We should follow Pope Francis’s lead on Confession

Pope Francis (CNS)

Given the publicity he usually receives from the media, it is interesting that the title of Pope Francis’s Wednesday audience for February 19, “Be courageous, go to Confession” was not trumpeted around the world. You can understand why this subject would not have leapt off the news desks of the media though: “Courage?” “Confession?” Well – no gossip, no scandal, therefore no news. Yet, as reported on CNA on February 20, the Holy Father spoke with such pastoral warmth on the subject that it deserves revisiting and that a thoughtful reader would recognise the obviously healing element of the Sacrament, whether a believer or not.

As the Pope explained, in Confession we meet Jesus who receives us “with so much love!” Confession is not just a personal matter, “it is rooted in the universality of the Church which accompanies us on the path of conversion.” On the question of shame or embarrassment at revealing our weaknesses and vices, Pope Francis was forthright: “Even embarrassment is good,” he declared, “It’s healthy to have a bit of shame… It does us good because it makes us more humble.” Afterwards, the Pope told his audience, the penitent feels liberated from the burden of his conscience: “free, great, beautiful, forgiven, clean, happy.”

Striking a personal note, the Holy Father told his listeners, “When I go to confession, it’s for healing: healing the soul, healing the heart because of something I did to make it unwell.” He concluded by reassuring the pilgrims, “Every time we go to confession, God embraces us.” It all sounds so simple and straightforward – and it is meant to be straightforward. A convert friend told me it took her some time to realise that she did not need to explain or describe the complex background to her sins as she was prone to do. Confession isn’t the same as therapy.

So if the Holy Father managed to explain the nature and practice of Confession so clearly in a Wednesday general audience, why has Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, Emeritus Archbishop of Westminster, seen fit to suggest that the Sacrament is in need to significant reform and should be discussed at a special synod on the sacraments? According to the Tablet, the Cardinal has maintained in a private letter to John Cornwell, author of Hitler’s Pope and other books of a similar nature, that Confession has not received “serious reflection by any authoritative voice within the Church”.

One might enquire: if this was a private letter how has it come to be made public in the first place? Anyway, commenting on the Tablet report, blogger Deacon Nick Donnelly points out that Murphy O’Connor is incorrect in what he says; in 1984, under Blessed John Paul II, the post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation “Reconciliatio et paenitentia” did discuss the Sacrament fully. Among other things, it pointed out that a consequence of the denial of God was a loss of a sense of sin and suggested that the restoration of a “proper sense of sin is the first way of facing the grave spiritual crisis looming over man today.” It stressed that this sense of sin “can only be restored through a clear reminder of the unchangeable principles of reason and faith which the moral teaching of the Church has always upheld.”

Pope Francis put it more simply. Indeed, it’s so simple that even children who have reached the age of reason can grasp it. On page 513 of my CTS New Sunday Missal the “essential elements of a good Confession” are listed: first, pray to God for help; then examine one’s conscience; then confess our sins “simply, with humility and honesty”; then make an act of contrition “with heartfelt sorrow”; finally, carry out the penance prescribed. Does this Sacrament really need the reflection and reform that the Emeritus Archbishop seems to think, or does it require more availability and more instruction from our pastors? Perhaps it would do him good to read over the Holy Father’s wise words during last Wednesday’s audience.