As a bishop and then cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was a relentless confessor and the homilies and speeches he has give over these first few months testify to this.
For Francis, engaging in dialogue with faithful during confession is key.
But now he is Pope he is no longer able to “leave” the Vatican and listen to confessions in parishes as he used to do back in Buenos Aires.
Francis hinted at this in the off-the-cuff speech he gave during the Pentecost Vigil mass in St. Peter’s Square, on Saturday 18 May.
The Pope addressed a crowd of over 200.000 people, from over 150 ecclesial movements, associations and new communities.
“We need to become courageous Christians – he said – and go out and search for those who are the body of Christ, those who are the body of Christ!” “When I go to listen to confession – I can’t yet because to go out and listen to confession, well … I can’t leave this place, but that’s another issue – when I used to go and confess people in my previous diocese…,” the Pope said.
When he said the words “I can’t leave this place”, the Pope seemed to turn round to his collaborators. He went on to say that he always asked penitents: “Do you give money to beggars?” “Yes Father!” “Good, good.”
Then he would ask them a couple more questions: “Tell me, when you give money, do you look the person you are giving it to in the eye?” “Oh, I don’t know, I never stopped to think about it.”
“And when you give money to a beggar do you touch their hand or do you just toss the money at them?” This is the problem, the Pope said. “Christ’s body, touching Christ’s body, taking the poor person’s burden on to our own shoulders.”
Francis spoke about another experience he had as confessor in the homily he gave during the mass he celebrated in the Vatican parish of Sant’Anna on the first Sunday after his election to the papacy (17 March). He described the conversation he had with a man he was confessing.
When the man heard Bergoglio talk about the mercy of God, he said to him: “Oh father, if you knew what my life was like you wouldn’t speak to me like that! I have really messed things up in the past!”
And Bergoglio replied: “All the better! Go to Jesus: he’ll be happy to hear about these things! he forgives and forgets; he has a special gift for doing so. He forgets he gives you a kiss and a hug and simply tells you: “I do not condemn you, go and from now steer clear of sin.”
That’s the only piece of advice he will give you. A month later we find ourselves in the same situation…We turn to the Lord again. The Lord never tires of forgiving, never!We are the ones who tire of asking forgiveness.”
It was not long after pronouncing these words that Francis appeared at the window of the papal study in the apostolic palace to pray the Angelus for the first time. There, he spoke of mercy once again, speaking about another experience he had as a confessor.
“I remember when I had only just become a bishop in the year 1992, the statue of Our Lady of Fatima had just arrived in Buenos Aires and a big Mass was celebrated for the sick. I went to hear confessions at that Mass. And almost at the end of the Mass I stood up, because I had to go and administer a First Confirmation. And an elderly woman approached me, humble, very humble, and over eighty years old. I looked at her, and I said, “Grandmother” — because in our country that is how we address the elderly — do you want to make your confession?”.
“Yes”, she said to me. “But if you have not sinned…”. And she said to me: “We all have sins…”. “But perhaps the Lord does not forgive them”. “The Lord forgives all things”, she said to me with conviction. “But how do you know, Madam?”. “If the Lord did not forgive everything, the world would not exist”. I felt an urge to ask her: “Tell me, Madam, did you study at the Gregorian [University]?”, because that is the wisdom which the Holy Spirit gives: inner wisdom focused on God’s mercy. Let us not forget this word: God never ever tires of forgiving us!”
In an interview with journalists Francesca Ambrogetti and Sergio Rubin (“El Jesuita”) – published in book format – Bergoglio said he reminded fathers often during confessions to find time to play with their children.
During the homily for his morning mass in St. Martha’s House in the Vatican, last 17 May, the Pope mentioned another experience he had in the confessional.
Although on this occasion there was no direct reference to his own experience as confessor, the possibility he may have been talking about something that happened to him cannot be excluded: “One day I heard about a priest, a good parish priest who worked well; he was nominated bishop but he felt ashamed because he didn’t feel worthy; he felt spiritually tormented. So he went for confession. The confessor listened to him and said: “Don’t be afraid. Look at the big stew Peter made of things and yet he was still made Pope; go for it!” That’s what the Lord is like. That’s what the Lord is like. The Lord makes us grow up by arranging many encounters with Him, despite our weaknesses, when we recognise them, despite our sins…”
This examples illustrate how important the meetings and conversations Francis – who was once a parish priest and spiritual leader – had with penitents during confession, were to him.
This is a trait he has in common with John Paul I, who would spend time listening to confessions even when he was a bishop.
Sister Antonia Luciani Petri claims the openness Bergoglio showed to contraception before Paul VI’s “Humanae Vitae” was published, was down to his dialogue with faithful.