A few days ago, on February 5th, a unique event occurred at St. Peter’s Basilica. As part of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, the relics of St. Padre Pio and St. Leopold Mandic were processed into the Basilica where they will remain for several days to be visited by pilgrims. The presence of these two saints, both of whom are famous for their devotion to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is meant to be a powerful reminder of the incredible gift God offers us in this Sacrament. Padre Pio would often spend 10 - 15 hours a day hearing confessions. In this way, Pope Francis explained, Padre Pio spread “the perfume of the forgiveness of the Lord” and became “a caress of the living Father, who heals the wounds of sin and refreshes the heart with peace”.
For many, however, going to confession can be a difficult experience. In his recently released book length interview called “The Name of God is Mercy”, Pope Francis provides some encouragement. He explains how the eastern form of the Sacrament of Reconciliation strikes him. In this, the confessor welcomes the penitent by putting his stole over the penitent’s head and an arm around his shoulder, as if embracing the penitent. Pope Francis says that this “is a physical representation of acceptance and mercy”. Rather than feeling afraid of judgment when we approach the confessional, we should imagine our heavenly Father embracing us in the same way.
Pope Francis acknowledges that many wonder why they simply cannot ask God for forgiveness directly. Why is it necessary to confess our sins to a priest? I found his answer helpful. Pope Francis explained that “if you are not capable of talking to your brother about your mistakes, you can be sure that you can’t talk about them with God either, and therefore you end up confessing into a mirror, to yourself. We are social beings and forgiveness has a social implication; my sin wounds mankind, my brothers and sisters, society as a whole. Confessing to a priest is a way of putting my life into the hands and heart of someone else, someone who in that moment acts in the name of Jesus.”
Towards the end of the book, the interviewer asks Pope Francis the following question: “What are the most important things that a believer should do during the Holy Year of Mercy?” The Pope’s response was to the point. The believer should “open up to the mercy of God, open up his heart and himself, and allow Jesus to come toward him by approaching the confessional with Faith. And he should try to be merciful with other.” As we begin Lent, let us follow the Pope’s advice.