The church requires Catholics to confess to a priest and receive absolution once a year when in a state of serious sin, but it strongly urges regular confession even for venial sins to help the penitent grow in sanctity.
"Obviously sacramental confession is not to be confused with a support system or with psychotherapy," John Paul said. "But neither should we underestimate the fact that the Sacrament of Reconciliation, when correctly celebrated, also has a 'humanizing' effect, which is in perfect harmony with its primary purpose of reconciling the individual with God and the church."
The pope praised priests, who numbered 404,626 worldwide as of the end of 1998, according to Vatican statistics, for their "discreet, tenacious and creative" ministry in a secularized society.
"Your ministry is all the more admirable when it is tested by the resistance of a widely secularized environment, which subjects priestly activity to the temptations of fatigue and discouragement," he said.
John Paul acknowledged that many Catholics no longer confess regularly and said priests must do more to help them "rediscover the Sacrament of Reconciliation as a fundamental means of our sanctification."
Priests also must share some of the blame, the pope said.
"But perhaps we should also recognize that another factor sometimes working against the sacrament has been a certain dwindling of our own enthusiasm and availability for the exercise of this delicate and demanding ministry," he said.
John Paul said that "catechetical teaching about the moral conscience and about sin" also is needed. It is the gospel, not "common convention," that determines what is sin, he said.
"Unfortunately," he said, "there exists a minimalist tendency which prevents the sacrament from producing all the benefits that we might hope for. Many of the faithful have an idea of sin that is not based on the gospel but on common convention, on what is socially 'acceptable.'
"This makes them feel not particularly responsible for things that 'everybody does,' and all the more so if these things are permitted by civil law," he said.
The pope writes to priests each year on the Thursday of Holy Week to mark the day when Christians re-enact Jesus' Last Supper with his disciples, at which he instituted the Eucharist and the ministerial priesthood.