Pope Benedict hears confessions in St. Peter’s Basilica at Penance service

UPDATE: I added my rapid translation of the Holy Father’s sermon at the penance service, below. 


CTV had a live broadcast from the Basilica of St. Peter during a penance service for young people. 

It was pretty much a standard Form II ceremony.

The Holy Father heard confessions.

Various stations were set up around the basilica, in addition to the regular confessionals.


The period for confessions was punctuated by spiritual readings and the singing of the usual goopy Italian churchy stuff by Marco Frisina (below).  It was enough to make you despair of salvation, had there not been so many confessors around.


The Holy Father eventually got out of the confessional.

Put on his cope and went to his chair.


After a couple prayers …

…and a blessing, people went home… shriven.

A bonus is to see His Holiness with Pope Pius XII’s coat of arms. [CORRECTION: Innocent X!]


UPDATE:  Here is the Holy Father’s sermon, in my rapid translation:

Also this year, near to Palm Sunday, we meet again to prepare for the celebration of the 23rd World Youth Day which, as you know, will culminate in the Meeting of young people from the whole world to take place at Sydney next 15-20 July.  You have known the theme for this Day for a while now.  It is taken from the words heard just a bit ago in the first reading: "You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you"  (Acts 1,8).  Today’s gathering takes on, and not by chance, the form of a penitential liturgy, with the celebration of individual confessions.

Why "not by chance"?  The response can be dervived from what I wrote in my first encyclical.  There I put into relief that at the beginning of being Christ, there is an encounter with an event, with a Person, who gives a new horizon to life and with it a decisive direction (cf. Deus caritas est, 1).  Precisely to favor this encounter you are readying yourselves to open your hearts to God, confession your sins and receiving, through the action of the Holy Spirit and through the mediation of the Church, forgiveness and peace.  This is how one makes room for the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Most Holy Trinity, who is the "soul" (anima) and "vital breath" (respiro vitale) of Christian life: the Spirit makes us capable of bringing to maturity an ever deeper and joyful understanding of Jesus and, at the same time, to achieve putting the Gospel into effect (Messaggio per la XXIII GMG, 1).

When I was Archbishop of Munich-Freising, in a meditation on Pentecost I was inspired by a film entitled Seelenwanderung  (Metempsychosis), to explain what the action is of the Holy Spirit in the soul.  The film presents two poor devils who, because of their goodness, weren’t able to get ahead in life.  One day one of them got the idea that, not having anything else to sell, he could sell his soul.  This was bought at a cheap price and put into a box.  From that moment, to his great surprise, everything changed in his life.  The began a rapid rise in the world, he became ever richer, he attained great honors, and at his death he was even Consul, largely because of his money and property.  From the moment when he was freed from his soul, he no longer had any consideration or humanity.  He acted without scruples, aiming only at gain and success.  Man no longer counted for anything.  He himself no longer had a soul.  The film, as I concluded, show in an impressive way how behind the facade of success, there is often hidden an empty existence.

On the surface, the man hadn’t lost anything, but he lacked a soul, and without it, lacked everything.  It is obvious, as I continued in that reflection, that a human being can’t literally throw away his own soul, from the moment that it makes him into a person.  In fact, he still remains a person. And still there is the frightening possibility of being inhuman, to remain a person selling and losing at the same time one’s own humanity.  The distance between the human person and the inhuman person is immense, even if your can’t demonstrate it; it is that thing which is really essential, even though it is, on the surface, without importance (cf.Suchen, was droben ist. Meditationem das Jahr hindurch, LEV, 1985).

Even the Holy Spirit, who was at the beginning of creation and thanks to the Paschal Mystery descended abundantly on Mary and the Apostles on the day of Pentecost, offers no evidence to physical eyes. If It penetrates into the person, or not, you can’t see it of demonstrate it; but it changes and renews the whole outlook of human existence.  The Holy Spirit does not change the exterior situations of life, but rather the interior.  On the evening of Easter Jesus, appearing to the disciples, "breathed on them and said: Receive the Holy Spirit" (John 20,22).  In a way even more evident, the Spirit descended on the Apostles on the day of Pentecost, like a roaring wind and in the form of tongues of fire.  This night also the Spirit descends upon our hearts, to forgive sins and renew them interiorly, clothing them with a power will make us also, like the Apostles, bold in announcing that "Christ was dead and is risen!"

