Pope Talks to 31st Course on the Internal Forum

Organized by the Apostolic Penitentiary

pope internal forum
© Vatican Media

At the conclusion of their works, Pope Francis received in audience this morning — in the Apostolic Vatican Palace –, the participants in the 31st Course on the Internal Forum, organized by the Apostolic Penitentiary.

Here is a translation of the Pope’s address to those present at the meeting.

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The Holy Father’s Address

Dear Brothers, good morning!

The Cardinal — whom I thank for his words –, emphasized Saint Joseph. For months [he asked me]: “Write something on Saint Joseph, write something on Saint Joseph.” And, in great part, the Letter on Saint Joseph is his work. It’s so, thank you . . .

I apologize for being seated, but I thought: they are seated, I also will take a seat . . . I shouldn’t, but after the trip, the legs still feel it. I’m sorry.

I’m happy to receive you on the occasion of the Course on the Internal Forum, organized by the Apostolic Penitentiary and which this year has reached its 31st edition. The Course is a usual appointment that, providentially, falls in the time of Lent, a penitential time and desert time, of conversion, of penance, and of acceptance of mercy – also for us. I greet Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, Major Penitentiary, and I thank him for his words, as I said before, and with him, 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 the Course that, because of the necessity of the pandemic, had to be held online but with the noteworthy participation of 870 clerics! – a good number!

I would like to pause with you on three expressions, which explain well the meaning of the Sacrament of Reconciliation because to go to confession is not to go to the dry cleaners to have a stain removed. No, it’s something else. Let’s think correctly what it is. The first expression that explains this Sacrament, this Mystery is: “to abandon oneself to Love.” The second: “to let oneself be transformed by Love,” and the third, “to correspond to Love,” but always Love. If there isn’t Love in the Sacrament, it isn’t how Jesus wants it. If there is functionality, it’s not how Jesus wants it but Love, Love of a forgiven brother sinner, as the Cardinal said, to a brother, a sister sinner and a forgiven sinner. This is the fundamental relationship.

To abandon oneself to Love means to carry out a true act of faith. Faith can never be reduced to a list of concepts or to a series of affirmations to believe. Faith is expressed and is understood in a relationship: the relationship between God and man and between man and God, in keeping with the logic of the call and of the response. God calls and man responds. The inverse is also true: we call God when we are in need, and He always responds. Faith is the encounter with Mercy, with God himself who is Mercy — God’s name is Mercy — and it is abandonment in the arms of this mysterious and generous Love, of which we are in such great need but to which, sometimes, one is afraid to abandon oneself.

Experience teaches that one who doesn’t abandon himself to God’s love, ends up, sooner or later,  abandoning himself to another, ending up “in the arms” of the worldly mentality, which in the end brings bitterness, sadness, and loneliness, and doesn’t heal. Then, the first step for a good Confession is, precisely, an act of faith, of abandonment, with which the penitent approaches Mercy. Therefore, every confessor must be able to be astonished always by brothers that, by faith, ask for God’s forgiveness and also, only by faith, abandon themselves to Him, handing themselves over in Confession. Sorrow for one’s sins is the sign of such trusting abandonment to Love.

So to live Confession means ‘To let oneself be transformed by Love. And the second dimension, the second expression on which I would like to reflect . . . We know well that laws don’t save; suffice it to read chapter 23 of Matthew: the individual doesn’t change by an arid series of precepts, but by the fascination of a Love perceived and freely offered. It’s the Love that manifested itself fully in Jesus Christ and in His death on the cross for us. Thus Love, which is God Himself, made itself visible to men, in a way at first unthinkable, totally new and, therefore, capable of renewing all things. The penitent who finds in the sacramental conversation, a ray of this welcoming Love, lets himself be transformed by Love, by Grace, beginning to live that transformation of the heart of stone into a heart of flesh, which is a transformation that happens in every confession. It’s also so in the affective life: one changes by the encounter with a great love.

The good confessor is always called to see the miracle of the change, to see the work of Grace in the hearts of penitents, fostering as much as possible the transforming action. The integrity of the accusation is the sign of this transformation, which Love brings about: everything is handed over so that all is forgiven.

