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TRADITION
from issue no. 03 - 2003

Luciani and confession

His patience awaits us


“The Lord is a Father who awaits on the doorstep. Who spots us in the distance, and his heart grows fond, and he comes running to throw his arms round our neck and kiss us tenderly... Our sin then becomes a jewel almost that we can present him so as to give him the consolation of forgiving... It’s extravagant to give jewels, and it’s not defeat, but joyful victory to let God win!”


by Stefania Falasca


The return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt, etching, Pierpont Morgan Library, New York

The return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt, etching, Pierpont Morgan Library, New York

Sometimes there’s no doubt. Either it’s Providence, or it’s the Providence that designs the circumstances. It really must be said about the saintly confessor in Rome, the Jesuit Father Felice Cappello, and about Pope Luciani. Not only were they baptized in the same font in the church of Canale, not only were they distant relatives, and not only was one of them (Father Cappello) the image of the path the other would want to follow. Go into the parish church of Agordo; the parish priest, Monsignor Lino Mottes, who knew both of them well, will if you ask him lead you to a shadowy side of the church:“There, that’s it, that was his confessional. When he came to Agordo, Father Felice was always there”. Then he’ll show you another in front, next to a statue of Our Lady: “That instead was Albino Luciani’s”. For a time the hand of Him upstairs decided to arrange things like that. One in front of the other. In the confessional. Facing neighbors in administering the sacrament of reconciliation. Those were the years 1936-1937. At that time the future John Paul I was a young priest, freshly ordained, whom the brother of Father Felice, Monsignor Luigi Cappello, then archpriest of the church of Santa Maria Nascente in Agordo, had wanted as his chaplain at all costs. During the summers of those years, Father Felice came up here to spend his holidays. He was already a well-known canonist and highly respected professor at the Gregorian, and his reputation as a saintly confessor had spread. So up here too there was a repetition of what took place every day in the church of Sant’Ignazio in Rome. Pointless to speak of the line of people that lengthened in front of his confessional and how that cubbyhole with its grill became a spring of fresh water for the thirsty. A few minutes. A few words, his. Always the same. And lives blossomed and hearts grown old found they could always begin again. And they came back. Encouraged, trusting, they came back. And Luciani, with no less goodness, waited for his own little sheep. But rather than lost sheep, the ones who knelt down in his confessional were lively first communion children, perky little kids, untidy and impatient lads and lasses. So not a few times, assuming all the patience of our Lord, he also had to come out of the confessional to settle things and ask for silence. Then when Father Felice finished his holiday and went back to Rome, all the others willingly went to lengthen the queue in front of chaplain Don Albino. From Father Felice he many times heard this piece of advice: Sermo brevis et rudis. However, you never use severity in opinions and decisions. The Lord doesn’t want that. You always find the solution that allows souls to breathe”. To what extent acquaintance with that learned man of steadfast doctrine and inflexible principles, who in the confessional entrusted everything to the grace of God, left a mark on Luciani, and how important that period was for him, he himself was to make clear just two months before his elevation to Peter’s throne. On 29 June 1978. The last time he returned to Agordo. During his sermon in the church that had known him as chaplain he recalled those years as the best years of his life: “I confessed a lot, how much I confessed!...”. And throughout his life, if there is a thing he must have repeated hundreds of times, it was: “How they get it wrong, how they get it wrong, people who don’t hope! Judas made a blunder, poor man, the day he sold Christ for thirty pieces of silver, but he made an even bigger one when he thought that his sin was too big to be pardoned. No sin is too big, none! None bigger than His boundless mercy!”.


