Pope: Confessional Also a Place to Learn Something

Notes Benefits for Both Priests and Penitents

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VATICAN CITY, MARCH 25, 2011 (Zenit.org).- There is a pedagogical value to the sacrament of confession, according to Benedict XVI.

The Pope affirmed this today when he addressed participants in a five-day course on the internal forum. The seminar, sponsored by the Apostolic Penitentiary, concluded today.

The Holy Father said that the teaching-learning aspect of confession is not sufficiently considered, despite its spiritual and pastoral importance.

"In what way does the sacrament of penance educate?" he asked. "In what sense does its celebration have a pedagogical value, first of all, for the ministers?"

To respond to these questions, he suggested starting with the recognition "that the priestly ministry constitutes a unique and privileged observation post, from which, daily, we are enabled to contemplate the splendor of divine mercy."

"Fundamentally," the Holy Father said, "to confess means to assist in as many 'professiones fidei' as there are penitents, and to contemplate the action of the merciful God in history, to touch the salvific effects of the cross and resurrection of Christ, at all times and for every man."

The Pontiff reflected how in the confessional, the priest in a sense visits the "abyss of the human heart, also in the dark aspects." And this, he said, also tests the "humanity and the faith of the priest himself."

"On the other hand," he continued, "it nourishes in him the certainty that the last word on the evil of man and of history is God's, it is his mercy, able to make all things new."

From confession, in fact, the priest can learn much, the Pope said, above all "from exemplary penitents by their spiritual life, by the seriousness with which they conduct their examinations of conscience, by the transparency in recognizing their sin and by their docility to the teaching of the Church and the indications of the confessor."

"From the administration of the sacrament of penance we can receive profound lessons of humility and faith," he assured. Confession is "a very strong call for each priest to the awareness of his own identity."

"Never, in the strength of our humanity alone, would we be able to hear the confessions of brothers," continued the Pope. "If they approach us, it is only because we are priests, configured to Christ, High and Eternal Priest, and made capable of acting in his name and in his person, of rendering really present God who forgives, renews and transforms."

Penitents, too

In regard to the pedagogical value for penitents, the Holy Father said that it depends "first of all, on the action of grace and on the objective effects of the sacrament in the soul of the faithful."

"Sacramental reconciliation is one of the moments in which personal liberty and self-awareness are called to express themselves in a particularly evident way," the Pontiff observed. "It is perhaps also because of this that, in an age of relativism and of consequent attenuated awareness of one's being, the sacramental practice is also weakened."

In this context, the examination of conscience has "an important pedagogical value" as it "educates to look with sincerity at one's own existence, to confront it with the truth of the Gospel, and to evaluate it not just with human parameters, but changed by divine revelation," he said. "The comparison with the Commandments, with the Beatitudes and, above all, with the precept of love, constitutes the first great 'penitential school.'"

Furthermore, Benedict XVI proposed, an integral confession of sins "educates the penitent in humility, in recognition of his own fragility and, at the same time, in awareness of the need for God's forgiveness and trust that divine grace can transform life."

In an age characterized "by noise, distraction and loneliness," said the Pope, "the penitent's conversation with the confessor can be one of the few, if not the only occasion to be truly heard and in profundity."

For this reason, the Bishop of Rome asked priests to "give appropriate space to the exercise of the ministry of penance in the confessional."

"To be received and heard is also a human sign of the acceptance and goodness of God to his children," he said.

Health of souls

In his greeting to the Pope, Cardinal Fortunato Baldelli, major penitentiary, reminded that "every confessor, to carry out his ministry well and faithfully, must have the necessary learning and prudence for this purpose."

The cardinal introduced to the Pope the priests of 242 dioceses of 68 nations who are participating in the annual course on the internal forum, and he confirmed that "the doctrinal preparation of the confessor is absolutely indispensable."

Following in the footsteps of Pope Pius V -- who said, give me good confessors and I will renew the whole Church from her foundations -- the penitentiary promotes every year these days of study on the sacrament, the cardinal noted.

"With intense satisfaction," he said, "we note that the fruits of these annual meetings have a concrete confirmation in the daily activity of our dicastery, which is approached with increasing interest and known for its essential mission in the Church, which is the 'salus animarum.'"