Vatican City, Mar 9, 2018 / 12:09 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- At his annual Lenten penitential service on Friday, Pope Francis said that it is not God who abandons us when we sin, but we who separate ourselves from him by choosing to sin, and that no matter what we do, God never stops loving us.
“We know that the state of sin distances us from God. But in fact, sin is the way that we distance ourselves from him. Yet that does not mean that God distances himself from us,” the Pope said March 9.
“The state of weakness and confusion that results from sin is one more reason for God to remain close to us,” he continued. “The certainty of this should accompany us throughout our lives.”
Pope Francis gave a brief homily during an annual Lenten penitential service in St. Peter’s Basilica. He reflected on a passage from the first letter of John, which speaks about God’s love for his children.
God’s love is greater than anything we can imagine, reaching beyond even the worst sins we find within us, he said.
“His is an infinite love, one that knows no bounds,” he reflected. “The words of the Apostle are a reassuring confirmation that our hearts should trust, always and unhesitatingly, in the Father’s love: ‘No matter what our hearts may charge us with, God is greater than our hearts’ (1 Jn. 3:20).”
Following the homily, Pope Francis led a silent examination of conscience. Then, as in other years, the Pope was the first to go and make his confession to a fellow priest before hearing the confessions of several others.
Other priests were also available throughout the basilica to hear individual confessions.
The penitential service also marked the beginning of the “24 Hours for the Lord” initiative held yearly on the fourth Friday and Saturday of Lent.
Led by Pope Francis, “24 Hours for the Lord” is a worldwide initiative that points to confession as a primary way to experience God’s merciful embrace. It was launched in 2014 under the auspices of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization.
The event gives Catholics an opportunity to go to confession and take part in Eucharistic adoration at participating churches. This year’s theme is “With you is forgiveness” taken from Psalm 130.
Earlier on March 9, Pope Francis spoke to participants in the Apostolic Penitentiary’s annual course on the internal forum, which is attended primarily by young priests, seminarians, and penitentiary priests specifically appointed to hear confessions and administer penance.
This year, ahead of the Synod of Bishops on youth, the course focused on the relationship between sacramental confession and vocational discernment.
In his speech, Francis noted how young priests have an “advantage – so-to-speak” when it comes to hearing the confessions of other young people, a proximity of age “favors even sacramental dialogue.”
On the other hand, there are limitations and challenges to being at the beginning of their ministry and therefore lacking in the experience of an older confessor, he said.
With these thoughts in mind, he asked, how do we go about listening to sacramental confessions, especially of the young, when it comes to vocational discernment?
“First of all, I would say that it is always necessary to rediscover, as St Thomas Aquinas says, the instrumental dimension of our ministry,” he said. “The priest confessor is not the source of Mercy or of Grace; he is certainly the indispensable tool, but always just an instrument!”
Being intentionally aware of this can help keep priests from becoming what Francis called “masters of consciences” instead of humbly listening to the Holy Spirit. He emphasized that seeing oneself as an instrument is not a lessening of the priest’s role in confession, but “the full realization of [the ministry].”
The Pope also stressed that confessors should listen carefully to any questions before offering answers, and when these two elements come together in sacramental dialogue, it can help to open up the journey of prayer and prudence that is vocational discernment.
Concluding, he encouraged the present and future confessors to be “witnesses of mercy, humble hearers of young people and God’s will for them, always respectful of the conscience and freedom of those who approach the confessional.”
He reminded them to entrust penitents to Mary, “who is the Refuge of sinners and Mother of mercy.”