When he was a theology student, Padre Pio’s health was so bad that his professor said to him: “Your health is not good, so you cannot become a preacher. My hopes for you are that you will be a great and conscientious confessor.” How true these words were to become! It is now reliably estimated that during his lifetime Padre Pio heard about five million confessions. When he was a young priest he spent most of his day hearing confessions. From 1918 to 1923 he heard confessions fifteen to nineteen hours a day. During the 40’s and 50’s, when he was in his early sixties, he reduced this to about eight hours a day. In 1962, 83,035 women and 19,837 men filled in a form asking to go to confession to Padre Pio: an average of about 273 people per day. In 1967, the year before he died at the age of eighty one, Padre Pio confessed about 15,000 women and 10,000 men; an average of 70 people per day.
And the question we must inevitably ask is; what made him such an outstanding confessor? Why did people flock to him to go to Confession? Part of the answer is something that would appeal to most of us; he was quick; the average confession made to Padre Pio only lasted three minutes. But more importantly, he demanded that each confession be a true conversion, a real meeting in faith with Jesus Christ, whom he represented in the Confessional. And the Christ that he represented was kindly, welcoming, honest and full of forgiveness.
As we tend to say, ‘that was then and this is now’. Let me look to Pope Francis to see how he would capture something of the spirit of Padre Pio as a Confessor.
Pope Francis has very clear words of advice to all of us priests who hear Confessions. He says: “Confession is not a judgment but a meeting with God. Confessions often seem like a procedure, a formality. Everything is mechanical! No! Where’s the meeting in this? The meeting is with the Lord who pardons you, hugs you and rejoices. And this is our God who is so good. We too need to teach (others): teach our children, our youngsters to make a good confession, because going to confession is not like going to the dry cleaners to get a stain removed. No! It’s about going to meet with our Father who pardons us, who forgives us and who rejoices.” In short, what the Pope is saying is this; forget about the human being, who is the priest in the Confessional; forget about whether you can remember all your sins or not, forget about when you were there last. When we go to Confession we meet with God, the loving Father who wants to forgive us our sins and put our minds to rest.
And the Pope has some very important advice for us priests who hear Confessions. He says; “It is important, therefore, that the confessor also be a ‘channel of joy’ and that the faithful, after being pardoned, no longer feel the oppression of guilt, but can relish God’s work which has freed them to live in thanksgiving, ready to repair the harm done and to go meet their brothers and sisters with a good and willing heart.” And he also said; “”We cannot risk frustrating the desire of the sinner to be reconciled with the Father. For what the Father awaits more than anything is for his sons and daughters to return home.” The Pope expects us, priests, to be channels of joy and of mercy and if he expects that of us, so can you. And if we’re not then you have the right to tell us this.
And what he expects of us when we go to Confession is that we would come out feeling that a burden has been lifted off our shoulders. And if a burden has been lifted off our shoulders, then we should feel free, be happy, rejoice and be ready to repair any damage done by the sins we have committed.
And he has some more advice for us when we come out from Confession. He says: “After the priest’s absolution, every repentant member of the faithful has the certainty, through faith, that his sins are no more. They no longer exist! God is omnipotent. I like to think that He has one weakness: a bad memory. Once He has forgiven you, He forgets. And this is great! The sins no longer exist; they have been wiped away by divine mercy”.
You don’t need me to tell you that people no longer go to confession on a regular basis, in the way in which people went to confession in the past. The question that inevitably arises from this is; How often should we go to Confession? The Catechism says at least once a year. Padre Pio says once a week. And he uses a homely example. He said; “Even if a room is closed, it is necessary to dust it after a week.” The Pope says that he goes to Confession every fifteen days, namely twice a month. He said: “Even I go to Confession every fifteen days because the Pope is also a sinner”. For me, it’s not so much how often we go but what happens when we go. And what is important is that when we go we come away feeling that we have just met God, the merciful Father who has listened to us, forgiven us and assured us that he has ‘a bad memory’, because our sins no longer exist; they have been wiped away by divine mercy and we can make a fresh start in our attempt to live a good life.
Is there a place for Confession in the Church of the future? In my opinion there certainly is. Just recall what Pope Francis has said and then think of how it could change the lives of so many people who feel down in today’s world. “God has a bad memory. Once he has forgiven you, he forgets.” And if God forgets then he expects all of us who have been forgiven to forget – forget the hurt felt as a result of untrue gossip, forget the hurt of the harsh word uttered by a husband, a wife a child or a neighbour – forget the feeling of shame that has dogged us because of some very personal sin we have committed – forget the neglect we have shown to people we should have cared for. And the list is endless. If Pope Francis can say that God has a bad memory then we should be able to say to ourselves – forgive and forget. Let me give the last word to Pope Francis: “Catholics must be helped to see that when they are forgiven, they must learn to forgive others. This is a task to which we are all called, especially in the face of the bitterness that entraps too many people who need to find again the joy of interior serenity and the taste of peace.”