Costanzo Cargnoni OFM Cap
Translated by Lam Vu OFM Cap
It is not easy to explain the mission that God entrusted to both Father Leopold and Father Pio, to make God’s Mercy tangible, alive and to experience (even for their penitents) all the beauty of the Sacrament of Confession, that today many Christians neglect! To every Christian it needs be constantly repeated: the mystery of Redemption is about you, about your need for salvation, it is about your very destiny! And if you are fortunate enough to meet a holy confessor, become his ‘spiritual child’, not so that you can feel a bit better but for you to really become what you already are: a ‘child of God.’ This is why Pope Francis wanted the two saints to be two great crucial figures of the Extraordinary Jubilee in 2016.
Let us then compare these two saints by collecting some significant data from their biographies.
Let us begin with St Leopold Mandic, a lesser-known saint than St Pio of Pietrelcina. He is known as a martyr of the confessional and of spiritual ecumenism. Throughout his life, he had a desire of going to the East in a mission to bring the ‘schismatics’ back to the one true Catholic Church; but due to his physical condition (extremely short and a stammerer) and his state of health, and in obedience to his superior, he spent his life in the confessional box welcoming sinners and forgiving them in the name of God. He was recently referred to by Pope Francis as the ideal confessor (‘confess like him’).
This Croatian Capuchin embodied in his life the parable of the merciful Father waiting for the “Prodigal Son.”
Born in Castelnuovo of Cattaro, on the Dalmatian coast, in 1866, he was very small (1.35 metres), weak, and limped due to deforming arthritis in his feet. He had a speech impediment that prevented him from preaching, and so he was always assigned to hearing confessions. In his small confessional-box in the Capuchin friary in Padua, where today the faithful flock to his incorrupt body, he heard confession for 10 to 15 hours a day for 30 years. But the city of Padua did not immediately notice the great little saint it was hosting.
About himself, Fr. Leopold said, “I am truly a man of nothing, indeed ridiculous.” And so he was believed to be by the friars and the people. Even the children laughed at him on the street and put rocks in his hood….
People said that “he was an ignorant, overly lenient confessor who absolved everyone without discernment.” “Father, but you are too generous … you will give an account of it to the Lord! … Don’t you fear that God will ask you the reasons for being excessively lenient?” But to those who accused him of ‘laxity in moral principles,’ St. Leopold Mandic would reply, “He gave us an example! We did not die for souls, but He shed His divine blood. We must therefore treat souls as He has taught us by His example. Why should we humiliate the souls that come to prostrate themselves at our feet? Aren’t they humiliated enough already? Did Jesus humiliate the publican, the adulteress, Magdalene?” Spreading his arms wide, he added, “If the Crucified One had to reproach me for the ‘wide sleeve’ I would answer Him: this bad example, Blessed Master, you have given me! I have not yet come to the folly of dying for souls!”
Then gradually, the city began going to him for confession, some even sent by Padre Pio who used to say, “You have a Saint, why do you come to me?!”
Apostle of unity – however, behind this vocation there is a secret. “When I was 22 years old,” he says, “I heard the voice of God calling me to pray and meditate for the return of the Orthodox to Catholic unity.” He made a vow of it. It was his “holy madness,” his confreres said; he told everyone about it and hoped to fulfill this call, clearly, by returning to Croatia. And it looked like his desire was to be fulfilled when the city of Fiume [today Rijeka, Croatia] was captured by Italy, and he was assigned to that friary. But the Bishop of Padua worked hard to get the Provincial to keep him in his city where everyone demanded him. It seemed as if he was defeated. But it was not so.
A confrere who marvelled at this change in attitude asked him why, and Fr. Leopold replied, “Some time ago I had the occasion to meet a holy person who after communion said to me, ‘Father, Jesus ordered me to tell you that every soul you assist here in confession is your East.'” And from then on he did just that. He treated every penitent as if the conversion to the unity of His people depended on the sinner before him.
Even in the Holy Mass – which he always offered, if he could, for this intention – he felt a physical suffering for the disunity [of the Church], identifying himself with Christ. He wept at times to the point of wetting the altar cloth… God granted him to work miracles even in his lifetime, but he maintained that he had nothing to do with it: “What fault is it of mine,” he would say, “if they come with such great faith, and if, because of their faith, the Heavenly Father answers them?”
A Capuchin friar reminded Father Leopold one day that, in the past, he used to talk constantly about going to the Eastern countries, “and now,” he adds, “you don’t talk about it anymore.” – “Exactly”, Fr Leopoldo replies. “Some time ago, I was giving communion to a good person. After completing the act of thanksgiving, he came to entrust me with this task: “Father, Jesus ordered me to tell you this: your East is every soul you assist here in confession”. Therefore, you see my dear friend that God wants me here and not in a mission land”. Another time, he confided to a friar: “Since God has not granted me the gift of preaching, I want to consecrate myself to bring souls back to Him through the sacrament of penance”.