«We’re all sinners»
(Pope Luciani)

Coming up here for his holidays, Father Cappello stopped off in Padua to visit the Capuchin friar Leopoldo Mandic, the saintly confessor who in 1983 was elevated to the honors of the altar. So Father Cappello also went to kneel before the little friar from Dalmatia, experiencing as a penitent the same divine mercy that he himself tirelessly offered from the confessional. And like Father Cappello, Luciani also went to confess to him. “It was in the March of 1928,” Luciani’s brother Edoardo recalls. “Albino was young, he was still going to the junior seminary in Feltre, and Father Leopoldo had gone to visit the seminary along with the bishop. He heard several confessions, my brother’s amongst them. Albino kept a very vivid memory of that meeting so much so that he always carried the little picture of Father Leopoldo with him.” And Albino’s sister Antonia remembers him telling her about the episode: “Father Leopoldo confessed him, took his face between his hands and said: “Don’t worry, just follow your own road”. On 30 May 1976, as Patriarch of Venice, Luciani decided to celebrate mass in the Capuchin church in Padua, right next to the cell-confessional of the little friar. His entire sermon was a moving recollection of Father Leopoldo and of the way in which he confessed. “Well,” he said, “we’re all sinners, Father Leopoldo well knew. We have to take account of this sad situation of ours. In the long run nobody can avoid faults small or big. “However,” as Saint Francis de Sales used to say, “if you’re with the donkey, and as you’re going along it falls on the cobbles, what do you have to do? Of course you don’t take your stick to flatten its ribs, poor thing, it’s already unlucky enough. You have to take it by the bridle and say: ‘Up, let’s get on the road. Now we’re going to get moving again, we’ll be more careful next time’”. That’s the method, and Father Leopoldo applied the method in full. A priest, a friend of mine, who went to confess to him, said: “Father, you’re too easy-going. I’m very willing to confess to you, but you seem to me too easy-going”. And Father Leopoldo replied: “But who was easy-going, my son? It was the Lord that was easy-going; it wasn’t me who died for sins, it was the Lord who died for sins. More easy-going than he was with the thief, with others, how could he have been!”». And Luciani went on to say: “Jesus on the one hand is at odds with sin, “victim of expiation sins”, on the other hand he’s not at odds with sinners, but comes to meet them. Open the pages of the Gospel, he’s at odds with sin, John the Baptist says: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away sins”. Read Saint Paul: “He died for sins”. No sins! The Lord doesn’t want sin. On the other hand, however, how much bounty! How much mercy towards sinners! I’m moved when I think: yes, Paul VI has made Father Leopoldo blessed; yet the first person canonized, the first man proclaimed saint before all the people, was a thief. On the cross Jesus said: “Today thou shalt be with me in Paradise”. To a killer, to a thief!... And how much bounty! I said, towards sinners! When they brought the adulteress to him: “Woman, has no one condemned thee?”. “No one, Lord”. “Woman, neither do I condemn thee. Go in peace and seek to do it no more”». And coming back to Father Leopoldo, he said: “He faithfully copied that aspect of Jesus: he too, like Jesus, was afraid of sin, he wept for sin, but was quite the contrary with sinners. A man once said to him: “Father, it’s been so many years you’ve been confessing, you’ve heard every sort of thing, sin no longer makes an impression on you”. “What are you saying, sir? I tremble every moment when I think people put their eternal salvation in jeopardy for idiocies, for pointless things.” He trembled, he wept for sin. But he welcomed the sinner like a brother, a friend, that’s why it was no burden to confess to him. Once somebody went to him: he hadn’t been to confession in twenty years. He recited his sins. When he’d finished, Father Leopoldo stood up, took his hands and thanked him: “Thank you, thank you for coming to me, that you choose me to receive your repentance after so many years”. It was him, you understand, who was doing the thanking!... That’s what Father Leopoldo was, is, for us, the mirror of the bounty of the Lord”. Luciani referred continually to that bounty. He was always going back to it. Even in the few general audiences he gave in the See of Peter as Vicar of Christ. “What bounty, what mercy it takes, and even those who go wrong...”. So he said on 6 September 1978, in his general audience. And when he made that remark about humility, everyone saw that it came out of an awareness that we are miserable sinners and out of the felt experience of forgiveness: “I limit myself to urging one virtue, so dear to the Lord who said: “Learn of me that am meek and humble of heart”. I may be chancing a blunder, but I’ll say it: the Lord so loves humility that sometimes he allows grievous sins. Why? Because people who have committed such sins, they remain humble when they repent. You’re not tempted to believe yourself a bit of an angel when you know you’ve committed grievous faults. The Lord urged it greatly: be humble. Even if you’ve done great things, say: “We are useless servants”».
The young Albino Luciani

