“Free, grand, beautiful, forgiven, candid, happy!”

Have you ever been to St. Peter’s Basilica for confession?

The confessionals are found along a side of the basilica, and the sacrament is available in a variety of languages, including French, Polish, Italian, Spanish and English. Typically, the section is roped off to prevent tourists from crowding around the penitents, and the ushers for St. Peter’s allow those wishing to confess to pass and start the hunt for their language.

The confessionals are free-standing and rather small, with the penitent kneeling somewhat awkwardly. But penitents in some numbers there are. Pope Francis famously went to confession there last year, setting an example for all of us, especially as we find ourselves in Lent once more.

The confessors at St. Peter’s are firm but fair. They tend to cut to the heart of the matter, in my experience, and their penances can be pretty stern by American standards.

What was striking, too, about the experience of penance at St. Peter’s was how “special” it felt to go. Talking briefly with some pilgrims from different places, I appreciated that their experience had been similar. It was a privilege to go to confession in the great basilicas of Rome. The feeling for many can be overwhelming, and I have been told that many pilgrims choose to go to confession there after many years of being away from the sacraments. It is a dramatic way to return to the Faith.

But any Catholic, wherever they might live, can find the same experience of healing and joy. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is not supposed to be used just when you go to a special place or at special times in your life, and Lent is a great time to recapture the sense of its importance in our lives.

Which leads me to one of our features this month by Msgr. Bill King, “A Heart That Wants to Change: How Can You Make a Good Confession?” (Pages 11-13). Once you are resolved to go, how can you best prepare? Take a read. As a final thought on the impact of the sacrament, Pope Francis — yes, the same pope who knelt and made his own confession in St. Peter’s and who goes, on average, every two weeks — reminded us all of the joy we can find in the confessional. “Do not be afraid of confession!” he said. “When one is in line to go to confession, one feels all these things, even shame, but then when one finishes confession one leaves free, grand, beautiful, forgiven, candid, happy. This is the beauty of confession!”

A blessed Lent!

Matthew Bunson, Ph.D., K.H.S., is editor of The Catholic Answer and The Catholic Almanac and author of more than 50 books. He is faculty chair at the Catholic Distance University and a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. You may e-mail him at mbunson@osv.com.