One of Pope Francis’ frequent appeals is for the faithful to frequent confession: “The sacrament of reconciliation must regain its central place in the Christian life,” so that “everyone is afforded the opportunity of experiencing the liberating power of forgiveness,” the Holy Father said in his 2016 apostolic letter Misericordia et Misera, delivered at the end of the Year of Mercy.
In a new book, The Feast of Forgiveness With Pope Francis: An Aid for Confession and Indulgences, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza draws on the Pope’s words to offer an aid to both receiving the sacrament of reconciliation and indulgences (the remission of the temporal punishment in purgatory still due for sins after absolution). The book, which currently is available only in Italian, was distributed to all the cardinals of the Roman Curia after the Pope exchanged his Christmas greetings with them Dec. 21.
In this exclusive email interview with the Register, Cardinal Piacenza, who is prefect of the Apostolic Penitentiary — the Vatican tribunal responsible for issues relating to the forgiveness of sins in the Catholic Church — explains more about his book, the importance of confession and the lost practice of indulgences. He says the decline of Catholics receiving the sacrament of reconciliation is “almost a work of the evil one,” expresses his concern that many of the faithful receive Holy Communion but few go to confession, and stresses that Lent serves as a reminder that Christian existence “is a nonstop combat, in which the ‘weapons’ of prayer, fasting, almsgiving and penance must be used.”
Your Eminence, what are your reasons for writing the book?
Certainly forgiveness is the most evident demonstration of the omnipotence and love of the Father, which Jesus revealed in his whole earthly life.
Each page of the Gospels brings with it the scent of this love which translates into forgiveness without limits, limits that can harden man in his own errors and therefore self-exclusion from forgiveness.
When a person does not recognize his mistakes and does not intend to change his life, he closes the door: There would be forgiveness, but he will not let it in. The Lord says a freedom “goes” to the repentant sinner, but adds an indispensable “and sin no more.” The teaching must be grasped in its entirety and not in a mischievous partiality of convenience that would leave the situation as before.
The motto of Pope Francis’ coat of arms is a tribute to Divine Mercy; it is a phrase taken from a homily of St. Bede the Venerable, who, commenting on the Gospel story on the Calling of Matthew, writes: “Jesus saw a publican, and as he looked at him with a feeling of love and chose him, he told him: ‘Follow me.’”
This sentence has a special significance in the life of the Pope, in that, on the feast of St. Matthew of 1953, following a confession, he sensed his vocation. So when he was elected to the episcopate, he thought to bring that phrase back into the cartouche of his coat of arms: “Miserando Atque Eligendo.”
Since among the sacraments, reconciliation is the one that effectively highlights the merciful gaze of God and is not restricted to describing it, but translates it into concrete life, it seemed useful to seize upon this meaningful stimulus to offer a humble “Aid for Confession and Indulgences.” I relied almost entirely on fervent words of Pope Francis so that, while no one sincerely repentant is prevented from accessing the love of the Father, who awaits his return, everyone is offered the opportunity to experience the liberating power of forgiveness.
What significant role has Pope Francis played, as outlined in your book, in helping to bring people back to confession?
The Pope has played a significant role in the pastoral emphasis he has always placed, since the beginning of his pontificate, on the theme of mercy, on placing confession at the center, in speaking of the prevenient grace which assumes the face of mercy, which becomes effective in reconciliation and forgiveness.
In every way and on various occasions, Pope Francis taught and teaches that God makes us understand his infinite love right before our sinful selves. Certainly grace is stronger and is capable of overcoming every possible resistance, since love has within it the strength to overcome everything (1 Corinthians 13:7). Unfortunately, however, the deterioration of this precious as well as providential teaching too often meets a barrier of a widespread comfortable [mentality] or ideological interpretations, imposed in a worldly way. The media also play their part, leading to mercy being opposed to justice, the truth being placed in antithesis to mercy, the objective and absolute values crumbling as if they were hard and bad in the face of relativism and exasperated subjectivism, which would instead be friends of human promotion. I would say that it is almost a work of the evil one to demolish the potentiality of the good inherent in this magisterium. It is the great lie of the one who, by definition, is the “liar.” Therefore, it is incumbent upon all the faithful, but above all the shepherds, to not let themselves be entangled in the meshes of the devil, who, as Pope Francis himself clearly teaches, “is also present in the 21st century. And we must not be naive. We must learn from the Gospel how to fight against him” (Pope Francis, homily at the Mass in the chapel of Casa Santa Marta, April 11, 2014).