The young Albino Luciani

«What would become of me, poor thing, if it weren’t for confession?»
(the saintly Curé d’Ars)

Particularly to be remembered among those who were confessors of Albino Luciani are the monks of the Certosa of Vedana, a monastery he often liked to visit from his time in Belluno and where he went during all the period when he was bishop of Vittorio Veneto. And if in the thirty-three days of his pontificate he kept the Jesuit Paolo Dezza, who had been Paul VI’s confessor, while he was in Venice he frequently went to kneel in the confessional of Father Leandro Tiveron, yet another Jesuit. Diffident and reserved, Father Tiveron let out only a few words after the death of his illustrious penitent: “Luciani was an example of courage and unbreakable trust in God, of humility united to great strength of spirit”. The words send one back again to that good, simple and mysterious human story that Luciani encountered as a child in his mother’s faith, in that of Don Filippo Carli, his parish priest in Canale, a friend and contemporary of Father Cappello. So often he recalled the prayers taught him by his mother and remembered his childhood in Canale, and the revealing moments of that most human piety, devotion, love of Jesus that he had seen and experienced as a child. He was, it’s true, indebted to his parish priest. He owed it to him that he had become a priest. He had learned from him that there is nothing greater and more fruitful for a priest than baptizing, giving communion, absolving sins. In persona Christi. And from him he had also learned sincerity and humility in confession. “You see,” Luciani once said at a meeting during Lent, “the Lord has given us confession as an instrument of His mercy and so of peace for us. One shouldn’t torment oneself, have too many fears. And one shouldn’t chew over sins committed. Have you confessed them? Well and good, don’t think about them any more. Of course one’s confession must be simple and clear. When some people go to confess, they make their examination of conscience a bit complicated, because they think: I’ve got to make an impression. “That’s no place to make an impression!”, my parish priest always used to say. Then it’s not simple: better to say clearly, in few words, what one has to say. What it was, with brevity, with humility, without circumlocutions... And more important than going into over-complicated examination of conscience is asking the Lord to make us feel the pain of sins”. Luciani always made a point of being patient in explaining clearly the formulas of the Catechism, with effective examples understandable to everybody. “Sometimes during a Catechism lesson in Canale”, his sister Antonia recalls, “I’d hear Albino explain the importance of confession with examples from the Curé d’Ars, who often said: “What would become of me, poor thing, if there were no confession? What would become of us?”. And he urged people to confess frequently. And then Albino would say, “Don’t mothers often change their babies? And the soul is like that: we always have faults and we must always wash, not once or twice a year, confess often, if you can”. He told his priests explicitly: “Let us be faithful to what the code says: Frequenter. Various synods say: every week. Try to be faithful. A bit of effort, but then you feel better, you’re happier, your strength comes back. Also continuous repentance, continuously humbling oneself is useful and salutary”.
The years of his patriarchate in Venice were the most difficult for Albino Luciani. And it was there, in Venice, that he realized with bitterness to what extent the beloved Christian legacy was ever farther away on the horizon of life. “Ever more often one hears people saying: “Sin doesn’t exist”. This way of thinking is the latest fashion and it’s frightening,” he wrote in a letter to his parish priests, and he went on: “There are priests who don’t believe all that much in confession... There’re always been sins, it poured with them, it’s hard to deny, even in the Christian Middles Ages. But people knew they were sinning, they broke the law with terrible sins even, but they continued to respect the broken law and didn’t even dream of denying sin. Now instead they say there aren’t any laws, still less sins... it’s this that’s frightening”. In 1974, on the occasion of spiritual exercises for the clergy, he said: “I’ve no wish to play the heresiologue; sometimes, however, I’m strongly tempted to point out signs of quietism and of semi-quietism, of Pelagianism and of semi-Pelagianism in writings and speeches that either describe pastoral work as if all depended on men or that speak of us poor men as if we no longer had anything to do with sin...”. And to priests who were complaining about a fall-off in confessions, he replied decisively: “Mortal sin strips our souls. It robs the soul of grace. You’ve done the treatise De gratia, and you know the effects of grace on the soul... Confession is the stall from which the blood of Christ is handed out, it’s the Red Cross where bones broken by sin get mended. Something stupendous... But I repeat, how do they confess if the examination of conscience, sorrow, the purpose of amendment and the other things haven’t been clearly explained? And I repeat, above all, who’s going to go to confession if you haven’t told them what the grace of God is and how precious it is?”.


