ROME – In his first major liturgy for Holy Week, Pope Francis offered an extended reflection on the spiritual underpinnings of so-called “Catholic guilt,” a by now notorious concept associated with an almost compulsive need to feel overly guilty for any perceived offense.

The roots of this concept come from an ancient tradition in Christianity called “compunction,” meaning a sense of remorse and repentance for one’s sins which for centuries has been a source of reflection by the Catholic Church’s most celebrated minds, many of whom are saints.

Pope Francis dedicated his homily for his March 28 Chrism Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica to a healthy living of compunction, which he said is not an “obsession” with feeling unworthy, but a genuine acknowledgement of wrongdoing and sorrow for its repercussions.

A Chrism Mass is celebrated annually during Holy Week, which precedes Easter and is the holiest week in the Church’s calendar, and is a liturgy during which the sacred oils used in the church’s sacraments for the coming year are blessed.

Given the tie between anointing and the Church’s sacrament of Holy Orders, meaning priestly ordination, the Mass is traditionally associated with the priesthood and Pope Francis has often directed his homily to clergy.

During Thursday’s Mass, Francis was soft-spoken but appeared physically well and read his lengthy homily himself, despite having skipped his Palm Sunday homily entirely, causing alarm over his health, as he struggles with respiratory issues and this year has often relied on aides to read speeches for him.

In his homily Thursday, the pope focused on the image of Peter who, in the Gospels, refused to accept Jesus’s prediction that he would deny Jesus three times.

As a result, Francis said, Peter “lost sight of Jesus and denied him at the cock’s crow,” prompting him to weep at his own failure.

Jesus’s words in all of his years preaching had not altered Peter’s expectations of the Messiah, the pope said, saying Peter “was expecting a political Messiah, powerful, forceful and decisive,” and was scandalized to see Jesus “powerless and submitting passively to his arrest.”

Peter only began to truly know Jesus “when, at the dark moment of his denial, he yielded to tears of shame and repentance,” he said, saying Peter was healed when he allowed himself to be forgiven amid tears of sorrow and renewed sense of love.

Pope Francis noted that 2024 has been designated as a Year of Prayer in the lead up to the 2025 Jubilee of Hope and pointed to “compunction” as a tradition he said would be beneficial in spiritual preparation for the jubilee.

The origin of the word compunction is related to “piercing,” he said, saying it entails a “piercing of the heart” that is painful and evokes repentance.

When Peter was preaching to Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost after Jesus’s resurrection, the inhabitants of the city recognized both “the evil” they had committed in crucifying Jesus, as well as the salvation being offered to them, and they were “cut to the heart,” he said.

This, Francis said, “is what compunction is: not a sense of guilt that makes us discouraged or obsessed with our unworthiness, but a beneficial ‘piercing’ that purifies and heals the heart.”

A healthy dose of compunction is necessary, because only once people recognize their sins can God begin working, he said, saying tears of true repentance are “the holiest waters after those of baptism.”

Francis then made the reflection personal, saying to weep for oneself in the way Peter did does not imply self-pity, “when we are disappointed or upset that our hopes are frustrated, when we feel misunderstood, perhaps even by our fellow priests and our superiors.”

It is also wrong to think of compunction as “an odd and morbid pleasure in brooding over wrongs received, feeling sorry for ourselves, convinced that we were not treated as we deserved or fearing that the future will hold further unpleasant surprises,” he said.

To weep for oneself in a healthy way, Francis said, means seriously repenting for having offended God with one’s sins and recognizing “that we always remain in God’s debt.”

“It means looking within and repenting of our ingratitude and inconstancy, and acknowledging with sorrow our duplicity, dishonesty and hypocrisy,” he said.

True compunction means turning to Jesus on the cross and letting oneself be touched by his love, “which always forgives and raises up, never disappointing the trust of those who hope in him,” he said, saying to do this requires effort, but also provides peace.

“It is not a source of anxiety but of healing for the soul, since it acts as a balm upon the wounds of sin,” he said, saying, “Compunction is thus the antidote to sclerocardia, that hardness of heart so often condemned by Jesus.”

Pope Francis pointed to the importance of compunction in the Church’s spiritual tradition, saying the practice of it “brings us back to the truth about ourselves, so that the depths of our being sinners can reveal the infinitely greater reality of our being pardoned by grace.”

He urged attendees of the Mass to do a personal reflection, and to ask themselves whether their ability to weep for themselves and their sins has increased throughout their lives and ministry.

“If we fail to weep, we regress and grow old within, whereas those whose prayer becomes simpler and deeper, grounded in adoration and wonder in the presence of God, grow and mature,” he said.

Compunction also helps foster solidarity with others, Francis said, saying those who feel compunction of heart “increasingly feel themselves brothers and sisters to all the sinners of the world, setting aside airs of superiority and harsh judgments, and filled with a burning desire to show love and make reparation.”

The pope stressed the importance of solidarity, saying a genuine repentance for one’s own failings allows a person to weep for others, rather than feeling angry or scandalized by others’ failings.

God’s greatest desire, especially for consecrated persons, he said, is for them to be “men and women who bewail the sins of the Church and the world, and become intercessors on behalf of all.”

This is especially important for the Church’s pastors, he said, telling priests specifically that “from us, his shepherds, the Lord desires not harshness but love, and tears for those who have strayed.”

“If our hearts feel compunction, the difficult situations, the sufferings and the lack of faith that we encounter daily will make us respond not with condemnation, but with perseverance and mercy,” he said.

Humanity needs to be set free “from harshness and recrimination, selfishness and ambition, rigidity and frustration, in order to entrust ourselves completely to God,” he said, and urged the Church’s pastors to pray, weep, and intercede for others.

By doing this, he said, “we will allow the Lord to work his miracles.”

One temptation for pastors amid the fast-pace of the modern world is to be “hyperactive and at the same time feeling inadequate,” the pope said, saying this leads to a loss of enthusiasm and a desire to take refuge in complaining, forgetting that “God is infinitely greater than all our problems.”

“When that happens, we can become bitter and prickly,” he said, however, “if bitterness and compunction are directed not to the world but to our own hearts, the Lord will not fail to visit us and raise us up.”

Compunction is not the result of human effort, but is a gift and must be sought in prayer, Pope Francis said, and offered advice on how to cultivate a genuine spirit of repentance.

Francis said there is first a need to “stop looking at our life and our vocation in terms of efficiency and immediate results, and being caught up in present needs and expectations; instead let us view things against the greater horizon of the past and the future.”

He also stressed the importance of rediscovering one’s need “to cultivate prayer that is not obligatory and functional, but freely chosen, tranquil and prolonged. Let us return to adoration and the prayer of the heart.”

Pope Francis returned to the image of Peter weeping after having denied Jesus, noting that the main altar in the basilica sits directly above his tomb.

The presence of Peter’s tomb is an invitation for priests to reflect on all the times in which they have “disappointed and grieved the one who loved us so greatly as to make our hands the instruments of his presence.”

He urged them to repeat the words priests say during the Eucharistic prayer at Mass, “Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.”

Jesus’s decision to come and “bind up the brokenhearted” is a source of hope, the pope said, saying, “If hearts are broken, surely they can be bound up and healed by Jesus.”

He thanked priests for their openness and docility, and for their hard work and tears, voicing specific gratitude for their ministry, “because you bring the miracle of God’s mercy to our brothers and sisters in today’s world. May the Lord console you, strengthen you and reward you.”

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