we are simple, though necessary, administrators, by the will of Christ Himself. And He certainly will be pleased if we make extended use of His mercy.
In prayer, then, we always invoke the Holy Spirit, who is Spirit of discernment and compassion. The Spirit enables us to identify ourselves with the sufferings of sisters and brothers who approach the Confessional and to accompany them with prudent and mature discernment and with true compassion for their sufferings, caused by the poverty of sin.
- In the second place, the good confessor is a man of the Spirit, a man of discernment. How much harm comes to the Church by the lack of discernment! How much harm comes to souls from action that does not sink its roots in humble listening to the Holy Spirit and to the will of God. The confessor does not do his own will and he does not teach his own doctrine. He is called to do always and only the will of God, in full communion with the Church, of which he is minister, that is, servant.
Discernment enables one to distinguish always, to not confuse, and to never “paint everyone with the same brush.” Discernment educates the sight and the heart, making possible that delicacy of spirit which is so necessary before one who opens the sanctuary of his conscience to receive light, peace and mercy.
Discernment is also necessary because, one who approaches the Confessional, can come from the most disparate situations; he can also have spiritual disturbances, whose nature must be subjected to careful discernment, taking into account all the existential, ecclesial, natural and supernatural circumstances. When a confessor is aware of the presence of true and proper spiritual disturbances – which can also be to a great extent psychic, and this must be verified through a healthy collaboration with the human sciences –, he must not hesitate to refer it to those that, in the diocese, are in charge of this delicate and necessary ministry, that is to say, the exorcists. However, these must be chosen with great care and great prudence.
- Finally, the Confessional is also a true and proper place of evangelization. In fact, there is no more genuine evangelization than in the encounter with the God of mercy, with the God who is Mercy. To encounter mercy means to encounter the true face of God, as the Lord Jesus has revealed it.
Hence, the Confessional is place of evangelization and, therefore, of formation. In the but brief dialogue that he weaves with the penitent, the confessor is called to discern what is most useful and what, in fact, is necessary for the spiritual journey of that brother or that sister; sometimes it will be necessary to proclaim again the most elementary truths of the faith, the burning nucleus, the Kerigma, without which the experience itself of the love of God and of His mercy would remain as mute; sometimes it will mean pointing out the fundamentals of the moral life, always in relation to the truth, the good and the will of the Lord. It is about an endeavor of quick and intelligent discernment, which can do much good to the faithful.
In fact, the confessor is called daily to go to the “peripheries of evil and of sin” – this is an awful periphery! And his work represents a genuine pastoral priority. To hear confessions is a pastoral priority. Please, let there not be those notices: “Confessions are heard only on Mondays and Wednesdays from this hour to that hour.” You hear confessions every time they are requested. And if you are there [in the Confessional] praying, keep the Confessional open, which is God’s open heart.
Dear brothers, I bless you and wish you to be good confessors, immersed in your relation with Christ, capable of discernment in the Holy Spirit and ready to take up an occasion to evangelize. Pray always for the brothers and sisters that approach the Sacrament of forgiveness. And, please, pray also for me.
And I do not want to finish without mentioning something that came to mind when the Cardinal Prefect spoke. He spoke of the keys and of Our Lady, and I liked it, and I will say something . . .two things. It did me so much good when, as a youth I read the book of Saint Alphonsus Maria de’Liguori on Our Lady: “The Glories of Mary.” At the end of every chapter there was always a miracle of Our Lady, with which she entered in the midst of life and settled things. And the second thing: there is a legend about Our Lady, a tradition I was told that exists in the South of Italy: Our Lady of the mandarins. It is a land where there are so many mandarins, no? And they say that she is the Patroness of thieves. [He laughs, they laugh] They say that thieves go to pray there. And the legend, so they say, is that when the thieves die that pray to Our Lady of the mandarins, there is the queue in front of Peter who has the keys, and he opens and lets one pass, then he opens and lets another pass and, when Our Lady sees one of these, she makes a sign to him to hide himself and then, when they have all passed, Peter closes <the doors> and night comes, and from the window Our Lady calls him and has him come in by the window. It’s a popular story, but so lovely: to forgive with the Mother beside one; to forgive with the Mother. Because this woman, this man who comes to the Confessional, has a Mother in Heaven who will open the door and help him/her at the moment of entering Heaven — always Our Lady, because Our Lady also helps us in the exercise of mercy. I thank the Cardinal for these two signs: the keys and Our Lady, Thank you so much.
I invite you – it’s the time – to pray the Angelus together: Angelus Domini . . .[Blessing]
Don’t say that thieves go to Heaven! Don’t say this [He laughs, they laugh]
[Original text: Italian] [Translation by Virginia M. Forrester]