Dear friends, let us therefore prepare ourselves, with a sincere examination of conscience, to present ourselves before those to whom Christ entrusted the ministry of reconciliation.  With a contrite spirit let us confess our sins, seriously proposing not to repeat them any more.  This is how we will experience the joy that is true: which comes from the mercy of God, flows into our hearts and reconciles us with Him.  This joy is contagious! "You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you", as the bible verse chosen as the theme of the 23rd World Youth Day says, "and you shall be my witnesses" (Acts 1:8).  Make yourselves bearers of this joy which comes from welcoming the gifts of the Holy Spirit: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Galatians 5:22).

Remember that you are "temples of the Spirit"; allow Him to abide in you and obey His directions docilely, to bring forward your contribution to the building up of the Church (cf. 1 Cor 12:7) and discern to what sort of vocation the Lord is calling you.  Today also the world has need of priests, of consecrated men and women, of married Christian couples.  Be generous in responding to a vocation through one of these ways, and help yourselves through recourse to the sacrament of confession and to the practice of spiritual direction in your journey as Christians of consistent character. (cristiani coerenti)  Seek especially to open your heart sincerely to Jesus, the Lord, to offer Him your unconditional "yes".

Dear young people, this city of Rome is in your hands. Yours is the task to make it beautiful also spiritually with your witness of life lived in the grace of God and in keeping far away from sin, sticking to everything the Holy Spirit calls you to be in the Church and the world.  In this way you will make visible the superabundant grace of the mercy of Christ, which gushed from His side, pierced for us on the Cross.  The Lord Jesus washes us of our sins, heals us of wrongs and strengthens us not to succumb in the struggle against sin and in the witness of His love.

Twenty-five years ago, our beloved Servant of God John Paul II inaugurated, not far from this Basilica, the San Lorenzo International Youth Center: a spiritual initiative which was united to many others present in the Diocese of Rome, to aid welcoming young people, the exchange of experiences and the witness of faith, and above all the prayer which helps us discover the love of God.  In that occasion John Paul II said: "Whoever allows himself to be filled up with this love – the love of God – cannot deny his own guilt for very long.  The loss of the sense of sin derives in the final analysis from the even more radical loss of the sense of God" (Omelia per l’inaugurazione del Centro Internazionale Giovanile "San Lorenzo", 13 marzo 1983, 5).  And he added: "Where to go in this world, with sin and with guilt, without the Cross?  The Cross takes upon Itself all the misery of the world, which comes from sin.  It is revealed as the sign of grace.  It accepts our solidarity and encourages us to sacrifice for others" (ibid.).

Dear young people, this experience is renewed today for you: look at the Cross, welcome the love of God which is given by the Holy Spirit, and, as Pope John Paul II said, "Become you yourselves, redeemers of the youth of the world"(ibid.).

Divine Heart of Jesus, whence Blood and water flowed forth like the wellspring of mercy for us, we trust in Thee.  Amen!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. st daggett says:

    Oh, it is so nice to see our Pope looking like a Pope… so kingly. Long live the Steward of the Church!

  2. Gustavo Ráez-Patiño says:

    Well, we can see several things in the externals this time: The beautiful cope the Pope is wearing, is it the one he wore for the first Verpers of Advent, the one he wore for the Ash Wednesday procession, or is it a brand new one? All of them have a very similar shade of purple and very similar designs. Also we see a new morse (“formale”).

    He is wearing again one of those short mitres I thought would be banished by now. Well, at least it is one of my favourites among the “Benedict XVI mitres”. But, wouldn’t this mitre be equivalent to a precious mitre? I thought that during penitential liturgies the correct mitre was the “auriphrygata”.

    And again we have the ugly white “armchair”. I suppose it is because this is an austere, penitential ceremony. I don’t want to see it at all during Holy Week and Easter! (Maybe on Good Friday). And maybe that is why this time the steps of the dias were without the red carpet (I hope so) and a small white panel was behind the chair instead of that huge red one we saw on December 31 last year. Also, I noticed that the papal chair was located directly in front of the statue of St. Peter, just as Archbishop Piero Marini suggested once. I think that is a good alternative for having once and for all a permanent location for the papal throne.

  3. Szczebrzeszczynski says:

    It’s not cope pope wore durning the vespers of advent. On the phoyo (a couple of prayers) we can see a crown (?) and motifs which aren’t on the mentioned cope (although it’s very similar). I think he hasn’t worn it before.

  4. Jamie says:

    I really wish they would put an end to face to face confessions – it is no wonder people aren’t going – they are ashamed and the “new style” confessions make it very uncomfortable. I for one stopped going for shame as a young man when they ripped out the proper confessionals and replaced with the face to face chairs. I returned many years later at an SSPX parish when they had real confessional boxes and anonymity again.

