Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Confession

I’ve always considered myself part of Generation BXVI — those of us who discovered the beauty of the Faith during the pontificate and through the teachings of the now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

Wait -- what? Pope Benedict XVI reads his resignation notice during a consistory on February 11, 2013. Photo from dailymail.co.uk

Wait — what? Pope Benedict XVI reads his resignation notice during a consistory on February 11, 2013. Photo from dailymail.co.uk

(Bee-Ex-Vee-Ai! Sounds so snazzy!)

That’s why I really couldn’t help tearing up a bit as he left the Vatican last year.

He is an amazingly humble man — and a hipster pope in many ways, starting with his choice of footwear (red) and including, of course, the rare way he ended his pontificate (with a resignation notice written in Latin!). And all that, certainly, being a manifestation of his humility.

But all those wonderful qualities aside, it’s his diamond-like brilliance — clear and incisive — coupled with an evident piety, which impresses me the most. He can discuss the same stuff with his fellow theologians and then with children with such oomph and depth that it hits you softly the first time, then as seconds pass by you feel the impact more and more, and then you feel certain that you can think and pray about what he said for the next few days. His words — very much like Jesus’ — are inebriating! (In a good way.)

This brilliance and piety he displayed, for example, when he talked about Confession precisely in separate get-togethers with theologians and children during his papacy.

To the children, who had just received their First Communion, he explained why regular Confession is good, even if we end up confessing the same sins.

It is true: Our sins are always the same, but we clean our homes, our rooms, at least once a week, even if the dirt is always the same; in order to live in cleanliness, in order to start again. Otherwise, the dirt might not be seen but it builds up.

Something similar can be said about the soul, for me myself: If I never go to confession, my soul is neglected and in the end I am always pleased with myself and no longer understand that I must always work hard to improve, that I must make progress. And this cleansing of the soul which Jesus gives us in the sacrament of confession helps us to make our consciences more alert, more open, and hence, it also helps us to mature spiritually and as human persons.

Confession being like regular house cleaning! How vivid and simple can you get to explain frequent Confession?

Then Pope Benedict XVI exits a temporary confessional where he administered the Sacrament to four pilgrims of the World Youth Day in Madrid. Photo from CNS / L'Osservatore Romano

Ho-hum. Pope Benedict XVI exits from a temporary confessional where he administered the Sacrament to four pilgrims of the World Youth Day in Madrid. Photo from CNS / L’Osservatore Romano

And then to priests and bishops, he remarked that Confession is something wherein it is not only the penitent who receives some benefit, but the priest as well. He said, “The celebration of the sacrament of Penance has a pedagogical value for the priest, as regards his faith, as well as the truth and poverty of his person, and nourishes within him an awareness of the sacramental identity.”

His other words from that meeting with confessors:

The faithful and generous availability of priests to hear confessions — after the example of the great saints of the past from St John Mary Vianney to St John Bosco, from St Josemaría Escrivá to St Pius of Pietrelcina, from St Joseph Cafasso to St Leopold Mandić — shows all of us that the confessional may be a real “place” of sanctification.


Basically, hearing confession means witnessing as many professiones fidei as there are penitents, and contemplating the merciful God’s action in history, feeling tangibly the saving effects of the Cross and of the Resurrection of Christ, in every epoch and for every person.


Then, how much the priest can learn from exemplary penitents: through their spiritual life, the seriousness with which they carry out their examination of conscience, the transparency with which they admit their sins and their docility to the Church’s teaching and to the confessor’s instructions.

I’m sure he has more profound stuff about the Sacrament of Confession, but obviously I have not yet read his library of theological books — all written by himself!

Getting to know St John XXIII (Hint: he also confessed to an ordinary priest!)

At 9:00am Roman time today, Pope Francis declared two former popes Saints of the Catholic Church.

Everyone, of course, knows St John Paul II — but St John XXIII…?

St  John XXIII was also known as "the Good Pope" -- and most probably with the same sense of humor as Pope Francis'. Image from mahhai on Flickr.

St John XXIII was also known as “the Good Pope” — and, some say, had the same sense of humor as Pope Francis’. Image from mahhai on Flickr.

Like most Catholics now, I’m also a recent “acquaintance” of John XXIII. I used to recognize him only as the fat, jolly pope who convened the Second Vatican Council in the ’60s. I also knew he had a published journal — modestly titled Journal of a Soul — which gives us glimpses of his interior life.

But that was all.

Now that his canonization has finally come, I did some research. Of course, you know my bias. 😉

It turns out he also went to Confession. Haha! Of course, all popes (not just Pope Francis) would go to Confession regularly! Didn’t I say even St John Paul II used to confess once a week?

