VATICAN CITY (CNS) — In a world where "there is no shortage of hotbeds of hatred and revenge," Pope Francis told priests and seminarians that "we confessors must multiply the 'hotbeds of mercy,'" by making it easy for people to access the sacrament of reconciliation.
"We are in a supernatural struggle" with evil, the pope said, "even though we already know the final outcome will be Christ's victory over the powers of evil. This victory truly takes place every time a penitent is absolved. Nothing drives away and defeats evil more than divine mercy."
Pope Francis was speaking March 23 with priests and seminarians attending a course at the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican tribunal dealing with matters of conscience, the sacrament of reconciliation and indulgences, and with priests who offer confession at the major basilicas of Rome.
He told them, "If someone doesn't feel like being a giver of the mercy he received from Jesus, don't enter the confessional."
The pope said he had told Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, which assigns confessors to the major basilicas of Rome, that one of the confessors "listens and rebukes, rebukes and then gives you a penance that cannot be done. Please, this will not do, no. Mercy. You are there to forgive and to say something so that the person can move forward renewed by forgiveness."
"You are there to forgive: put that in your heart," the pope told them.
While insisting individual confession is "the privileged way to go, because it fosters a personal encounter with divine mercy, which every repentant heart awaits," the pope also encouraged the priests to offer communal celebrations "on some occasions," as occurred around the world during the Coronavirus pandemic.
As ministers of the church, he said, a priest hearing confession must have obvious "evangelical attitudes," including: "First of all, welcoming everyone without prejudice, because only God knows what grace can work in the hearts at any time; then listening to your brother or sister with the ear of the heart, wounded like Christ's heart; absolving penitents, generously dispensing God's forgiveness; and accompanying the penitent's journey without forcing it, keeping the pace of the faithful with constant patience and prayer."
As he often does, Pope Francis pleaded with the priests to be generous with the time they are available for confessions since "the church's evangelizing mission passes in large part through the rediscovery of the gift of confession, also in view of the approaching jubilee of 2025."
Every cathedral, every shrine and every deanery or cluster of parishes should have an ample schedule of confession times, he said.
"If mercy is the mission of the church, we must facilitate the faithful's access to this 'encounter of love' as much as possible," he said, taking great care when preparing children for their first confession and, especially, when ministering to the sick and dying.
"When not much more can be done to restore the body," he said, "much can and always must be done for the health of the soul."
Especially in an individual confession, he said, God can "caress each individual sinner with his mercy. The Shepherd, and he alone, knows and loves his sheep one by one, especially the weakest and most wounded."
Pope Francis told the seminarians and priests that if they felt they had a vocation as a psychologist or psychoanalyst, "exercise it elsewhere."
And, he said, when a penitent does not seem to be sorry for his or her sins, the priest needs to ask questions that can budge open the heart.
"Are you repentant?" the pope imagined a priest saying. "No," was the imagined response. "But doesn't that weigh you down?"
A priest always must look "for the door to enter with forgiveness," he said. "And when one cannot enter by the door, one enters through the window; but one always must try to enter with forgiveness. With magnanimous forgiveness."
Telling the group that he had an appointment for his own confession at 3 p.m. that day, Pope Francis said God is "abundant; he always forgives more, always!"