The ministry of the sacrament of Reconciliation was a severe penance for him. He did it in a small room of a few square meters, without air or light. It was an oven in the summer, an icebox in the winter. He remained in there for 10 to 15 hours a day. “How can you last so long in the confessional?” a friar asked him one day. “It’s my life, you see,” he replied, smiling. His love for souls made him a voluntary prisoner of the confessional, for he knew that “to die in a state of mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love is to remain separated from Him forever, by our own free choice,” and that “the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin, after death descend immediately into hell, where they suffer the pains of hell, ‘eternal fire’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC, 1033; 1035).
Sometimes he would minister confession even with a fever and skip meals seeing the long line of penitents. Not uncommonly, after confessions, he would remain in prayer long into the night. He promised many penitents: “I will do penance for you; I will pray for you.”
In order to obtain the immense benefit of God’s forgiveness for all those who came to him, Father Leopold showed himself to be open and smiling, prudent and modest, an understanding and patient spiritual adviser. The experience taught him how important it was to put the penitent at ease and inspire him with confidence. One of them reported a revealing fact: “I had not confessed for years. Finally, I made up my mind and went to see Father Leopold. I was very restless, embarrassed. As soon as I entered, he got up and approached me, delighted, as if I were an expected friend: “Please, take a seat.” In my confusion, I went to sit in his chair. Without saying anything, he knelt on the ground and listened to my confession. When it was over, and only then, I realized my mistake and wanted to apologize for it; but he, smiling, said, ‘It is nothing, it is nothing’. ‘Go in peace’. This trait of goodness remained engraved in my mind. In doing so, he had totally won me over.’
Confession by Father Leopold ‘was brief. He never took too long on words, explanations, and speeches. He had learned from the Catechism of St. Pius X that brevity is one of the characteristics of a good confession. For more than 40 years, his confessional was like a harbour for souls. There were many who went, and continuously frequented it.”
In a letter to a priest, Leopold said, “Excuse me father, forgive me if you allow me … but you see, we, in confession, must not show off our knowledge. We must not speak of things beyond the capacity of individual souls, nor should we dwell on explanations. Otherwise, with our imprudence, we ruin what the Lord is doing in them. It is God, God alone who works in souls! We must step aside and limit ourselves from interfering with the Divine work which works in mysterious ways for people’s salvation and sanctification”.
Leopold did not shorten the confession to a few minutes. Sometimes, he would stay for a long time. And he didn’t water-down people’s sin when they tried to justify or minimise it. He became extremely compassionate if he recognised the person had humility. This episode is enough for us.
One day a man entered the confessional and persisted in defending his many sins with subtle reasoning. Fr. Leopold tried everything but then faced with the man’s sophisticated ridicule, he stood up and exclaimed, “Go away! Go away! You are taking the side of those cursed by God!” The man almost fainted with fear and fell on the ground crying. Then Fr. Leopold lifted him up and, embracing him, said to him, “You see, now you are my brother again”.
He read souls. One man who hadn’t been to confession for years, was dragged there by friends. He thought to himself, “I’ll get in line and then, when everyone’s gone, I’ll leave too before I have to go into that little room.” But suddenly Fr. Leopold came out and, going straight to him, said, “Come in, sir. … I’ve been waiting for you, you know. I’ve been waiting for you….” And then, once inside, “You didn’t want to come… but don’t worry… I’ll tell you what you did…. That’s what you did, isn’t it? And now you’re sorry, right? Therefore, God forgives you everything. I thank you for coming to bring me such great joy, but I will wait for you again, you know…. Come and we will become good friends….”
Shortly before his death in 1942, Fr. Leopold made this prophecy: “The city will be bombed many times, this friary will be severely hit, but not this little cell. Here the Lord God has shown so much mercy to souls: it must remain the monument of His goodness.” In fact, the bombings of 1944 destroyed the friary, but the cell remained standing… So what happened in that cell? If a person entered it and showed some hesitation or embarrassment, Fr. Leopoldo would quickly go to them spreading his arms: “Take a seat, sir, take a seat… Don’t be afraid… You see, although I am a friar and priest, I too am very wretched. If the Lord God did not hold me by the reins, I would do worse than the others…”.
