The Pope said this in a message he sent Saturday to Cardinal James Francis Stafford, major penitentiary, and to the participants in the 20th Internal Forum, an annual course on matters of conscience, organized by the Tribunal of the Apostolic Penitentiary.
Every priest, the Pontiff said, "is called to administer divine mercy in the sacrament of penance, through which in the name of Christ he remits sins and helps the penitent to continue along the demanding road of sanctity with a right and informed conscience."
"To be able to accomplish this indispensable ministry, every presbyter must nourish his own spiritual life and take care to be theologically and pastorally up to date," he added.
The Holy Father praised the "worthy pastoral initiative" represented by the course, "that draws more and more interest and attention, as the number of participants bears witness," and that "constitutes a singular seminar of pastoral updating, whose results do not flow together -- as with the acts of other conferences -- into publications but become useful aids to the participants in furnishing adequate answers to those them meet in administering the sacrament of penance."
In our time, Benedict XVI observed, "forming a right conscience among believers … undoubtedly constitutes a pastoral priority," because, "to the extent that a sense of sin is lost, unfortunately the sense of guilt grows, which people try to eliminate with insufficient palliative remedies."
"[M]any precious spiritual and pastoral instruments -- which must be valued more and more -- contribute" to the formation of conscience, the Pope noted.
Besides the sacrament of reconciliation, he also pointed to catechesis, preaching, homilies, spiritual direction and the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.
Beginning with the first of these elements, the Pontiff emphasized "how all the sacraments, even that of Penance, require a prior catechesis and a mystagogical catechesis to go more deeply into the sacrament 'per ritus et preces' ['through rites and prayers']."
An adequate catechesis, the Holy Father said, helps us "always better to perceive the sense of sin, which today is fading, or worse, obscured by a way of thinking and living 'etsi Deus non daretur' ['as if there were no God']."
Together with catechesis, Benedict XVI said there should be a "wise use of preaching," which in the history of the Church "has had varying forms according to the mentality and pastoral needs of the faithful."
He noted that modern means of communication are used more and more, which "on one hand represent a challenge to be confronted and on the other hand a providential opportunity to proclaim -- in a new way that is closer to the contemporary sensibility -- the unchanging Word of truth that the Divine Master entrusted to his Church."
In regard to homilies, the Pope said that with the reform desired by the Second Vatican Council, "they have reacquired their 'sacramental' role in the single act of worship constituted by the liturgy of the Word and that of the Eucharist."
The homily, he added, is "of course the most common way that the conscience of millions of faithful is educated every Sunday."
Spiritual direction also contributes to the formation of conscience, Benedict XVI continued, stressing that "today more then yesterday there is need of 'masters of the spirit,' sages and saints."
The celebration of the Eucharist is relevant in the same way: The Holy Father called for "a devout and conscious participation" of the faithful in the Mass and for the priest to remember that in this mystery "the Blood of Christ is poured out for the remission of sins, through which, in the sacramental participation in the sacrifice of the cross, each one of us meets with the Father's mercy."
The Pope then urged the participants in the course to value what they had learned about the sacrament of penance, always keeping it alive within them in the different contexts in which they find themselves living and to maintain "the awareness of the need to be worthy 'ministers' of divine mercy and responsible educators of conscience."
To carry this out he suggested they take inspiration from holy confessors and masters of the spirit, such as the Curé of Ars, St. John Vianney, the 150th anniversary of whose death will be celebrated this year.