“I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
These were the first words spoken by Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio when asked by the cardinal dean if he accepted his canonical nomination as the Supreme Pontiff.
In his first substantive interview after he was elected pope, he was asked, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” Pope Francis answered, “I am a sinner. It is a not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner… Yes, but the best summary, the one that comes more from the inside and I feel most true is this: I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”
In 2019, when speaking to a group of Jesuits in Mozambique, Pope Francis said, “My election as pope did not convert me suddenly so as to make me less sinful than before. I am and I remain a sinner. That’s why I confess every two weeks.”
So, what’s the hang-up? Why does the Pope seem to be so focused on the fact that he’s a sinner? Does he have a poor self-image? Or does he have a deep, experiential grasp of one of the most fundamental truths of being a Christian, a truth expressed by St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans? “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Acknowledging that we are sinners does not mean (at least it shouldn’t mean) that we wallow in our shame and hold onto a poor self-image; on the contrary, acknowledging that we are sinners points us to the truth that we are in need of salvation and thus in need of a Savior. Acknowledging that we are sinners does not ultimately focus us on ourselves; it ultimately focuses us on the Savior. It points us to the truth that God loves us so much that he became one of us to save us from our sins. When we grasp this truth, we are compelled by grace to turn away from sin and embrace our true identity as children of God called to holiness.
The readings on this second Sunday of Advent proclaim a clear message: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” Spoken by the Prophet Isaiah and reiterated in the Gospel of Mark, these words are a grace-filled challenge from the Holy Spirit to acknowledge that we are sinners and to open our hearts to the Lord who desires to fill us with the power of his grace, to free us from sin, and to enable us to walk the path of holiness. Isaiah says, “Here comes with power the Lord God…” St. John the Baptist tell us what this “power” is: “[Jesus] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
What Pope Francis understands—an understanding deeply rooted in his interior life—is that when we humbly acknowledge our sinfulness we open our hearts to the transforming power of God’s love and mercy. Humbly acknowledging our sins is the way that we prepare the way of the Lord; and when we acknowledge our sins and ask him for his mercy, we give him access to our hearts. This act of acknowledging our sins does not hurt our self-image nor does it damage our self-esteem; on the contrary, it turns our eyes towards Christ who loves us so deeply that he became one of us to save us from our sins.
So how can we put this into practice during Advent? There is no better way to do this than by receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In this sacrament, we acknowledge our sins, but more importantly, we open our hearts to receive the Lord’s healing mercy. Pope Francis himself tells us that he goes to confession at least every two weeks. If the Pope goes every two weeks, why should we be any different?
Make a resolution to go to confession this Advent. Follow Pope Francis’s lead: acknowledge that you are a sinner, but then turn your eyes to the One who looks upon you, to the One who loves and saves you. Make a straight path for him. Give him access to your heart. The Lord wants you to receive his healing mercy so that you experience his saving power.
Image: Osservatore Romano via AFP