God's love is offered to everyone who goes to the sacrament of confession, Pope Francis said in his new book on mercy — even those who are not able to receive absolution from their sins.
“I feel compelled to say to confessors: talk, listen with patience, and above all tell people that God loves them,” the Pope said in The Name of God is Mercy, a book-length interview of Pope Francis by Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli published Jan. 12.
“If the confessor cannot absolve a person, he needs to explain why, he needs to give them a blessing, even without the holy sacrament. The love of God exists even for those who are not disposed to receive it."
Pope Francis here referred to cases in which a person is not disposed to be absolved of their sins, giving the example of his own niece, who had civilly married a man who had not yet had his first marriage found null.
He recounted how the man, despite having remarried without an annulment, nonetheless went to confession every Sunday before Mass, telling the priest, "I know you can't absolve me but I have sinned … please give me a blessing."
"This is a religiously mature man," the Pope said.
Pope Francis stressed the importance of tenderness towards those who come to confession.
"If we don’t show them the love and mercy of God, we push them away and perhaps they will never come back,” he said. “So embrace them and be compassionate, even if you can’t absolve them. Give them a blessing anyway.”
In The Name of God is Mercy, the Pope touches on a wide range of topics on the theme of mercy, with significant attention given to the subject of confession.
Pope Francis was asked about the importance of going to confession to a priest — specifically, why it is not enough to ask God's forgiveness “on one's own.”
The Pope responded saying priests and bishops “become instruments of the mercy of God” and act in the person of Christ. They are the successors of the Apostles, to whom Christ said, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them.”
The act of going to confession to a priest is significant because man is a social being, and forgiveness has a social dimension: “We are social beings, and forgiveness has a social implication; my sin wounds mankind, my brothers and sisters, and society as a whole.”
“Confessing to a priest is a way of putting my life into the hands and heart of someone else, someone who in that moment acts in the name of Jesus,” he said. “It’s a way to be real and authentic: we face the facts by looking at another person and not in the mirror.”
“If you are not capable of talking to your brother about your mistakes, you can be sure that you can’t talk about them with God, either, and therefore you end up confessing into the mirror, to yourself.”
“It is important that I go to confession, that I sit in front of a priest who embodies Jesus, that I kneel before Mother Church, called to dispense the mercy of Christ,” he said. “There is objectivity in this gesture of genuflection before the priest; it becomes the vehicle through which grace reaches and heals me.”
Pope Francis said he is moved by the tradition in Eastern Churches, in which the priest the places his stole on the penitent's head, and puts his arm around his shoulder, describing it as “the physical representation of acceptance and mercy.”
He explained how the faithful do not go to confession to be judged, but to encounter mercy.
“It’s true that there is always a certain amount of judgment in confession, but there is something greater than judgment that comes into play,” he said.
“It is being face-to-face with someone who acts in persona Christi to welcome and forgive you. It is an encounter with mercy.”
Pope Francis was also asked about references he made to mercy early on in his pontificate, like the anecdote of the elderly woman who said that without God's mercy, “the world would not exist.”
“It was an example of the faith of simple people who are imbued with knowledge even if they have never studied theology,” he said.
“I was struck by that woman’s words: without mercy, without God’s forgiveness, the world would not exist; it couldn’t exist.”
“As a confessor, even when I have found myself before a locked door, I have always tried to find a crack, just a tiny opening so that I can pry open that door and grant forgiveness and mercy.”
Tornielli also asked Pope Francis the significance of saying confession should not be like going to the “dry cleaner,” a comparison which he has used more than once.
“It was an example, an image to explain the hypocrisy of those who believe that sin is a stain, only a stain, something that you can have dry-cleaned so that everything goes back to normal,” he said.
“But sin is more than a stain. Sin is a wound; it needs to be treated, healed.”
In reference to another saying of his — that confessionals should not be torture chambers — Pope Francis said he is speaking directly to priests and confessors.
The Pope cited instances of priests in the confessional interrogating the penitent, or exhibiting excessive curiosity to the point of impropriety.
One the one hand, “Anyone who confesses does well to feel shame for his sins: shame is a grace we ask for; it is good, positive, because it makes us humble. But he added that “in a dialogue with a confessor we need to be listened to, not interrogated. Then the confessor says whatever he needs to and offers advice delicately.”
Asked whether he himself was a “strict or indulgent confessor,” Pope Francis answered saying he “always tried to take time with confessions,” adding that he wished he could “walk into a church and sit down in a confessional again.”
“So to answer the question: when I heard confessions, I always thought about myself, about my own sins, and about my need for mercy, and so I tried to forgive a great deal.”
In a section of the book entitled “A sinner like Simon Peter,” Pope Francis was asked what advice he would give to a penitent in order to give a good confession, and to a priest to be a good confessor.
To the penitent, he stressed the importance of avoiding arrogance and acknowledging himself as a sinner.
“He ought to reflect on the truth of his life, of what he feels and what he thinks before God. He ought to be able to look earnestly at himself and his sin,” he said.
“He ought to feel like a sinner, so that he can be amazed by God. In order to be filled with his gift of infinite mercy, we need to recognize our need, our emptiness, our wretchedness.”
The Pope then turned his attention to the confessor, saying he should emulate God's mercy.
“A priest needs to think of his own sins, to listen with tenderness, to pray to the Lord for a heart as merciful as his, and not to cast the first stone because he, too, is a sinner who needs to be forgiven,” he said. “He needs to try to resemble God in all his mercy.”
The Roman Pontiff cited the parable of the prodigal son, in which the Father embraces the younger of two brothers who has returned home after squandering his inheritance.
“This is the love of God,” the Pope said. “This is his overabundant mercy.”