Both Catholic and secular media are absolutely rife with the reports that Pope Francis “broke with tradition” last week and went to confession himself in a way that the attendees at the penance service could clearly see that he was going to confession. Everyone seems to be utterly agog at the idea that the Holy Father would go to confession in the way that everyone else was. Deacon Greg Kandra said that the image of the Holy Father kneeling in front of the confessional, in his words, “moved me to tears.” At first, I was caught up in all the hype about this event as well, but one person who was not was my dear wife, who I long ago learned is much smarter than I am. When the video of the Holy Father going to confession first became public, she said: “I do not understand what the big deal is here. We know that Pope John Paul II went to confession every day, and we know that Pope Benedict XVI received the sacrament regularly and probably still does, and so we are supposed to be surprised when Pope Francis goes to confession before hearing them himself?”
I have to admit, Nicole had a point. Each of the last three popes has placed a great deal of emphasis on the sacrament of Reconciliation, and so while Pope Francis’ public “display,” as it were, of his confession this last week may break with protocol, it is the latest move in a long-running papal focus on the need for the faithful to regularly receive this sacrament, and so I am not sure exactly how surprising we ought to take it to be.
When we discuss the sacrament of Reconciliation in RCIA each year, we very often encounter people who have never experienced it before and are about to do so for the first time. For many of them, they come to the Catholic faith from other Christian traditions which mistakenly look down on Reconciliation as merely “confessing your sins to a priest.” This mentality has, I fear, taken hold among many life-long Catholics as well who may not take the sacrament of Reconciliation as seriously as they used to. In addition to explaining the important theology behind the sacrament, one thing that it is important to remind those who are on their journey into full communion with the Catholic Church, as well as many Catholics who may not think that the sacrament of Reconciliation is necessary, is that the Church is not asking anything of them that is not also being asked of the priests who hear their confessions, or bishops, or even the Pope.
In kneeling at the very penance service that he was celebrating to have his own confession heard, Pope Francis continues to do what he has done thus far for his entire pontificate, set the public example for the rest of us to then follow. He has given a better catechetical lesson than four or five classes on the sacrament of Reconciliation, and he has shown people the way to the Father. Considering that he has done this same thing repeatedly when dealing with other matters of our faith, it should not surprise us that he would treat confession in essentially the same fashion.