«Da quod iubes, iube quod vis»
(Saint Augustine)

In the January of 1965, Albino Luciani, bishop of Vittorio Veneto, gave a course of spiritual exercises to priests from various dioceses in the Veneto. He gave it the general title of: Historia salutis. He took as his starting point the parable of the Good Samaritan: “The Good Samaritan is Jesus”, he said, “the unlucky wayfarer is we ourselves”. And he began with these words: “Historia salutis means this: the Lord chases after mankind”. They were so successful that the text was later published. Some parts of it deal precisely with grace. The Council of Trent, Luciani explained, says: “Let no man dare accept that hazardous affirmation, refuted also by the Fathers, that the commandments of God are impossible to observe. God does not command things impossible, but when he commands, he exhorts to do what can be done, and to ask of him what one is not capable of, and at the same time helps one be so”. Saint Augustine said: “Agnosce ergo gratiam eius cui debes quod non commisisti”, therefore acknowledge the grace of Him to whom you are indebted if you haven’t committed certain sins, and he went on: “Nullum est peccatum quod fecit homo, quod non possit facere et alter homo, si desit rector a quo factus est homo”, there is no sin committed by man, that another man might not commit in the absence of the help of Him who made man”. And Luciani commented: “Paradise is a bit above our heads and we struggle to get there. Well, we’re in the situation of a little kid, of a little girlie who’s seen the cherries, but can’t manage to get hold of them; so her daddy has to come, hoists her and says: up, little one, up! Then yes, he lifts her and she can pluck and eat the cherries. That’s how we are: Paradise allures us, but it’s too high up for our poor efforts. Woe to us if the Lord doesn’t come with his grace! Saint Augustine himself often used to recite a prayer: “Da, Domine, quod iubes, et iube quod vis”. Lord, I can’t make it, give me whereby I do what you command, then command that what you like, but after you’ve given me the grace to do it. Everything is possible with the grace of God. His grace is necessary to us. So now let me say a word on prayer”. And he recounted the following episode: “Father MacNabb, a famous Dominican who used to preach in London, used to say: “When I’m in the confessional, I assume the patience of the Lord. Whatever they tell me, I never feel troubled: even if they’re horrible sins. I say: the Lord will forgive, he’s come here, he’s humbled himself... be loving, be loving... There’s just one exception: when someone turns up who says they’ve neglected prayer. “And you’ve never prayed, ever?”. “No, Father, I’ve never prayed”. “Ah”, he said, “that’s when I’d willingly stick my hand through the slit and give a good backhander!”. But how in the world”, Luciani went on, “inclined to evil as we are, weak as we are, can we not pray? Not ask for grace, for the help of God? It means that one has no grasp of reality, that one hasn’t understood anything at all... one simply can’t go on without prayer, without trust in the grace of God. “I want you to ask,” Jesus himself said, and “insist” also... “I want you to ask”. “Enough that you ask, enough that you have trust, hope”. Omnia possibilia sunt credenti. “For my part all can be done, enough that you have faith”. How many times... I hope in Your bounty, says the Act of Hope, meaning: I expect with certainty. “Attender certo”, said Dante. Hope is not a matter of choice, it’s obligatory...”.
“But meantime His patience awaits us”, concluded Luciani. And yet again, going back to the start of the Historia salutis: “Because, you see, it’s Him who wants to meet us, and he doesn’t lose heart even if we run away: “I want to try again, once, ten, a thousand times...”. Some sinners wouldn’t want him in their house. They’d even go get the shotgun to kill him and hear no more of Him. No matter, He awaits. Always. And it’s never too late. That’s how he is, that’s how he’s made... he’s Father. A Father who awaits on the doorstep. Who spots us in the distance, and his heart grows fond, and he comes running to throw his arms round our neck and kiss us tenderly... Our sin then becomes a jewel almost that we can present him so as to give him the consolation of forgiving... It’s extravagant to give jewels, and it’s not defeat, but joyful victory to let God win!”. q


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