The third and last expression is: to correspond to Love. Abandonment and allowing oneself to be transformed by Love have as a necessary consequence, a correspondence to the love received. A Christian always keeps present that word of Saint James: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith” (2:18). The real will of conversion becomes concrete in the correspondence to God’s love received and accepted. It’s a correspondence that is manifested in a change of life and in the works of mercy that follow from it. One who has been welcomed by Love, cannot but welcome a brother. One who has abandoned himself to Love, cannot but console the afflicted. One who has been forgiven by God, cannot but forgive his brother from his heart.

Although it’s true that we will never be able to correspond fully to divine love, because of the unbridgeable difference between the Creator and the creature, it’s also true that God indicates to us a possible love, in which to live such impossible correspondence: love of one’s brother. Love for a brother is the place of real correspondence to the love of God: by loving our brothers we show to ourselves, to the world, and to God that we really love Him; however>, we always correspond inadequately to His mercy. The good confessor always indicates, besides the primacy of the love of God, the indispensable love for one’s neighbor, as daily training ground in which to train one’s love for God. The actual resolution not to commit a sin again is the sign of the will to correspond to Love. And so very often people, also we ourselves, are ashamed of having promised not to commit a sin and come back again and again . . . There comes to mind a poem of an Argentine parish priest, a good, very good parish priest. He was a poet; he wrote so many books. A poem to Our Lady in which he asked Our Lady in the poem to protect him because he wished to change but didn’t know how. He promised Our Lady to change and ended thus: “This evening, Lady, the promise is sincere. But just in case, leave the key for me outside the door [“Esta tarde, Señora, la promesa es sincera. Por las dudas, no olvide dejar la llave afuera”]. He knew that there would always be the key to open because it was God, God’s tenderness, to leave it outside. Thus, the frequent celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation becomes, be it for the penitent as well as for the confessor, a way of sanctification, a school of faith, of abandonment, of change, and of correspondence to the Father’s merciful Love.

Dear brothers, let us always remember that each one of us is a forgiven sinner — if one of us doesn’t feel so, it’s best that he not hear confessions, better that he not be the confessor — a forgiven sinner, placed at the service of others, so that they too, through the sacramental encounter, can encounter that Love that fascinated and changed our life. With this awareness, I encourage you to persevere with fidelity in the precious ministry you carry out, or which will soon be entrusted to you. It’s an important service for the sanctification of the holy People of God. Entrust your ministry of reconciliation to the powerful protection of Saint Joseph, a just and faithful man.

And here I would like to pause to stress the religious attitude that is born from this awareness of being a forgiven sinner that the confessor must have. To welcome in peace, to welcome with paternity, each one will know how the expression of paternity is expressed: a smile, peaceful eyes . . . To welcome by offering tranquillity and then to let the penitent speak. Sometimes the confessor realizes that there is a certain difficulty to go forward with a sin, but if he understands, he must not ask indiscreet questions. I learned something from Cardinal Piacenza: he said to me that when he see that such persons have difficulties and if he understands what it’s about, he stops them immediately and says: “I understand. Let’s go forward.” Don’t give more pain, more “torture” in this. And then, please, don’t ask questions. Sometimes I ask myself: those confessors that begin saying: “And how have you done this, this, this . . .” But, tell me, what are you doing? Are you making a film in your mind? Please . . . Then, there is such a great opportunity to go to confession in the Basilicas, but, unfortunately, the seminarians that are in International Colleges spread the word, young priests do too: “In that Basilica you can go to all, except this one or that one; don’t go in that confessional, because he will be the one who is the sheriff who will torture you.” The word spreads . . .

To be merciful doesn’t mean to be indulgent, no. It means to be a brother, father, consoler. “Father, I can’t do it. I don’t know how to do it . . . “ “Pray, and come back every time you have a need because you will find a father, a brother here, You will find this.”  This is the attitude to have. Please, don’t be the academic examination board: How so, when did you . . . “ Don’t pry in others’ soul. And I ask you, please, to pray for me. Thank you!

[Original text: Italian]  [Exaudi’s translation by Virginia M. Forrester]