St John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962. Whooooaaaa, clergy galore. Photo from CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano

St John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962. Whooooaaaa, clergy galore. Photo from CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano

Born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli in 1881, St John XXIII reigned as Supreme Pontiff only for about five years. Brief, but what a church-changing period! He convened the Second Vatican Council, in a move that Pope Francis described today as a bold “openness to the Spirit”, as was the entire life of John XXIII. That Council, of course, had been misinterpreted by some but, in the mysterious ways of God, later on produced so much fruit and its true message came to light especially starting with the pontificate of St John Paul II. (Part of this message was the universal call to holiness — that everyone is called to become saints!)

And Confession — penance in general — was so much in the mind of the St John XXIII that he urged Catholics to do penitential acts in preparation for the Council. Months before the Council opened in October 1962, he issued the encyclical Paenitentia Agere (Doing Penance), in which he underlined the importance of penance in the spiritual life, both individual and ecclesial.

Doing penance for one’s sins is a first step towards obtaining forgiveness and winning eternal salvation,” he wrote. “No individual Christian can grow in perfection, nor can Christianity gain in vigor, except it be on the basis of penance.”

In a section where he discussed Baptism, he said:

…[W]ell may those sinners who have stained the white robe of their sacred baptism fear the just punishments of God. Their remedy is “to wash their robes in the blood of the Lamb”(cf. Rev. 7.14 )—to restore themselves to their former splendor in the sacrament of Penance—and to school themselves in the practice of Christian virtue. 

Former splendor! Restored to grace, we can indeed become as angelic as newly baptized infants.

The body of St John XXIII in the crypts of St Peter's Basilica. The lady is taking a picture...and praying. Photo from Fox News

The body of St John XXIII in the crypts of St Peter’s Basilica. The lady is taking a picture…and praying. Photo from Fox News

And did you know that St John XXIII also did something like what St John Paul II did decades later? A story goes: when he was still Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Roncalli knelt and asked to go to Confession to one of his priests, whom he had caught doing something that a man of God wouldn’t. What he told the priest was simply edifying. Read the full article on page 2, par 1 »

After all this meager information I got, I’m now curious to know more about St John XXIII. His Journal should be a good start, right?

Soon-to-be Pope St John Paul II and why he used to confess once a week

I watched his funeral on TV, and I became interested to learn more about my faith. That was Blessed John Paul II’s first miracle for me. The next one was the election of Pope Benedict XVI.

One of the most charismatic persons in modern times, the future Pope St John Paul II also knew his shortcomings and went to Confession like all other sinners who want to become saints. Photo by Dennis Jarvis on Flickr

One of the most charismatic persons in modern times, the future Pope St John Paul II also knew his shortcomings and went to Confession like all other sinners who want to become saints. Photo by Dennis Jarvis on Flickr

And on Sunday Pope John Paul II will finally be declared a saint, along with Pope John XXIII.

Everyone, of course, thinks he should be. Even while he was still alive, he was labeled along with Mother (now Blessed) Teresa of Calcutta a “living saint.”

The miracles and his other virtues aside, one remarkable aspect of Pope John Paul II was his love for the Sacrament of Penance or Confession. He was known to go to Confession once a week.

In a forum in 2004, he said: It would be illusory to desire to reach holiness — according to the vocation that each one has received from God — without partaking frequently of this sacrament of conversion and sanctification.” He added that together with the Holy Eucharist, “[Confession] accompanies the path of the Christian towards perfection.”

His Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliation and Penance is another testament to his desire for Catholics to find God’s mercy in Confession and acts of penance. (I still haven’t yet read it in full, but so far so good!)

Also, if we were so edified by Pope Francis’ unexpected Confession last March, imagine how such a saint as JP2 must have also walked his talk.

I remember an anecdote about how Pope John Paul II invited a group of priests to dinner. One of the priests brought along a man he had met only a few days ago; the man was actually a priest who had gone astray many years ago and was now in the streets of Rome begging for alms. Long story short, the priest-turn-beggar-turned-lucky-man-to-have-dinner-with-the-pope was pulled aside by the Supreme Pontiff. Pope John Paul II confessed to him! The priest was at first hesitant since he had long ago been deprived of the “faculty” to hear confession, but the Pope said he was the Bishop of Rome and he could restore that faculty! Later on — though I’m not 100% sure — the priest himself was restored to his diocese.

I still get goosebumps when I hear this story.

How to do an examination of conscience before Confession

There are as many ways to examine your conscience before Confession as there are ways to skin a cat.

Okay, wrong comparison. (I assure you I don’t skin cats.)

Cuuute. Photo by Martin Poole on Getty Images

Cuuute. And unskinnable. Photo by Martin Poole on Getty Images

But yes, there are different ways to see how we have offended God since our last Confession. Some take a long time and involve a lengthy list of questions; some are very short, about three minutes. (Normally the length of time spent on the examination depends on the length of time since one’s last Confession.)