  5. Tinytin says:

    I think it’s very motivating that the Holy Father hears confessions from public penitents!

    Does he do this sort of thing often?

  6. Fr Martin Fox says:


    You might note the fixed confessionals in St. Peter’s provide for anonymous; so what you had was both options. Or do you object to even allowing the option of face-to-face?

    After all, it’s always been true the penitent had the option of making his/her confession face-to-face. A priest rides a train (100 years ago) and someone says, “will you hear my confession”? Same 1,000 years ago.

    What I noted was that the temporary stations seemed awfully close to each other, and then people are walking near them. Of course, anyone who has seen the way people rush about in the basilicae in Rome, even during the communion “”procession”” (single quotes did not suffice here), will not be surprised to see people walking near others making their confessions. Still, whoever sets up the temporary stations has to be attentive to that.

  7. Michael says:

    It’s probably more accurate to call what we have today “sit down confession.” “Face to face” confession was very different in the past.


    What I like most about that picture are the expressions on thr priest and penitent’s face.

    Whenever I do face to face confession, it works like this: The kneeling penitent bows his head while the priest listens attentively. We don’t make eye contact and we don’t make conversation. Compare this to sitting in a in a comfortable chair turned toward the priest. You confess your sins while you look him in the eye. Where is Christ in all of this? How to we confess to Him when we’re distracted by the priest’s facial expressions? In the few instances where I’ve had to make a confession this way, it’s felt entirely irreverent.

  8. Hung Doan says:

    Did anyone notice the violet humeral veils the altar servers (for lack of a better term I guess) had on? That’s pretty nifty. I didn’t know you could go by seasons…anyone have an explanation?

  9. agnese says:

    what’s wrong with Marco Frisina?? I think he’s a great composer! he made great, inspirational music!!!

  10. Sorry, Father, but that is not Pope Pius XII’s coat of arms on the floor at that point of the basilica’s nave. Rather, it is the arms of Pope Innocent X (Giovanni Battista Pamphilii, 1644-1655). You can tell because the dove is not standing on the triple mount above a green field surmounting waves and, also, because I just happen to remember.

  11. agnese: what’s wrong with Marco Frisina?? I think he’s a great composer! he made great, inspirational music!!!

    You know, I take it back. His music isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds.

  12. Fr. GS: YES! Thanks for the correction. You are right. It was that dove, you know…

  13. Melody says:

    On confession face to face: I really think it is a personal and a cultural thing and that both options should be used. To me, face to face confession feels more real and honest. I like to look directly at the priest (acting in the person of Christ) and tell him my sins rather than hiding behind a screen.

    I’ve also always appreciated the way the priest who is my regular confessor asks briefly how I am before we begin. This short conversation is how he gently indicates, “No hurry, come here and tell me everything.”

    Changing the subject: Thank you for translating the Holy Father’s sermon for us. Is our Pope personally devoted the Divine Mercy? Those last two lines of his sermon are part of the Chaplet. I suppose we might find out on Divine Mercy Sunday.

  14. Michael says:

    I don’t think it is a cultural thing. As far as I know, no culture had face to face confession as we have it today before the Council, and my culture (anglo-america) certainly didn’t have it before 40 years ago. It ought to be discouraged because it changes how people approach the sacrament and understand confession, for all the reasons you cite. There’s a famous altarpiece in Antwerp called the Seven Sacraments. In it you see a confession as ift would have looked in the fifteenth century. The priest sits in a wooden chair while the penitent kneel on the ground, begging for forgiveness. They make eye contact, but nothing about it is conducive to conversation. THAT’s face to face confession. Ultimately, the form of the sacraments should be regulated by custom and tradition, not individual choice.

  15. Interesting that the deacons wear Dalmatics… is that done in any non-papal non-eucharistic ceremony?

  16. Gregor says:

    There were also bishops and cardinals hearing confessions:

  17. Chironomo says:

    In response to:


    Fr Z. –

    Or as Wagner once said after hearing an Opera of Meyerbeer.. “It was an excellent Opera… I should like to set it to music someday”

  18. Chironomo says:


    I’m typing things that aren’t showing up now… the above post should have included Fr. Z’s comment that Frisina’s music is “not nearly as bad as it sounds”

    I then went on to quote Wagner, speaking after hearing an Opera by Meyerbeer: “It was an excellent Opera… I should like to set it to music someday.”

    Hope that makes sense now…

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