In what way does the book help the faithful to see confession in its true and beautiful light?
It helps to see confession also as a liberating and rich meeting of humanity. The teachings and suggestions gathered in the book should help one to exit the confessional with happiness in the heart, with the radiant face of hope, even if sometimes it is wet by the tears of conversion and of the joy that derives from it. The approximately 100 pages of the book intend to lead the penitent to a liberating encounter — educating in mercy, which also includes the just and dutiful commitment to repair, as far as possible, the evil committed. It is hoped that in this way the faithful will feel invited to confess frequently and in the best of ways, with all due provisions (contrition for the sin; purpose of amendment; confession of all sins, even venial; sacramental satisfaction).
How important are indulgences in the life of the Church, and why should the laity expect to receive them?
They are very important because, I would say, that they constitute the apex of Divine Mercy for everyone, for the living and for the dead. In the sacrament of reconciliation, God forgives confessed sins with the debt of repentance and the serious intention of not committing them anymore in the future; not only does he forgive them, we could say he even forgets them! This mercy, then, becomes an indulgence, which, through the Bride of Christ, the Church frees from every remnant of the consequences of sin. An indulgence, which is intimately linked to confession and Holy Communion, makes the experience of the holiness of the Church that participates in all the benefits of Christ’s redemption, so that forgiveness may be extended to extreme consequences to reach the love of God.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, to which we must always refer, presents, in accordance with the constant magisterium, the reality of indulgences in the perspective of the Communion of Saints, pointing out that “the life of each individual son of God in Christ and through Christ is joined by a wonderful link to the life of all his other Christian brothers in the supernatural unity of the mystical body of Christ till, as it were, a single mystical person is formed”(see Paul VI, Indulgentiarum Doctrina, 5). It is even moving to meditate on the fact that in the Communion of Saints among the faithful who have already reached the heavenly homeland or who are in the state of purification or who are still pilgrims on earth, there is a very real bond of charity and an abundant exchange of all good. In this admirable exchange, the sanctity of one benefits others, far beyond the harm that the sin of one has caused others. (In this way, the recourse to the Communion of Saints allows the contrite sinner to be purified quicker and more effectively from penalties due to sin. These spiritual goods constitute the precious treasure of our Holy Mother Church. It’s the richest, safest “Bank” of the Church! We must consider the infinite and inexhaustible value that the expiations and merits of Christ have with the Eternal Father, and offered so that the whole of humanity might be freed from sin and reach the communion with the Father; it is Christ the Redeemer himself, in whom the satisfactions and merits of redemption are and live; the immense value of the prayers and merits of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of all saints: They have cooperated in the salvation of their brothers in the unity of the mystical body.)
But how is indulgence achieved? Through the Church, which, by virtue of the power to bind and loose granted by Jesus, her divine Founder, intervenes in favor of a Christian and opens the treasure of the merits of Christ, the Holy Virgin and the saints, so that he obtains from the Father of Mercies the redemption of temporal punishments due to sins already forgiven in confession. And — a truly exquisite reality of charity — since the faithful who are deceased on the way to purification [in purgatory] are also members of the same Communion of Saints, we, though still pilgrims, can help them, by among other things, obtaining for them indulgences in such a way that they are relieved of temporal punishments.
To be able to benefit from the indulgence, it is necessary to be in a state of grace, to have at least the intention to acquire it, and to fulfill what is prescribed in the established time and in the due way. The central point is to have the interior disposition of complete detachment from sin, even venial ones. However, sacramental confession is required, [as is] the reception of Holy Communion and a prayer according to the intentions of the Supreme Pontiff.
