“Do not be afraid of Confession!” Pope Francis says in his simple and direct teaching. “When one is line for Confession,” he reflects, we feel those things which weigh on our hearts; “but when one finishes Confession one leaves free, grand, beautiful, forgiven, candid, happy. This is the beauty of Confession!” This is the Sacrament which Christ gives us for our salvation; for the forgiveness of sins after Baptism; and to enable you and me to reach the holiness, the perfection of charity which is the goal of our Christian lives (Lumen Gentium 40). So, what is it that holds us back from this Sacrament?
I think I know from personal experience what can hold us back. Confession is the moment when I have to put aside all illusions about myself and about the state of my Christian life and be ready to say “Father, these are my sins.” It would be so much easier to say: these are someone else’s sins and faults! But, no; this is where I have gone wrong! Confession is a “reality check” when I recognise how far I still have to go in the Christian life and receive the grace to go forward. In our Emeritus Pope Benedict’s words: “we must accept our frailty but keep on going, not giving up but moving forward and becoming converted ever anew through the Sacrament of Reconciliation for a new start …” (Pope Benedict XVI 17th February 2007).
This is surely a moment when you and I are “led by the Spirit” (Mt.4:1) to reject the temptations of the Devil, as Our Saviour did in the wilderness. We must never forget the Lord Jesus Himself, God the Son sharing our humanity, was tempted by the Evil One. We, then, must expect to face the same struggle in our lives. The sincere Confession of our sins is the moment when we put aside the illusions we can all so easily entertain about ourselves.
Before Christmas Pope Francis described how he goes to Confession. “Priests and bishops too have to go to Confession we are all sinners” the Holy Father explained, “the Pope is also a sinner. And the Confessor hears what I tell him, he counsels me and forgives me, because we are all in need of this forgiveness.” Pope Francis reminds us that confessing our sins can involve shame. But he calls it a “good shame,” for our sins are the one thing of which we should be ashamed! However, it is in the very moment we confess them (in the Holy Father’s words) God sends “a brother to bestow his pardon, the certainty of his forgiveness in the name of the Church …” Through the ministry of the priest, Pope Francis reflects, God holds us “in a new embrace and regenerates us and allows us to rise again and resume our journey” (General Audience, 20th November 2013).
Today’s Gospel ends with these beautiful words: “Then the devil left him, and angels appeared and looked after him” (Mt. 4:11). It is a scene of peace following the struggle in the wilderness. The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation brings us peace: “Go in peace” the priest says to us.
I am sending Pope Francis’s words of encouragement to you in a leaflet, together with a simple guide on how to go to Confession. During Lent there will be many opportunities to approach this “great and beautiful Sacrament.” I have asked your priests to be especially available on Good Friday, as I will be in the Cathedral. With Pope Francis, I invite you to put this question to yourself: How long is it since I was last at Confession? Please do not lose any time. The Holy Father reminds us: “it is Jesus Himself who awaits us in this great and beautiful Sacrament: have courage and go to Confession!”
With my prayer for you all,
+ Mark, Bishop of Shrewsbury