VATICAN CITY (CNS) – The sacrament of reconciliation “is not so much about our sins” as it is about God’s forgiveness, Pope Francis said.
“Think about it: If our sins were at the heart of the sacrament, almost everything would depend on us, on our repentance, our efforts, our resolve,” but it is about God’s power, mercy and grace, the pope said March 25 during a Lenten penance service in St. Peter’s Basilica.
The service, with individual confessions, preceded the pope’s formal act of consecrating the world, particularly Russia and Ukraine, to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Pope Francis went to one of the confessionals in the basilica and, remaining standing because of knee trouble, confessed his sins before joining more than 100 other priests in hearing confessions.
The Vatican penance service was canceled in 2020 and 2021 because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Pope Francis began the service praying that God would “open our eyes, that we may see the evil we have committed, and touch our hearts, that we may be converted to you.”
The prayer booklet given to people participating in the service contained a 25-point “examination of conscience” designed to prepare them for confession and absolution by looking at their faith and prayer lives, the way they treat family members and others, whether they go to Mass every Sunday and holy day of obligation, how they practice charity, follow church moral teachings and how they use the time and talents God has given them.
Holding the service on the feast of the Annunciation, the Gospel read at the service was the story of the angel appearing to Mary and telling her she would become the mother of Jesus.
Mary, he said, is told to rejoice, because God is with her.
“Dear brother, dear sister, today you can hear those words addressed to you,” Pope Francis told people in the congregation. “You can make them your own each time you approach God’s forgiveness, for there the Lord tells you, ‘I am with you.'”
“All too often,” he said, “we think that confession is about going to God with dejected looks. Yet it is not so much that we go to the Lord, but that he comes to us, to fill us with his grace, to fill us with his joy.”
Pope Francis also had a word for priests about how they should be ministers of God’s forgiveness. “Offer to those who approach you the joy of this proclamation: ‘Rejoice, the Lord is with you.’ Set aside rigidity, obstacles and harshness; may you be doors wide open to mercy!”
If a priest is not prepared “to act in the person of the good shepherd, who takes his sheep into his arms and cradles them,” the pope said, it is better that he not hear confessions.
And, to those who find it hard to accept the forgiveness of a sin in their past or are upset by their inability to mend their ways, Pope Francis said: “Do not be afraid. God knows your weaknesses and is greater than your mistakes.”