VATICAN CITY — Priests are called to lead their congregations by example, including the example of going to confession, Pope John Paul II said.

“The priest himself, minister of God's forgiveness, needs to receive this forgiveness in a spirit of faith, humility and profound trust,” the Pope told priests from his own Diocese of Rome.

The March 9 audience for priests, an annual appointment with the bishop of Rome, was expanded to become the Jubilee for Roman Clergy and included a procession into St. Peter' s Basilica, a penitential prayer service and individual confessions before the Pope arrived.

Priests must be the first in their parish to heed the Lenten call to conversion, repentance, charity and reconciliation.

Going to confession, he said, is a “great help for overcoming indulgence in those forms of self-justification, part of the mentality and culture of our day, which make one lose a sense of sin and prevent one from experiencing the consoling joy of God's forgiveness.”

Although it is easy for a priest to get buried under a pile of pastoral commitments, he must not forget the importance for his personal and spiritual life of fostering a sense of communion with the bishop and his brother priests.

Pope John Paul said supporting continuing education programs, reaching out to priests who are undergoing difficulties, offering support and friendship to elderly priests, “openness to dialogue and meeting those who have left the priesthood” all demonstrate a commitment to “the ways of communion and reconciliation.”

“A united and harmonious presbyterate able to work together is a strong witness for the faithful and multiplies the effectiveness of ministry,” John Paul said. Nothing can replace personal witness and contact.

Even if they need to rely on using lay missionaries and foreign priests studying in Rome, he said, parishes should continue the practice of visiting every home in the parish boundaries during Lent.

“The visit reinforces the sense of belonging of many people who frequently live at the parish's margins” and are awaiting a sign that someone is willing to listen, to offer friendship and to help them rediscover their faith.

The Holy Father said the priests must make a special, personal effort to reach out “to families in difficulty, those who are estranged from the Church and those who have serious problems of faith or morals.”

The Holy Year, he said, “offers everyone the possibility of being listened to, accepted and encouraged to find the path of reconciliation with the Lord and with their brothers and sisters, even where everything seems lost or irreversible.” (From combined wire services)