Pope Francis told priests and seminarians Friday that the sacrament of penance is “the way of sanctification” in which miraculous conversions occur.
“Every single confession is always a new and definitive step towards a more perfect sanctification; a tender embrace, full of mercy, which helps to expand the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of love, truth and peace,” Pope Francis said March 29 at the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall. He was addressing participants in a course on the internal forum organized by the Apostolic Penitentiary.
“Sacramental confession is the way of sanctification for both the penitent and the confessor. And you, dear young confessors, you will soon experience it,” he said.
“As confessors, we have the privilege of constantly contemplating miracle conversions,” Francis said.
“Grace operates within the secrecy of the confessional miracles of which only and the angels will be witnesses,” he added.
Before turning to his prepared text, Pope Francis emphasized the gravity of the internal forum: “This is not a nonsense expression: it is said seriously. The internal forum is an internal forum, and cannot come out into the open.”
“I say this because I have realized that some groups in the Church, appointees, superiors, let us say – mix the two things and take decisions made in the internal forum for those taken in the external one, and vice versa. Please, this is a sin!”
The pope’s discussion of the blurring of the distinction between the internal and external fora would appear to be aimed at religious superiors and seminary formators.
This “is a sin against the dignity of the person who trusts the priest, who expresses their own reality to ask for forgiveness, and then uses it to put things in order for a group or a movement, perhaps – I don’t know, I am making it up – perhaps even a new congregation, I don’t know. But the internal forum is the internal forum. And it is sacred. This I wanted to say, because I am concerned about this,” Francis stated.
Francis then explained that the wisdom of the Church has always safeguarded the sacramental seal with all its moral and juridical strength: “Reconciliation itself is a good that the wisdom of the Church has always safeguarded with all her moral and legal force with the sacramental seal. Although not always understood by the modern mentality, it is indispensable for the sanctity of the sacrament and for the freedom of conscience of the penitent; who must be certain, at any time, that the sacramental conversation will remain in the secrecy of the confessional, between one’s conscience that opens to grace, and God, with the necessary mediation of the priest.”
“The sacramental seal is indispensable and no human power has, nor may it claim, jurisdiction over it,” he emphasized.
Pope Francis said that many perceive the sacrament of penance – and with it a sense of sin — to be in crisis in the contemporary world. To this he said that formation of priests is necessary to overcome the crisis to “offer an ever more qualified service capable of really manifesting the beauty of the Divine Mercy.”
The pope also encouraged priests to frequent the sacrament of penance themselves, as a means of sanctification in order to be better confessors.
“Let us always remember – and this will help us a lot – before going to the confessional, to be first forgiven sinners and, only later, ministers of forgiveness,” he said. “Humbly, like all sinners, we kneel before the confessor and implore for ourselves the Divine Mercy.”
“Sacramental absolution, validly celebrated, gives us baptismal innocence, full communion with God,” he explained.
He said the importance of the “ministry of mercy” necessitates adequate formation of confessors, so that each encounter in the confessional is “always a real meeting of salvation, in which the embrace of the Lord is perceived in all its power.”
“We must always recognize the powerful action of grace, which is capable of transforming the heart of stone into a heart of flesh, of changing a sinner who fled far away into a repentant son who returns to his father’s house,” he said.
“Jesus came to save us by revealing to us the merciful face of God and drawing us to him with his Sacrifice of love,” Pope Francis said.
The sacrament of penance is “the efficacious sign that Jesus left to the Church so that the door of the Father’s house would always remain open and that the return of men to Him would always be possible,” he said.