With Pope Francis, We ‘Go to Confession’

During his first year as successor of St. Peter, what sacrament has Pope Francis spoken of most often? Go ahead, take a guess.


It is clear that the Holy Father has a particularly strong reliance upon the sacrament of penance.

When a journalist asked how he thought he was doing as pontiff, he replied, “Oh, that’s something I talk to my confessor about every two weeks.”

So, the Pope approaches the sacrament of reconciliation every other week. How often do you go?

A recent respected study reports that only 15\% of Catholics in the United States approach confession once a year or more.

A good friend of mine is pastor of a prominent parish in another large American city. After a very successful first year there, he announced at Sunday Mass, “I’ve asked the archbishop to move me to another parish where they need me. I’ve been here with you for a year. Saturday after Saturday I sit in the confessional, but nobody comes. You’re apparently all saints. You hardly need me. I better go to a place where there are sinners!”

Pope Francis caught our attention again last week. In his diocese— Rome—he asked that every parish have the sacrament of penance available last Friday for twenty-four straight hours. He himself went to hear confessions in St. Peter’s Basilica. As he was walking to his spot to listen to confessions, he broke away and went over to another priest, knelt down, and went to confession himself! There we have the snapshot: the Pope himself kneeling as a penitent for all the world to see!

Remember the interview when the journalist asked him, “Who really are you? Who is Pope Francis?” He replied, “I am a sinner.”

So he speaks so often of God’s tender mercy. For him, it is not some nebulous, impersonal force. No. For him, like for every Catholic, God’s mercy is evident in a very personal, precise moment: when we actually articulate our sins and hear that we are forgiven in the sacrament of reconciliation.

But, come on! Can’t I just quietly, in my own heart, tell God I’m sorry and know that I’m forgiven?

Sure, and so we should do that, daily, actually. Like a lot of you, I “examine my conscience” each night before bed, and then make an act of contrition for the sins I am aware of.

However, every once-in-a-while—apparently every other week for Pope Francis; certainly sometime during Lent, at least, for all of us—especially when we’re aware of serious sin, we need that precise, personal, practical moment where we actually, verbally admit our sin, and audibly be assured of God’s forgiveness. That’s a sacrament.

Can’t we just privately dedicate our new baby to the Lord? Sure, and I hope you parents do. But, you still want your child baptized. You want and need the sacrament!

Can’t we just let God know that we want to be personally united to Him? Sure, and we should every day. But we still crave Holy Communion at Mass on Sunday.

Because we love and need the sacraments. And the two we can, and should, receive most often are the Eucharist and Penance.

The world, rightly, is captivated by the Holy Father’s call for change, for reform, for renewal. But, listen carefully: he’s not hung up on change in externals, in structures. Sure, he’s talking about a reform of the Curia, of Vatican finances, of some practices. But what he’s really exhorting us to is a conversion of heart.

We must allow God’s grace to change us, inside, not just change stuff out there, in other people, in structures.

And the powerful sacrament of a change of heart is penance.

With King David, we confess, “Have mercy on me Lord, for I have sinned.”

With the publican in the back of the temple, we whisper, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

With the blind beggar we shout, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”

With the prodigal son, we come to our senses, and come home confessing, “Father, I have sinned against you! I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

With Pope Francis, we “go to confession.”

“Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever!”