By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY — In his first seven homilies, Pope Francis repeatedly talked about mercy and grace, recounting anecdotes about asking God for forgiveness and ensuring people that God always is ready to welcome them back.
When he had lunch on Holy Thursday with seven priests from the Diocese of Rome, he made their part in the mercy-and-grace cycle explicit: "He said, 'Open the doors of the church, and then the people will come in. ... If you keep the light on in the confessional and are available, then you will see what kind of line there is for confession.'"
Msgr. Enrico Feroci, director of Caritas Rome and one of the priests who ate with the pope March 28, told Vatican Radio that Pope Francis is convinced priests must "open the doors and allow the people to meet God."
One place where the doors are open and the people come seeking not only forgiveness, but advice and counsel is the Basilica of St. Peter. Fourteen Conventual Franciscans from 10 countries have the full-time ministry of hearing confessions in more than a dozen languages; they are assisted by other priests on major holy days and when large pilgrimages arrive.
Conventual Franciscan Father Rocco Rizzo, rector of the College of Confessors at St. Peter's, told the Vatican newspaper that between 150 and 200 people go to confession in the basilica each day. "There are some days, like Saturday and Sunday, when the number is higher."
"Faithful from every social category and of every age group coming from every corner of the globe approach our confessionals," he said in a March interview with L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper.
The people coming to the confessionals, he said, "are priests, seminarians, religious sisters, lay faithful and also those searching for truth and meaning for their lives."
"Sometimes, the faithful of other religions come — Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, even atheists and agnostics — often they just want to talk about the themes of life, death, the afterlife, peace," he said.
Father Rizzo said the confessors have a very specific ministry, which is not that of being a psychologist, but ministers who "listen, understand, direct, guide, forgive."
Pope Francis spoke about forgiveness again April 2 when he celebrated an early morning Mass in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, where he lives. The small congregation included Vatican police officers.
The day's Gospel passage was St. John's account of Mary Magdalene outside the empty tomb weeping until the Risen Jesus appears and tells her to go tell the disciples she has seen the Lord.
Mary Magdalene was that "sinful woman" who "had anointed Jesus' feet and dried them with her hair," a woman "exploited and despised by those who believed they were righteous," the pope said, according to Vatican Radio.
But she also was the woman Jesus said "loved him very much and for that reason, her many sins were forgiven," the pope said.
At the empty tomb, he said, Mary Magdalene's hopes are dashed, but rather than feel like she had failed again, "she simply cries."
"Sometimes in our lives tears are the lenses we need to see Jesus," Pope Francis said.
Recalling the story of Mary Magdalene, the pope said, "let us ask the Lord to give us the grace of tears -- it's a beautiful grace" -- and ask for the grace "to be able to say with our lives, 'I have seen the Lord,' not because he appeared to me, but because I saw him with my heart."
Christian witness, he said, can be summarized as: "I live this way because I've seen the Lord."