Headline writers always have a hard task – they have to grab the reader’s attention and reel them in. So how about this? “Pope Francis Breaks Tradition and Stuns Thousands With Bold Move.” Sounds good, eh? What can our Pope have done now, you ask? And have those stunned thousands recovered consciousness yet?
Inevitable disappointment follows as one reads the article. No, he has not abolished priestly celibacy, or ditched some millennial Church teaching. He has merely done what every Pope before him has done: he has gone to confession. True, he has done so at the beginning of a Vatican reconciliation service, and in full view of many people (the stunned thousands of the headline) and in full view of the cameras, but in essence he has done nothing new.
Nevertheless, I am glad that the Pope has done this. People often ask me if priests go to confession, and I reply that they should and they do. Then they ask to whom do priests confess, to which the answer is to other priests. (They may think there is some grade of “superpriest” to whom priests confess, but this is not so.)
It is important that priests go to confession, because they are weak fallible human beings, as indeed is the Pope, except when he speaks ex cathedra. By confessing so openly and publicly, the Holy Father is underlining this “we are all in it together” approach. He is a sinner in need of grace as much as the rest of us. This is an important corrective to those who would wish to see the Pope on a pedestal, and as somehow distinct from humanity. Catholics of course do not do this, but some non-Catholics sadly imagine that this is how we see the Pope, and this idea of the Pope as an impossibly distant monarch damages the evangelical mission of the Church to humanity.
There is something else at work here as well. Quite often on our television screens we are treated to the spectacle of someone demanding that politicians “apologise”, and the said politicians squirming and saying they did “nothing wrong”. (There have been numerous examples of this – we can all think of one.) Politicians are the sort of people who cannot, it seems, admit mistakes. And it is not just politicians. The sin is infectious. But to be authentic human beings we have to admit our mistakes, otherwise we will never grow. The Pope, by confessing, is showing us all that he, and by extension the bishops and the clerical caste in general, are not politicians, not in the game of maintaining power and prestige at all costs. Indeed, this public confession seems to me to represent a “conscious uncoupling” between the Vatican and the world of political power.
If you cannot quite follow what I mean, try to imagine this. Mr Cameron going to confession. Mr Berlusconi standing in the queue at his local parish church. George Osborne, Tony Blair, Harriet Harman, Peter Mandelson… could you picture any of these admitting even to God in the secrecy of the confessional, that somehow, somewhere, they got it wrong?
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