The faithful must set aside their egos and sense of superiority over others to make room for God and his tender mercy, Pope Francis said at a Lenten penance service.
“Only those who are poor in spirit and who are conscious of their need of salvation and forgiveness come into the presence of God,” he said March 17.
And those whose hearts are filled with haughty, self-righteous comparisons and judgment, “you will go to hell,” he said in his homily.
The pope led the penance service in a Rome parish, rather than St. Peter’s Basilica, to mark the start of the worldwide celebration of “24 Hours for the Lord,” a period when at least one church in every diocese was invited to be open all night — or at least for extended hours — for confession and Eucharistic adoration.
The Rome parish the pope visited was , the titular church of U.S. Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, New Jersey. It also was the first parish in Rome he has visited since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020.
After delivering his homily at the service, there was a moment of Eucharistic adoration during which the congregation knelt and the pope stood, head bowed, leaning on his cane.
Customarily, the pope would have then gone to a confessional in St. Peter’s Basilica and kneel in front of a priest to confess his sins. However, this year with increased difficulty with his knee, he went to a quiet corner of the Rome parish church where there were two chairs, put on a purple stole and waited for each penitent to approach. He heard confessions for almost one hour.
Other priests were stationed in confessionals or elsewhere in the small church to hear confessions.
In his homily, the pope talked about the danger of being proud of one’s “religious accomplishments” and believing oneself better than others.
“They feel comfortable, but they have no room for God because they feel no need for him,” he said. Their prayer is more a series of “monologues” rather than sincere dialogue and prayer.
Such people may do good works, join church groups or help the parish and then expect a kind of “payback,” that is, a sense of righteousness or expectation of a “prize” that elevates them above those who don’t meet the same standards, he said.
“Brothers, sisters, let us remember this: The Lord comes to us when we step back from our presumptuous ego,” the pope said.
He asked everyone to look in their hearts and reflect: “Am I presumptuous? Do I think I am better than others?”
After listing self-righteous thoughts such as: “I go to church, I go to Mass, I am married, married in the church, and these people are divorced, sinners,” he asked, “Is your heart like this? (If so,) you will go to hell.”
“In order to get close to God,” he said, each Catholic should tell the Lord they are the biggest sinner of all, and the only reason they have not fallen into worse sin is because God’s mercy “took me by the hand.”
“God can bridge the distance whenever, with honesty and sincerity, we bring our weaknesses before him. He holds out his hand and lifts us up whenever we realize we are ‘hitting rock bottom’ and we turn back to him with a sincere heart,” the pope said.
God is not afraid to “descend to the depths” and “take the lowliest place so he can be the servant of all,” he said.
“There God waits for us there,” at the bottom, the pope said, pointing downward, “not there,” pointing up. God always waits for his children, especially when they participate, with great humility, in the sacrament of penance.
Pope Francis asked that everyone reflect on their lives and choose to stop hiding behind false masks and “the hypocrisy of appearances.”
The faithful must “entrust to the Lord’s mercy our darkness, our mistakes, our wretchedness,” he said, and “acknowledge the distance between God’s dream for our lives and the reality of who we are each day — the wretched.”
The sacrament of reconciliation is meant to be an encounter that “heals the heart and leaves us with inner peace. Not a human tribunal to approach with dread, but a divine embrace in which to find consolation,” he said.
He asked his brother priests who hear confession, “please forgive everything, forgive always.”