Pope Francis: Hope through the Sacrament of Penance
Whatever concerns we may have about how Pope Francis is handling access to the Eucharist by those in invalid marriages, there is a common theme in nearly everything he says and does. I refer to the Pope’s emphasis on the Church as a field hospital in which the chief method of healing is the Sacrament of Penance. Again and again, in statement after statement, Pope Francis has stressed the importance of the confessional as the proper locus for spiritual discernment and spiritual growth.
This very point was made by Fr. Raymond de Souza in the National Catholic Register when he explained eight reasons we should be thankful for Pope Francis (see Pope Francis at 80). The emphasis on confession was the fifth of these, which he explained as follows:
In his letter concluding the Jubilee of Mercy, Misericordia et Misera, the Holy Father wrote that the sacrament of confession has to be “put back at the center of the Christian life”. He is the pope of confession. He hears confessions on his parish visits in Rome and on overseas trips. He went to confession himself in public to offer a powerful witness. He speaks about the sacrament more than his predecessors did. He encourages priests to be generous in hearing confessions and reprimands them when they become obstacles, rather than instruments, of mercy. He has expanded the faculties of priests to lift penalties in the confessional. The emphasis on confession will be a principal impact of his pontificate.
I made a similar point some time ago (though I can no longer recall when and where), pointing out that one reason Pope Francis likes to steer clear of fixed rules for the divorced and remarried is that he wants priests to have every opportunity to engage in spiritual discussions with those afflicted, in the hope of clarifying the issues for them and leading them to the confessional. While I am convinced that any sort of deliberate fuzziness actually undermines this purpose in the long run, there can be no question that Pope Francis is deeply committed to the Sacrament of Penance as his instrument of choice in rescuing souls.
Mercy and Hope
With this in mind we can see how dear to the Pope’s heart was his decision to proclaim a jubilee year of mercy, during the course of which he frequently emphasized the healing power of the Sacrament of Penance and encouraged its widespread use. With the close of the Jubilee, Pope Francis is now devoting his Wednesday audiences to an extended catechesis on the supernatural virtue of hope. In the second of these, the Pope returned to one of his favorite themes:
God has not abandoned his people, and he has not left them to be vanquished by evil, because he is faithful, and his grace is greater than sin. We must learn this, because we are stubborn and do not learn. However, I ask: What is greater, God or sin? God! And which is victorious in the end? God or sin? God…. And the most beautiful joy of Christmas is that interior joy of peace: the Lord has remitted my sins, the Lord has forgiven me, the Lord has had mercy on me, he came to save me. This is the joy of Christmas! [Fleet-Footed Messengers of Hope]
In the first catechesis on hope, Francis had already likened the circumstances of our lives to the desert which the Israelites had to pass through—but it is a desert in which Our Lord has opened a straight path to Himself:
God the Father comforts by raising up comforters, whom he asks to encourage the people, his children, by proclaiming that the tribulation has ended, affliction has ended, and sins have been forgiven. This is what heals the afflicted and fearful heart. This is why the Prophet asks them to prepare the way of the Lord, to be ready to receive his gifts and his salvation. [Christian Hope]
Referring to the words of the prophet Isaiah which were adopted by John the Baptist, Pope Francis reminds us that the injunction to prepare the way of the Lord is an invitation to conversion: “This means returning to God, converting the heart to God and going on this path to find him.” And Francis affirms: “It is the little ones with God, with Jesus, who transform the desert of exile, of desperation and loneliness, of suffering, into a level plain on which to walk in order to encounter the glory of the Lord.”
A meditation for the Christmas season
This emphasis on reconciliation with God is one of the Holy Father’s strengths, and it enables us to see how appropriate a renewed appreciation of the Sacrament of Penance is even during this Christmas season, this season of joy. Of course, meditation on the beauty of this sacrament is perfectly suited to Advent as well, when we are longing for Christ, and to Lent, when we are reflecting on His passion and death—not to mention Easter and Ordinary Time!
But Christmas brings its own special perspective on how the Sacrament of Penance makes straight the way of the Lord within our very hearts and souls. Christmas is the season in which our desert is transformed. Looking forward in Advent to the birth of Christ, Pope Francis put it this way: “Let us be confident as we await the coming of the Lord, and what the desert may represent in our life—each one knows what desert he or she is walking in—it will become a garden in bloom.”
“Hope,” as the Holy Father said, “does not disappoint!” And the reason it does not disappoint is because Our Lord is always ready to forgive our sins, not through an impersonal theory of atonement, but through His tangible healing in the Sacrament of Penance.
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