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For many Catholics, it is a difficult act to turn to the sacrament of reconciliation. But as one fine priest said to me recently, a priest is always eager to connect people with God’s mercy.

But priests are human too and need encouragement just like the rest of us. On March 25, Pope Benedict XVI provided great encouragement to his brother priests, particularly focused on the sacrament of reconciliation.

Although it is true that it is always necessary to safeguard the objectivity of the effects of the sacrament and its correct celebration in accordance with the norms of the rite of penance, it is not out of place to reflect on how much it can educate the faith of both the minister and the penitent. 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.

And so, the Holy Father encourages priests to contemplate the conversions they witness in the sacrament. Those conversions of sinners are profound and can act as impetuses for a priests own conversion of heart.

From the administration of the sacrament of penance we may draw profound lessons of humility and faith! It is a very strong appeal to each priest for knowledge of his own identity. We will never be able to hear the confessions of our brothers and sisters solely by virtue of our humanity!

If they approach us, it is only because we are priests, configured to Christ the Eternal High Priest, and enabled to act in his Name and in his Person, to make God who forgives, renews and transforms, truly present.

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.

The grace administered and received in reconciliation provides, in a sense, fuel for the continued journey in life, for both the penitent and the priest.

In our time, marked by noise, distraction and loneliness, the penitent’s conversation with the confessor can be one of the few — if not the only — opportunities to be truly heard in depth.

Dear priests, do not neglect to allow enough room for the exercise of the ministry of penance in the confessional: to be welcomed and heard is also a human sign of God’s welcoming kindness to his children.

Our Lord waits with open arms for the return of His prodigal daughter or son. May this encouragement from our Holy Father lead us to deeper trusts in priests of the church, who in the Person of Christ, lead us to this heavenly love.

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