During the winter of 1941, Father Leopold was suffering from a prolonged stomach pain that had become more acute. He had to rest in bed. On 30 July 1942, as usual, he woke up early in the morning and spent an hour in prayer in the infirmary chapel. At 6.30am, he was putting on his liturgical vestments, but was overcome by an extreme illness and fainted. When he regained consciousness, he received the Last Rites, then repeated the pious invocations suggested by the Guardian. At the words of the Salve Regina, “O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary,” his soul went to Heaven, where he received the infinite joy of the entire heavenly court. Leopold Mandic was beatified on 2 May 1976, by Pope Paul VI and canonized on 14 October 1983, by the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II. A bronze statue of him was erected in Medjugorje to protect and inspire confessors in their ministry of mercy.
Let us now turn to the life of St. Pio, who is well-known worldwide for his holiness. A man who has hundreds of biographies written about him and has never cease to amaze and attract people.
Francesco Forgione (Padre Pio) was born in Pietrelcina on 25 May 1887. He was invested in a Capuchin habit in Morcone in January 1903 and made his solemn profession in January 1907. In 1908, he left the friary for health reasons. On 10 August 1910, he was ordained a priest at the Cathedral of Benevento, and on 17 February 1916 he returned to the friary of St. Anna of Foggia. In September 1916, he was transferred to San Giovanni Rotondo where he received the stigmata on 20 September 1918. Between 1922 and 1923, the Holy See took measures against him and in 1931 deprived him of all ministerial faculties. In 1933 he was able to celebrate Mass in public again. In 1947, Padre Pio and the others began the work on the “House for the Relief of Suffering,” which was inaugurated together with the “Prayer Groups” on 5 May 1956.
New restrictions were placed on him in 1960, in which were lifted in 1964. At 2.30am, on 23 September 1968, Padre Pio passed away and the stigmata disappeared. The cause for his beatification opened, officially on 20 March 1983. On 21 January 1990, the process was concluded. On 2 May 1999, Pope St. John Paul II declared him ‘Blessed’ and then, on 16 June 2002, enrolled him in the ranks of saints.
Based on the biographies of the two humble Capuchin saints, if we were to collect the countless testimonies of the penitents and converts at their feet, the first thing we would obtain would be the records of an immense amazement.
In the first place there would be those who came to confession poorly motivated, with little repentance, attracted because of his fame (it would be better to say: by the “holy gossip of the people of God”) which alluded to a particular “Christological transparency”. Of course, this was not the expression used, but everyone understood that it was basically the “mad hope” that one could find oneself closer to the Crucified Jesus.
Padre Pio conveyed in an overwhelming way, because of the stigmata, the passion of his heart and his humility. He conveyed it when celebrating Mass with such intensity that the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross was almost perceptible. And he conveyed it by welcoming repentant sinners with extreme gentleness and abruptly treating arrogant sinners, but without contempt and in any case always with an ultimate invincible certainty of the triumph of mercy. He even had the gift of being able to refuse an absolution, with the assurance that the refusal was only “educational”, and that the sinner would still return. There are countless instances of him that have been handed down to us.
Father Leopold, on the other hand, transmitted to the penitents the experience of being able to encounter the merciful Father. This was done by means of warm and welcoming gestures, leaving the penitent with the impression that they had been expected and had been led to the Father (to Father Leopold himself and by means of him to the heavenly Father) to give to Him the pleasing gift of themselves, and even that of the surrender of their sins!
We can say that, from the encounters between the two holy confessors and their countless penitents, the gift that constantly emerged was not only that of divine mercy so abundantly and effectively administered, but that of their “priesthood”, understood as a living place of merciful encounter: between Christ and the sinner, between forgiveness and repentance, between hope and atonement. In their confessional or in the little cell where they received visitors, not for a moment could one think that sin was something negligible, or that the appeal for mercy could turn into profiteering. Padre Pio often showed this with his impetuousness and his secret struggles with the devil who wanted to take away from him those who entrusted themselves to him. And he often looked like another Christ on the Cross.
Father Leopold, on the other hand, had a more painful secret. He did not approach the sinner by the influence of his well-known reputation of holiness, on the contrary, he welcomed them by placing himself on their level with a humble genuineness: “Do not be afraid, you know you do not have any concern! You see, I although a priest and friar, am too miserable …”
He resolved with absolute faith that he was placed there where God’s mercy, through him, could overflow onto the world; and it was the place where sinners, always through him, abandoned themselves to God. In his last years, he was so disturbed that at times, he spent the night crying, and an undefined nightmare attacked him and he searched – like Jesus in the garden – for some friends to keep him company. Witnesses said that even on his deathbed, “he looked like Jesus on the cross, when all the sin of the world weighed on him and he felt abandoned by the heavenly Father.” Only the word of his confessor calmed him completely, when the same grace of forgiveness that he had distributed to others descended upon him.
