For this Friday, Pope Francis invites to a penitential celebration in St. Peter's Basilica. He himself also wants to hear the confessions of the faithful – true to his motto that the confessional is neither a "torture chamber" nor a "laundromat".
A just-published book on the cardinals appointed by Pope Francis recounts an episode with Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin. The arranged with the interviewer early in the morning in St. Peter's Basilica. Already during the interview, the cardinal repeatedly looks to a confessional, where he often goes to confession at this time of day.
Finally, when a light there at the end of the interview indicates that a confessor is ready, Parolin goes over, kneels down – and is taken aback. Instead of the Franciscan who usually sits there, he hears the voice of the Pope. "Holy Father, what a surprise! Why are you here?", Parolin asks, somewhat sheepishly. "Nothing special, Eminence," Francis replies, "but every now and then it does you good to feel like a simple priest."
Pope in the confessional
This Friday afternoon, Francis will again sit in a confessional in St. Peter's Basilica. During a penitential celebration, the pope will hear individual confessions and grant absolution to some of the faithful. The devotion is part of a 24-hour "prayer marathon" launched by the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization and first held in 2014.
Before Francis puts on the stole and sits in the confessional, he usually confesses himself. Already John Paul II. The pope has his obligations, and this is one of them." In the process, he also had himself photographed as a confessor as well as a confessor. The example should set a precedent.
In one of his first interviews, Pope Francis responded to the question of who he was, "I am a sinner."Terms such as guilt, repentance, forgiveness and mercy appear in many of his speeches.
Again and again he promotes confession: "Yes, Lent is a time of penance, but not a sad one," he said at the Angelus prayer on the first Sunday of Lent, speaking of the "joyful and serious task of purifying ourselves of our selfishness".
The Pope exhorts priests to ask for the "gift of humility". Their role is that of "simple, though necessary, stewards" according to the will of Jesus. Catholic penitential practice must be a "credible reflection of God's mercy," he told participants in a course at the Vatican's Court of Grace, the so-called Penitentiary.
No torture chamber
Above all, Francis warns that the confessional should not be a torture chamber. With that, he warns of abuses in confession practices that have often weighed heavily on believers. Priests who hear confessions must not be guided by curiosity, which can take a morbid form, such as having the priest describe details, especially sexual ones, that are not necessary to know.
Conversely, the pope urges Catholics not to take their sins lightly. Those who come to confession with the attitude, "I go, I recite my sins, the priest absolves me, gives me three Hail Marys, and I go in peace," have "understood nothing at all," he said at a morning Mass at the Vatican. The confessional is not a "laundromat" to get rid of a few stains on the conscience. God forgives completely. His mercy, however, can only really be experienced if one is ashamed of one's own sins and asks God for forgiveness. In this sense, for Francis, confession is also part of the equipment of the "field hospital" church.
Incidentally, Francis considers older pastors especially suited to hear confessions: "Whoever approaches an elderly confessor is not afraid, people see in him a trustworthy man," he once said. It is necessary to listen to people in their suffering and pain, to show compassion and to give comfort. One of the elderly chaplains hearing confessions in a confessional in St. Peter's Basilica next Friday will be wearing a white cassock. His name is Francis.