But whether long or short, an examination of conscience essentially involves a few unforgettable steps. Here’s a simple process:

  1. Put yourself in the presence of God. Ask the Holy Spirit for light and humility.
  2. Try to remember when you did your last Confession. You’ll need to tell the priest about this later on (e.g. one week, one month, two years, 10 years).
  3. Go through each of the Ten Commandments, and see how you might have violated it. Can’t remember all ten? You can download this guide if you’re a teen, or this if you’re an adult. For each sin committed or good thing omitted, try to remember how many times you did it. No need to be Sheldon Cooper-ishly exact about numbers, just tell the priest about your lack of sureness (e.g. “I did it four, maybe five, times.”)
  4. Memorize the sins you’ll confess. You can make a list if you want, but make sure you dispose of it properly afterwards (nobody wants their sins publicized, right?).
  5. Thank God for showing you light.
  6. Make a sincere act of contrition, from the bottom of your heart.
  7. Go confess! 

How to overcome shame when going to Confession

You’re at the Confession line. The entire congregation can see you and your fellow penitents. Two thoughts can come to mind:

  1. These people must be thinking I’m such a sinner, a criminal maybe, a mortal sinner on the verge of damnation.
  2. The priest! He must be horrified at my new mortal sin. Worse, he knows me personally. He would never look at me the same way again!
  3. The priest! He must be disgusted to learn that I fell into the same sins — including that one sin I am most ashamed of — again and again and again. He will kick me out of the confession box!

You know what? Just. Stop. Thinking. About them. THINK ABOUT GOD!

Sometimes this looks more like what I would rather do than be at the Confession queue. Photo from Calaimage on Getty Images

Sometimes this looks more like what I would rather do than be at the Confession queue. Photo: Paul Bradbury on Getty Images

Really, when we go to Confession, we’re neither there to please the public nor the priest; we’re there to please only God, who is reaching out to us to reconcile us with him.

The people might think badly about us — fine! (Although, if those people are in their right minds, they would in fact be edified, seeing people, including you, who are contrite enough to approach the Sacrament.)

The priest might think badly about us — fine! (Although, actually, that would make him a mediocre priest. Because a true confessor assumes the merciful fatherhood of God, who waits and welcomes his daughter or son who returns to him.)

But we can be sure that Jesus — God — will be happiest of all when he encounters us at the confessional through his ordained minister, the priest.

So when we go to Confession, and we feel some shame (which is healthy, as Pope Francis said, because it makes us humble), we only have to think of one thing, one being: God. Confession is our meeting with our Father God.

And instead of worrying, let us be consoled by the fact that Confession is not like the courts of justice, where offenders are punished; Confession is a “tribunal of mercy,” as St Josemaria Escriva would say. Instead of punishment, forgiveness and joy are what we receive in Confession.

Why frequent Confession is good for you

We take a bath daily to keep our bodies clean. We clip and clean our nails, maybe polish them. We brush our teeth, gargle mouthwash, and even have a regular dental check-up. We also have a regular haircut. Some people even go to spas regularly!

If we take so much fuss about keeping our bodies clean and refreshed — with frequency and regularity — why not do the same to our souls?

I mean, it’s logical, right?

And we know that Confession works like a bath. It makes us clean spiritually. We may not have mortal sins (thank God), but the venial sins we accumulate day after day make us grimy and unable to feel and absorb the sun of God’s grace.

Yep, like a cool bath in summer. Photo by PhotoAtelier on flickr.com

Yep, like a cool bath in summer. Photo by PhotoAtelier on flickr.com

So that’s reason number one: frequent and regular Confession keeps our souls clean.

Reason number two is that through Confession we accumulate grace. Of course. The more we go to Confession — with ever more contrition — the more we can receive grace. This is, of course, not an encouragement for us to sin, but an encouragement for us to strengthen our defenses against sin (through Confession), so that grace increase in us without interruption.

And reason number three is that through Confession, we can keep our egos in check. You see, pride is the most insidious sin; it is the sin we least feel. Oftentimes we only know it’s there when it already has made tremendous effects on others. And none but a serious examination of conscience — like what we do before going to Confession — can make us see how proud or boastful we really are.

Of course, after a good examination of conscience, we’ll feel (at least a bit) miserable being such stubborn sinners, but at the same time we are comforted by the fact that Jesus came “not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Lk 5:32). We are consoled precisely in that Jesus seeks us in Confession, letting us return to him, to God.


Pope Francis on why Catholics confess to priests

I wrote something on why we confess our sins to a priest and not ‘directly to God.’

One thing I missed mentioning there is Pope Francis’ more prominent reason why we do it: to be reconciled with the Church, whom one wounds every time he or she sins.