Padre Pio consoled and brought back countless souls to God, he reconciled people who left the Christian faith and life back to God, sometimes hostile to and enemies of the faith; his confessional was a tribunal of mercy and firmness; even those who were unabsolved by absolution, had, in the vast majority, the anxiety to return and find peace and understanding, while a new period of spiritual life had already opened for them.
Near the end of his life, Padre Pio was unable to walk, suffering from asthma and bronchitis, exhausted by penance, which he lived with carrying out his ministry. He was allowed to celebrate Holy Mass sitting down and do confession sitting in a wheelchair because he could not stand. He did not want to give up the mission and duty of every priest, of being minister and channel of God’s grace and mercy; therefore, he continuously offered himself for the intentions of the Pope and in particular for the conversion of sinners and peace in the world.
In 1971, the Holy Father, Saint Paul VI, addressing the Capuchins, presented Padre Pio (not yet a saint) with these words: “Look at his fame! What a worldwide clientele he has gathered around him! But why? Maybe because he was a philosopher? Maybe he was a wise man? Maybe he had means at his disposal? No! Because he said Mass humbly, confessed from morning to night, and was, and this is not easily said, an imprinted representative of our Lord’s stigmata. He was a man of prayer and suffering”.
Padre Pio was gifted by God with some exceptional gifts: stigmata, healings, reading of hearts, conversions, but he also had to accept physical and moral pain and suffering: “I am happy more than ever,” – he wrote as early as April 1917 – “to suffer … closer in the suffering Jesus.” We can say that, in Padre Pio’s life, sufferings and joys alternate to the point of making him a living “Rose Bush” in which the many thorns procedure the petals of the many flowers of grace that the Lord has bestowed on him making him an instrument of love and mercy.
St. Pio of Pietrelcina was a great witness of Mercy. As a confessor, Padre Pio received hundreds of thousands of penitents from all over the world, with a particular style but capable of entering the heart and leading them to repentance. The friar of Pietrelcina was carrying out a divine command – that of “snatching souls held captive by Satan and winning them to Christ” – made even more obvious by the signs, stigmata and other gifts received with charity. But he was also a man of real Mercy, a promoter of great social works – such as the House for the Relief of Suffering – designed precisely to support the needy in their most difficult times.
His life is thus the working out of Mercy in its many and varied forms and embodiments.
Padre Pio’s diakonia (ministry), lived between the altar and the confessional, tells us that to rebuild a person, to heal his wounds, we need to start from his soul, from his heart, removing what can cause true death, sin. We remember that Jesus, when they brought Him a paralytic on a stretcher, before healing him, to the great surprise of the people, forgave his sins, saying to him: “Your sins are forgiven” (Mk 2:1-11). This means the real evil that can destroy a person is sin; once that is removed, healing is a sign that anticipates the effects of Christ’s resurrection. And at the time of Padre Pio, in the years of his arrival in the small Capuchin friary, people were suffering for the effect of World War I, lacking priests, spiritual direction, and therefore weak, inclined to the appeal of the delusional temptation embodied in the foolishness of the twentieth century dictatorships. It is significant that in the face of so much, there is a divine response entirely centred on mercy, from Sister Faustina Kowalska to Padre Pio, a humble Friar, taking Jesus as his model, loved to write and repeat: “Anger is overcome with meekness”.
Initially it seemed that God refuses the forgiveness of the sins of his people, to then, after an appointed time, opens Himself to the richness of forgiveness. This experience, narrated by the prophets, seems to be common to the way in which St. Pio welcomed and sometimes rejected the sinner. Jesus in several pages of the Gospels, welcomes sinners, but confronts them with the truth about themselves, and precisely because mercy does not mean complicity. He invites them to reread their existence with the eyes of a renewed faith in Him, the only one capable of bringing out newness of life. Never abandonment but forgiveness. Even St. Francis said that “where there is mercy and discretion, there is neither superfluity nor harshness” (Writings of St. Francis, FF 177). Therefore, even when Padre Pio sent the penitents away from his confessional, this fulfilled the action of divine grace which had inspired in them a desire for God but still lacked that conversion one always experiences when one encounters one’s own poverty and limitation. For God uses humiliations and failures in the believer, the work of emptying, to allow the person to make room for His grace.
Divine mercy united with fervent prayer groups scattered throughout the world is also expressed in the loving care and comfort of human suffering practiced in that city located on the Mount that the stigmatized Saint wanted. A compassionate mercy for a hospitalized humanity where the pathology experienced by the body is never separated from the suffering experienced in the soul.
