VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Exercise a little courage and go to confession, turn away from selfishness and sin and back to God during the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis urged people at a Lenten penance service.
"When our desire to be healed becomes more courageous, it leads to prayer, to crying out fervently and persistently for help, as did Bartimaeus: ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me,’" the pope said, quoting from the Gospel of St. Mark.
The penance service in St. Peter’s Basilica March 4 kicked off the Rome celebration of "24 Hours for the Lord," a period when select churches around the city were to be open all night — or at least for extended hours — for confession and eucharistic adoration.
After delivering his homily at the service, Pope Francis walked to one of the confessionals in the basilica and knelt in front of a priest to confess his sins.
Then he and 60 priests went to other confessionals, or even just plastic chairs set in quiet corners, to hear confessions.
Like Bartimaeus, who was blind, Catholics go to confession because they want to see again, the pope said. "Our sins have made us lose sight of all that is good and have robbed us of the beauty of our calling, leading us instead far away from our journey’s end."
The blindness of sin "impoverishes and isolates us," the pope said. It prevents people from seeing what is most important and instead makes them focus on themselves "until we are indifferent to others and to what is good."
"How easy and misguided it is to believe that life depends on what we have, on our success and on the approval we receive," the pope said. Sin makes people believe "the economy is only for profit and consumption" and "that personal desires are more important than social responsibility."
The Year of Mercy, Pope Francis said, "is the favorable time to welcome God’s presence, to experience his love and to return to him with all our heart.
Like Bartimaeus, let us cast off our cloak and rise to our feet: that is, let us cast aside all that prevents us from racing toward him."
Speaking to priests, particularly those about to administer the sacrament, Pope Francis urged them to ensure that nothing they do makes it more difficult for people to draw close to Jesus in confession.
Priests are meant to "inspire courage, to support and to lead others to Jesus," he said. "Our ministry is one of accompaniment so that the encounter with the Lord may be personal and intimate, and the heart may open itself to the savior in honesty and without fear."
The gift of priesthood, he said, is a gift that brings with it the ability to facilitate a sinner’s personal encounter with the Lord and, even more, "to stretch out our hand and to absolve, thus making his mercy visible and effective."
"We certainly must not water down the demands of the Gospel, but we cannot risk frustrating the desire of the sinner to be reconciled with the Father," Pope Francis said. "For what the Father awaits more than anything is for his sons and daughters to return home.
"May every man and woman who comes to confession find a father who welcomes them and the Father who forgives them," the pope said in a brief addition to his prepared homily.