It must sadly be noted that, unfortunately, this authentic treasure — which is indulgence — hardly ever appears in catechesis and ordinary preaching. But this omission ends up by defrauding the faithful, both alive and dead, of an immense benefit. This Holy Lent could be a favorable opportunity for a merciful recovery.
How worried are you about the fact that many faithful receive Holy Communion regularly on Sundays and yet rarely confess?
Yes, I am very worried about this phenomenon, which I find very widespread. But it should be framed in a much greater context. Among other things, I do not know how many of those who approach Holy Communion have authentic faith in the fact that, in that consecrated Host they go to receive, Our Lord Jesus Christ — in Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity — is really present. And how many of those who present themselves to receive Holy Communion really know what the Holy Mass is? It is a sacrifice — indeed, it is the Holy Sacrifice — agreeable, but always a Sacrifice; and here it is the sacrifice of the cross! The sociological sense prevails, exaggeratedly, and is, therefore, unbalanced, to the detriment of the theological aspect. To help a fruitful reception of Holy Communion, there must be a healthy catechesis, correct and fervent preaching, exemplary liturgical celebration, the habit of prayer and adoration and regular and frequent sacramental confession.
How confident are you that, through Pope Francis and through books like yours, many Catholics will rediscover the importance of confession?
Certainly the teaching of Pope Francis is a decisive factor, more than valid, to give importance to confession and, therefore, to encourage the faithful to use them and the priests to dedicate themselves with renewed zeal to this indispensable ministry. But we must support all of this by expanding our commitment to a horizon that is always vast, such as knowing how to be passionate about the sound doctrine that constitutes the motor, the motivation, for an all-encompassing pastoral commitment. Let us not forget that “standing” before the Lord in Eucharistic adoration, the “rumination” of his word and the experience of the motherhood of Mary Most Holy are all factors in creating the climate suitable for maturing the desire, indeed the need, for confession.
What makes a good confession, and how much does Lent offer a good opportunity to confess one’s sins to the Lord?
On the part of the penitent, a person makes a “good” confession when he grieves for his own sins, is contrite for having offended God and has the purpose of no longer sinning in the future; when he has confessed all the mortal sins he’s aware of, after having examined himself, and when he has completed the penance imposed on him by the confessor. The confessor should take into account the personal situation of the penitent and seek his true spiritual good, making sure that, as far as possible, it corresponds to the gravity and nature of the sins committed. We could say that the time of Lent is, by its very nature, a privileged time of the interior pilgrimage toward the One who is the source of mercy. Our Holy Mother Church in these 40 days, which open with the austere sign of the ashes, accompanies us through the desert of our poverty and our fragility, supporting us on the path to the joy of Easter.
Always, but particularly in Lent, we must face a struggle, like the one that Christ sustained in the desert, where for 40 days he was tempted by the devil, and then in Gethsemane, when he rejects extreme temptation by accepting the full the will of the Father. It is about fighting against sin, against all our bad inclinations, against our disordered tendencies, against our selfishness, our laziness, our omissions, our cowardice before the Truth, our surrenders to the spirit of the world, against our laxity. In the end, it is a fight against Satan. It is a struggle that involves the whole person and requires careful and constant vigilance.
We should rediscover in this time the discourse of St. Augustine where he says that those who want to walk in the love of God and in his mercy cannot be content to free themselves from serious and deadly sins, but must “work for truth, also recognizing the sins that are considered less serious ... and come to light doing worthy works. Even the less serious sins, if neglected, proliferate and produce death” (In John. evang. 12, 13, 35). Lent reminds us, therefore, that Christian existence is a nonstop combat, in which the “weapons” of prayer, fasting, almsgiving and penance, must be used. Fighting against evil, against all forms of selfishness and hatred, and dying to oneself to live in God is the ascetic journey that every disciple of Jesus is called to walk, with humility and patience, with generosity and perseverance.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.