ROME – Resuming a series of talks he began before the Christmas holidays on the various parts of the Mass, the “Pope of Mercy” in his first General Audience of 2018 focused on the importance of the Act of Penance at the beginning of Mass, saying, “only those who recognize their sins and ask forgiveness can receive the understanding and forgiveness of others.”

The centrality of God’s mercy, and the importance of penance, have been important themes for Pope Francis since his election in March 2013, culminating in the special Jubilee Year of Mercy called by the pontiff to run from December 2015 to late November 2016.

In small ways too, Francis has made his passion for penance clear. He’s made hearing confessions, for instance, a regular feature of his visit to Roman parishes, something that previous popes generally didn’t do.

On Wednesday, Francis was back at it, trying to stress the centrality of the Act of Penance to everything that follows in the Mass.

“What can the Lord give to someone whose heart is full of themselves, of their own success?” he asked. “Nothing, because the presumptuous person is incapable of receiving forgiveness, satisfied as they are with their presumed justice.”

The pope then stepped through the elements of the Act of Penance, including the request for forgiveness for “what I have done and what I have failed to do.”

“Often, we compliment ourselves, because, as we say, ‘I didn’t do wrong by anybody.’”

“In reality, it’s not enough not to wrong one’s neighbor,” Francis said. “We have to choose to do good, taking advantage of opportunities to give good witness that we’re disciples of Christ.”

The pope then stressed that while the community recites the Act of Penance together, the language is first person singular, acknowledging that the individual is always responsible for his or her own sins.

In one of his characteristic “country pastor” moments, Francis set aside his prepared text for a moment to tell a story he said had once been told to him by a missionary priest, about a woman who came to confession and began recounting the sins of her husband, followed by her sister-in-law, her relatives, and so on.

Eventually, Francis said, the missionary asked: “Ma’am, are you finished?”

When she grudgingly said she was, Francis said, the missionary then said: “Great, we’re done with everybody else’s sins, now can we talk about yours?”

The line brought laughter from the crowed gathered for the audience on Wednesday morning in the Vatican’s Paul VI Audience Hall.

Francis noted that while the Act of Penance at the Mass ends with absolution from the priest, it doesn’t have the same value as the absolution offered in the sacrament of confession.

“There are, in fact, grave sins, the so-called ‘mortal sins’ because they cause the eternal life in us to die,” Francis said. “For those sins, in order to be forgiven, confession and sacramental absolution are necessary.”

Francis concluded his reflection citing several figures from the Bible who, he said, exemplified the attitude of humbly seeking penance and seeking God’s mercy – King David, the Prodigal Son, St. Peter, Zaccheus, and the Samaritan Woman.

“To measure ourselves by the fragility of the clay with which we’re made,” Francis said, “is an experience that strengthens us. While making us deal with our weakness, it also opens our hearts to invoke the divine mercy that transforms and converts.”