For most North American Vatican-watchers, this week was supposed to be about the first meeting between Pope Francis and President Barack Obama. Once again, Pope Francis diverted people’s attention and forced a substitution of headlines.
The Diocese of Rome hosted a Penitential Service on Friday evening, during which Pope Francis was scheduled to hear confessions for about an hour. While making his way to his assigned confessional, he stopped, waved off the master of ceremonies and appeared to say “wait a minute”, then made a bee-line across the aisle to another confessional where a priest was already seated, patiently waiting for penitents. With his trademark certainty, Pope Francis knelt on the penitent’s kneeler and proceeded to confess himself.
Vatican officials have said this was not in the schedule and no one, not even the priest who heard the pope’s confession, had advance warning.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that Pope Francis would take the opportunity to avail himself of the services of a good confessor. He has publicly stated he goes to confession every two weeks, he has repeatedly encouraged the faithful to “never tire of asking God for forgiveness,” and has urged priests to make the confession experience less like a torture chamber and more of a transformative experience.
Even for committed Catholics the Sacrament of Reconciliation can seem about as appealing as going to the dentist for root canal. The image of the pope stepping sure-footedly up to the penitent’s kneeler, will undoubtedly go a long way to shaking up that attitude.
The image of the man in the white cassock kneeling in front of a confessor, also shakes up the general idea of what a leader looks like: someone who can get in trenches and do the very things he asks his followers to do.