Pope Francis is on a roll. Photo from wikimedia.org

Pope Francis is on a roll. Photo from wikimedia.org

Pope Francis’ words:

In the celebration of this Sacrament, the priest represents not only God but also the whole community, who sees itself in the weakness of each of its members, who listens and is moved by his repentance, and who is reconciled with him, which cheers him up and accompanies him on the path of conversion and human and Christian growth.

One might say: I confess only to God. Yes, you can say to God “forgive me” and say your sins, but our sins are also committed against the brethren, and against the Church. That is why it is necessary to ask pardon of the Church, and of the brethren in the person of the priest. [emphases mine]

I’ve always loved how the Holy Father makes sometimes-complex ideas seem like a crystal ball (for clarity) thrown at you (with impact).

Pope Francis’ ‘celebration of forgiveness’

And so, Pope Francis promises not a climax, but a powerful ignition, of a wild campaign of mercy.

Some days ago (sorry I couldn’t blog quickly enough!), the Holy Father announced in his Sunday Angelus that March 28-29 will be a “celebration of forgiveness.”

Pope Francis as champion of Confession. Photo from patheos.com

Pope Francis as champion of Confession. Photo from patheos.com

From midnight of March 28 to midnight of March 29, St Peter’s Basilica and various churches and parishes the world over will have prayer sessions and Confessions galore. Priests will be available to hear confessions.

Pope Francis calls the event “24 hours for the Lord.”

I really hope that bishops and parish priests would look at this as the signal to open the dams of God’s mercy and make the Sacrament of Confession available in all parishes regularly (if possible, daily!) — no more “by appointment only” Confessions!

Confession in the Lenten season

Lent is the most intense season in the Church’s calendar. It is the 40-day preparation for Easter, which is the most important feast in Christendom (no, m’friends, Christmas isn’t the most important).

Lent is when liturgical stuff are also toned down dramatically, in order to manifest the austere solemnity of this Easter preps. This austerity also traces its origin to the 40 days which Jesus spent in the desert, fasting and praying and finally conquering ever so wisely the devil’s temptations.

The temptation of Christ depicted on a 12th century mosaic at St Mark's Basilica in Venice. Photo from wikipedia.com

The temptation of Christ depicted on a 12th century mosaic at St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. Photo from wikipedia.com

During Lent, altar flowers are replaced with mere branches or leaves, or none at all. Priests are dressed in solemn and royal purple vestments. Music is brought to being mere accompaniment — no tinkling bells or clanging cymbals. Even the Gloria in the Mass is omitted.

The message of all these austerities, of course, is this: it is time for deeper reflection, considering the extent of God’s love for us (up to the Cross!) and allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us to conversion. In a nutshell, it is time for more intense penance.

And what penance is more concrete than a sincere and heartfelt Confession?

Jesus in the wilderness. Lent is the best time to make the habit of praying -- that is, REALLY talking to God -- regularly. Image from  life2christ.org

Jesus in the wilderness. Lent is the best time to make the habit of praying — that is, REALLY talking to God — regularly. Image from life2christ.org

If you haven’t done it yet, please go to Confession this Lenten season. Going to Confession will help us live better the three elements of Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. It is also most helpful in fostering the virtues most appropriate in this season — the virtues of humility, simplicity, and docility. With Confession, our Lenten journey will become more fruitful and meaningful.

So, let’s go!

Sin and Lifehack’s top-tens

What is sin? It is going against God’s commandments. Simple.

And what are these commandments? The famous Ten, of course.

The Ten Commandments of God. Photo from catholictothemax.com

The Ten Commandments of God. Image from catholictothemax.com

Of course, these commandments are like pigeon-hole drawers or locker boxes. Each is representative of a set of related sins, says one spiritual writer. For example, in the first commandment (which is to love God above all things), the sins of despair, belief in superstitions, practice of black magic, etc. are grouped together. Thus the sins of adultery, masturbation, and pornography are lumped together in the sixth commandment. And so on.

So if we violate any of those “pigeon holes”, we commit sin.

Moses receives the Ten Commandments by João Zeferino da Costa. Image from wikipedia.com

Moses receives the Ten Commandments. By João Zeferino da Costa. Image from wikipedia.com

And definitely, God did not make those rules just because. Unlike some sadistic high school teachers (may they be converted, those lovely pitiful beings!), God gave Moses those commandments as any manufacturer would to a user of its product. God gave us life on earth; he also gave us a manual on how to live it.

Believe it or not, the Ten Commandments (or the Decalogue, as theology buffs would say) are our guidelines to live a happy life here on earth, a life which leads to the perfectly happy and everlasting Life in heaven. They’re God’s version of Lifehack’s top-tens.

And that, my friends, is the summary of this thing called “sin”, which is the only real evil. I end abruptly.