Yesterday's Knoxville News Sentinel had a review of sorts of Pope Francis's recent book, The Name of God Is Mercy: A conversation with Andrea Tornielli, tr. Oonagh Stransky (Random House, 2016). After an opening paragraph which seems to see the interpretive key to this pontificate in the papal choice of shoes, the article then goes on to comment on the book as a series "anecdotes of mercy." The reviewer is right in that this book, composed as a conversation, contains numerous appealing anecdotes of various personal and ministerial experiences during the Pope's long life, recounted as the article notes "in a way the man and the woman in the street can understand." These include accounts of priests and others who particularly influenced the Pope in the course of his life and even some more background about his episcopal motto (derived from the Venerable Bede) Miserando atque eligendo. And, being an interview, a conversation, the book is exceptionally engaging for the reader.
On the particular subject of confession, the article quotes the Pope's famous comment, repeated in his book, that the sacrament is not intended to be a "torture chamber," which was originally from the Pope's October 25, 2013, Santa Marta homily. But there is actually a lot more about confession in this book - not surprising perhaps in a book written in connection with a Holy Year, an occasion when confession is traditionally emphasized. For example, elaborating on his now so very famous "Who am I to judge?" comment, the Pope spoke od confession as part of the ministry of pastoral accompaniment. "I prefer," the Pope says, "that homosexuals come to confession, that they stay close to the Lord, and that we pray all together. You can advise them to pray, show goodwill, show them the way, and accompany them along it" (p. 62).
Clearly, the Pope proposes to promote confession, but he is also acutely aware of the perennial problem of routine confession. "If you are talking about the penitent who automatically repeats a formula, I would have to say that he was not well prepared, he was not well catechized, he does not know how to self-examine, and he does not realize how many sins he actually commits. ... when there is the kind of repetitiveness that becomes a habit, you cannot grow in the awareness of yourself or of the Lord" (p. 59).
I think that the Pope is touching on a very important predicament in which the sacrament of penance finds itself today. The sacrament was, of course, intended for reconciliation with God and the Church after serious sin, and certainly still serves that purpose well - however different the externals are from the experience of the early Church. It also, I believe, meets needs of those aspiring to a more intense spiritual experience, for whom the sacrament may serve as a sort of (or accompaniment to) spiritual direction. But what about everyone else? What about that vast multitude whose religious experience lies largely somewhere in between those two extremes? For them, confession can easily become routine - even when done only occasionally. Indeed that may help explain why so many nowadays confess only occasionally or very rarely or not at all.
One solution sometimes suggested is to cultivate a habit of going to confession. That was the idea, I suppose, behind the monthly confessions that were part of my parochial school experience. On the Thursday before the first Friday of every month, all 1000+ of us would be trooped over to the church for confession. But, if the goal was to inculcate a habit, it seems not to have succeeded, since mine was also the first generation many of whom easily abandoned confession not long after!
One of the practices always associated with a Jubilee year is confession, and parishes all over the world will be offering additional opportunities to receive the sacrament and in various ways encouraging people to do so more often. But for any of that to work, we will also have to accompany people to the sacrament in ways which help everyone to experience it in a way which actually seems effective for them in their specific situation. That may be one of the greatest challenges - and possible opportunities - of this Holy Year of Mercy!