Penance: Emphasizing more mercy, less judgement

Father John A. Kiley
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A visit to a former parishioner evoked a few fond memories of the “old days” at the former Sacred Heart Parish in Pawtucket. A woman recalled that years ago priests would be in the confessional from 4 until 6 on Saturday afternoon and then 7:30 until 9 at night. Children were expected to confess during the afternoon and adults were supposed to confess in the evening. As a child, this lady missed her opportunity to confess in the afternoon and showed up at 7:30 p.m. to be shriven of her sins. As soon as she spoke, the pastor sensed a child’s voice and asked how old she was. She replied that she was twelve. The pastor then informed her that she should have been there in the afternoon and told her to go home and come back next week at the proper time. The confessional screen was swiftly shut and the child retreated into the evening. The next week, sure enough, there she was to confess at 4 p.m. If this incident occurred today, the girl’s family would be signing up at the nearest Episcopal church the next morning and the encounter would be the topic for talk shows for the rest of the week.

While Pope Francis probably did not have folksy incidents like this in mind, his Jubilee Year of Mercy has been inaugurated precisely to emphasize more the mercy of God found in the sacrament of penance rather than the frank judgment by the priest integral to the sacrament. Many Christians have weightier issues on their mind than which confessional time slot best suits them. Today’s Catholics deal with absence from Sunday Mass, with marriage irregularities, with contraception, reproduction and pregnancy issues, with internet pornography, with anger, with dishonesty in business, with prejudice, with slander and defamation, with neglect of civic duties. It is not easy for Christians to face these faults and then articulate them to another human being in confession. “I lied twice. I swore four times. And I listened to a dirty joke,” might have been the typical confession in the 1950s. But the age of innocence is long gone. Graver matters press on the contemporary conscience.

The celebrated installation of jubilee doors in the basilicas and cathedrals of the world is just one tangible reminder of the welcoming mercy of God that His Holiness wants to be preached and appreciated throughout the world. In order to emphasize especially the mercy of God made readily available through the sacrament of Penance, Pope Francis had the bodily remains of two dedicated confessors, St. Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio) and St. Leopold Mandic, brought to Rome for a two-week stay before Lent. These two saints spent their lives in the service of the mercy of God through confession.

Fr. Leopold Mandic (1866-1942), canonized in 1983, was originally from Croatia. Although severely crippled, this Capuchin father dedicated his life to the confessional. For almost thirty years, he spent from ten to fifteen hours a day within his cell, which became a confessional for thousands of people who found there an opportunity for forgiveness and mercy. Some friars claimed that he was “ignorant and too lenient in forgiving everyone without discernment.” His simple and humble response to this charge is astonishing: “Should the Crucified blame me for being lenient, I would answer Him: ‘Lord, you gave me this bad example. I have not yet reached the folly of your having died for souls.’” St. Pio (1887-1968), canonized in 2002, and also a Capuchin friar, spent his entire life at San Giovanni Rotondo in southern Italy, never having left that town. During his life, some in Rome looked askance at the evidence of his stigmata and caused him much distress, but his piety always prevailed. He became a privileged witness to mercy, dedicating all of his life to the celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation.

In this coming Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus formulates the perfect blend of mercy and judgment, a model for confessors and a hope for penitents. “Has no one condemned you?” Jesus asks of the woman caught in the act of adultery. She replies, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.” Jesus mercifully forgives the woman her sins but also gently opens up to her the road to healing: “…do not sin anymore!”