May He, from the heights of heaven, through frequently receiving the Sacrament of Penance, help us to put into practice the exhortation of the Letter to the Hebrews: “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb 4:16).
Fr Leopold and Padre Pio were concerned above all with encouraging in the penitents the desired dispositions to receive the sacrament fruitfully. “On the one hand, the acts of the person who undergoes conversion through the action of the Holy Spirit: namely, contrition, confession, and satisfaction; on the other, God’s action through the intervention of the Church” (CCC, 1448).
Among the acts of the penitent, contrition comes first. It is the sorrow for the sin committed, accompanied by the resolution not to sin again in the future. Contrition involves loathing of the sins of the past life and an intense horror of sin, according to the following words: “Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit.” (Ezekiel 18:31). It also includes “the serious resolution not to commit any more sins in the future. If this disposition is lacking, in truth there would be no repentance… The firm resolution not to sin again must be based on the divine grace that the Lord never fails giving to the one who does his best to act honestly” (John Paul II, 22 March, 1996). To receive absolution, therefore, the intention to sin less is not enough, rather, it is essential to be resolved not to commit serious sins again.
When it comes from the love of the Beloved God above all things, contrition is called “perfect”. This contrition remits venial sins; it also obtains the forgiveness of mortal sins, if it involves the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible.
The contrition called “imperfect”, or “attrition”, is also a gift from God, an impulse of the Holy Spirit. It arises from the consideration of the ugliness of sin or from the fear of eternal damnation and other punishments whose threat lingers over the sinner. By itself, however, imperfect contrition does not obtain forgiveness of grave sins, but disposes one to receive it in the sacrament of Penance.
Confession of sins to the priest constitutes the second essential act of the Sacrament of Penance. It is necessary for penitents to enumerate in confession all the mortal sins of which they are aware after a diligent examination of conscience, even if they are the most hidden sins and committed only against the two last commandments of the Ten Commandments (intentional bad desires), because often these sins wound the soul more seriously and turn out to be more dangerous than those committed in the face of all. Although not strictly necessary, confession of daily sins (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church. Indeed, regular confession of venial sins helps us to form our conscience, to fight against bad inclinations, to allow ourselves to be healed by Christ, and to make progress in the life of grace. By receiving more frequently, through this sacrament, the gift of the Father’s mercy, we are impelled to be merciful like Him, and receive an “increase of spiritual strength for Christian warfare” (see CCC, 1496).
Sacramental satisfaction is the third of the penitent’s acts. Freed of sin, the sinner still needs to recover full spiritual health. He must therefore do some reparation for his sins, in an adequate manner of worthy “satisfaction”. This satisfaction is also called “penance”. It may consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, voluntary self-denial, and especially the patient acceptance of the daily cross. Moreover, many sins give offense to others and require reparation when this is possible: for example, returning stolen property, restoring the reputation of one who has been slandered, etc. (see CCC, 1451-1460).
Such “penances” help to configure us to Christ who alone atoned for our sins once and for all. They enable us to become coheirs of His resurrection since we share in His sufferings (Rom 8:17). But our union with the Passion of Christ through penance is also realized outside the sacramental sphere.
One day Father Leopoldo was asked, “Father, how do you understand the words of the Lord: ‘Let anyone who wants to follow me, take up his cross daily’? Do we have to do extraordinary penance for this?” “There is no need to do extraordinary penance,” he replied. “It is enough for us to patiently bear the ordinary trials of our miserable life: the misunderstandings, the ungratefulness, the humiliations, the sufferings caused by the changes of the season and the environment in which we live… God willed all this as a means to work for our Redemption.
But for such trials to be effective and do good to our souls, we must not escape them by all possible means…. The excessive preoccupation with luxuries, the constant pursuit of comforts, has nothing to do with the Christian spirit. This is certainly not taking up one’s cross and following Jesus. It is rather avoiding it. And he who suffers only what he could not avoid will not have much merit.” “One does not tire of repeating the love of Jesus, it is a fire that is fed with the wood of sacrifice and the love of the cross; if it is not fed like this, it extinguishes itself.”
A testimony to the value of confession was given by English writer Gilbert Chesterton. A writer who ‘converted to our Catholic faith in 1922’ in order to go to confession since, as he himself stated, “only in the Catholic Church do I find men authorised by God to give me the forgiveness, which I need so badly.” Chesterton further stated that after his first confession the world ‘turned inside out’ to him, becoming ‘straight.’ After all, “only when the heart is in God’s grace does it see things in the true and right light. And St. Leopold and St. Pio knew well that this is how it happens, as their experience of divine mercy clearly shows.