The live-streamed liturgy, which was punctuated by periods of silence, began with the chanting of the Latin hymn “Attende, Domine,” which means “Hear us, O Lord.”
“Brothers and sisters,” Pope Francis said, “God calls us once again to conversion: let us pray to obtain the grace of a new life in Christ our Lord.”
The first reading was from the Letter of St. Paul to the Colossians. “He delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins,” the lector read.
The responsorial psalm, taken from Psalm 97, was “the Lord has made known his salvation.”
The day’s Gospel, Luke 1:26-38, was the story of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary and announced that she would conceive Jesus, the Son of God.
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The Gospel was followed by a homily from Pope Francis, who said that the conflict in Ukraine cannot be ended by our own power alone, but requires God’s love.
“By ourselves, we cannot succeed in resolving the contradictions of history or even those of our own hearts. We need the wisdom and gentle power of God that is the Holy Spirit. We need the Spirit of love who dispels hatred, soothes bitterness, extinguishes greed, and rouses us from indifference,” the pope said. “We need God’s love, for our love is fragile and insufficient.”
“Indeed, without love, what can we offer to the world? It has been said that a Christian without love is like a needle that does not sew: it stings, it wounds, and if it fails to sew, weave or patch, then it is useless. This is why we need to find in God’s forgiveness the power of love: the same Spirit who descended upon Mary.”
Pope Francis said that if people want the world to change, it is their hearts that must change first.
“For this to happen, let us allow Our Lady to take us by the hand. Let us gaze upon her Immaculate Heart in which God dwelt, ‘our tainted nature’s solitary boast.’”
“God changed history by knocking at the door of Mary’s heart,” he said. “Today, renewed by God’s forgiveness, may we too knock at the door of her immaculate heart. In union with the bishops and faithful of the world, I desire in a solemn way to bring all that we are presently experiencing to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.”
“I wish to renew to her the consecration of the Church and the whole of humanity, and to consecrate to her in a particular way the Ukrainian people and the Russian people who, with filial affection, venerate her as a Mother.”
Francis also urged Catholics to not be afraid to approach God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
“If your sins frighten you, if your past worries you, if your wounds do not heal, if your constant failings dishearten you and you seem to have lost hope, do not be afraid,” he said. “God knows your weaknesses and is greater than your mistakes. He asks of you only one thing: that you not hold your frailties and sufferings inside. Bring them to him, lay them before him and, from being reasons for despair, they will become opportunities for resurrection.”
After the homily, the pope led a period of silence to make an examination of conscience.
Then there was a general confession of sins, where the assembly and Pope Francis together prayed the Confiteor, followed by the chanting of “Kyrie, eleison,” which is Greek for “Lord, have mercy.”
After the Our Father prayer, individuals could receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, also called confession, from priests present throughout the basilica.
Continuing his custom started in 2014, Pope Francis first went to confession himself, before then hearing the confessions of others.
During the confessions, periods of silence were alternated with Lenten chants.
After giving the final blessing, Pope Francis sat before a statue of Our Lady from the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in San Vittorino, Italy, and entrusted and consecrated Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary through a prayer for peace.
The celebration ended with the presentation of white flowers and the singing of a song of thanksgiving to the Immaculate Virgin Mary.
Brother Peter, a seminarian with the Legionaries of Christ, who attended confession during the penitential service, told CNA: “It was a beautiful moment to recognize that all of us are sinners and that all of us play a part in the damage that has been done to humanity and the damage that we’ve done to the Church, the damage we’ve done to the world by our own sinfulness.”
“In all of our hearts, that’s where the decision between goodness and evil is made in every one of us and it was nice to be able to put that, my own faults and failings, into the hands of God, and contribute that to the offering of the Blessed Virgin Mary in hope that if we all present that spirit of penance then hopefully peace can reign.”
Father Michael Baggot, also a member of the Legionaries of Christ, said: “Today I was privileged to serve as a priest confessor at the pope’s penitential service in St. Peter’s Basilica. It was one of the most moving experiences that I’ve had in my priestly ministry.”
“I was able to extend the mercy of God to people of all parts of the world and to all states of life. Married people, religious sisters, priests, cardinals… It was a tremendously powerful experience to realize our common need for God’s mercy.”
“Each and every one of us has this great need for healing and reconciliation, and precisely in coming to peace with God, we bring a greater peace to the world. And there seems to be no more fitting context to pray for peace in the world than in this context of the penitential service, where we receive the sacramental grace of God’s mercy and we bring peace to our hearts, and peace to our own communities.”
Courtney Mares contributed to this report.
Hannah Brockhaus is Catholic News Agency's senior Rome correspondent. She grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, and has a degree in English from Truman State University in Missouri.