The day of September 15, 2019 will be a day that I will never surely forget throughout my priestly and consecrated life. Today, I would dare say that it was a day so special precisely because it was completely soaked in God’s Mercy.
Already the Good Lord has been preparing me for his wonderful surprises that He decided to lavish on me, an unworthy servant of His, from the day before. I remember that on Saturday September 14, feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, I was covering the night shift at Mater Dei, Malta’s general hospital. Anyone familiar with this gigantic hospital in Malta would certainly tell you about the impressive length of its corridors. At a quick glance one may get the feeling that some corridors might even give you the impression that you are making the experience of that famous American television drama series, created by Michael Landon that ran on NBC from 1984 till 1989, Highway to Heaven.
As I was working the night shift on September 14, during my resting time, I had the grace of watching a very interesting YouTube clip on St. Leopold Mandić. But who was this little Capuchin friar that, during the Mercy Jubilee, practically the entire world came to know him? The undying words of Pope St. Pope Paul VI, in his homily for the beatification of St. Leopold Bogdan Mandić, celebrated on May 2 1976, cannot depict him more perfectly.
“Who is it, who is the one who brings us together today to celebrate in his blessed name a manifestation of Christ’s Gospel, an event inexpressible, yet clear and evident, that marvelous appearance which allows us to glimpse in the outline of a humble friar an uplifting and at the same time almost disconcerting figure?… Look at him through Franciscan eyes. Do you see him? Are you astonished? Who is he? Yes, let us admit it, he is frail, popular yet true image of Jesus, of that very Jesus who speaks at once to the ineffable God, to the Father who is Lord of heaven and earth, and also to us, bound up as we are in the littleness of our suffering humanity. And what is Jesus saying through this poor little spokesman of his? Great mysteries of the infinite transcendence of God, enchanting us and being clothed in moving and enthralling language, echoing the Gospel words: ‘Come to me, all you that labour and are burdened; I will give you rest.’” (Matthew 11:28)…
But the very special mark of the heroism and charismatic virtue of Blessed Leopold was … his ministry in hearing confessions. The late Cardinal Larraona, then Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, in the 1962 decree regarding the Beatification of Father Leopold wrote as follows: “This was his daily routine; after saying Mass early in the morning, he used to sit in the confessional and stay there the whole day long hearing confessions. He kept this up for about forty years without any complaint.” This is, we believe, the primary reason that has won for this humble Capuchin the Beatification which we are now celebrating.
He became holy principally in the exercise of the Sacrament of Penance. Thank God, many splendid accounts of this aspect of the sanctity of the new Blessed have already appeared. We have only to admire and thank the Lord for offering to the Church in these days such a singular figure of a minister of the sacramental grace of Penance.”
St. Leopold’s heroic holy witness led St. Paul VI to emphasize the fundamental significance of the sacramental confession in the life of the Christian. Within the same homily he reiterated that “thus, on the one hand, priests are reminded of the capital importance of this ministry both as regards instruction and its incomparable spiritual good, whilst on the other hand there is a reminder for the faithful, whether fervent or lukewarm or indifferent, what a providential and marvellous help this individual and auricular Confession still is today. In fact, more than ever today here is a source of grace and of peace, a school of Christian living, and incomparable comfort in the earthly pilgrimage towards eternal happiness.”
These were the motivations and aspirations that filled my hospital residence and, especially, my priestly Franciscan heart, during that night. Even if, as a chaplain, I had to witness death, suffering, agony and helplessness of both the patients and their dear ones, together with the fatigue of the hospital staff, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort (2 Cor 1:3) was with me. Without knowing, through the holy life of my Capuchin brother St. Leopold, He was disposing my heart to receive yet another big gift at the morning Mass at the hospital chapel.
After finishing my thirteen-hour shift at 7.00 am, I immediately headed towards the chapel to celebrate the 7.15 am Eucharist. When the mass kicked off, something extraordinary happened. Just before starting the penitential rite the Holy Spirit instructed me to say these words to the congregation: “Let us now present our sins and faults to the Lord who is both our Doctor and our Medicine.” The last phrase is reminiscent of St. Leopold’s phrase which went thus: “Have faith! Have faith! God is both the physician and the medicine.”
The liturgical readings of the day soon proved to me how my watching of St. Leopold Mandić’s YouTube documentary as well as the latter phrase of the saint were principally directed at me. The first reading of that day, the twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, taken from the book of Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14, Moses implored for God’s people when they hardened their hearts and did their own thing instead of obeying the Lord’s commands. In his pleading, Moses reminded the Lord of the mercy He has shown to His people in delivering them from the land of bondage, the land of Egypt.
The Gospel portion of that day was the confirmation that God wanted me to delve deeper into his merciful forgiving heart. In fact, on that Sunday we read from Luke 15:1-32, the parable of the prodigal son or the merciful father. During the homily, I couldn’t emphasize more and more the Father’s infinite forgiveness for us, sinners. And, within that context, the Lord gave me the grace of highlighting the immense good that is effected in the sacrament of confession thanks to the ministry of confessors, of whom St. Leopold Mandić is the patron saint and model. How much is this ministry needed in our days!
After the Eucharistic celebration, I found a group of nurses and patients fervently asking me to hear their confession. This I did with great joy! And, after blessing them, they went happily to their respective wards to continue their day of work and recovery. From this wonderful experience of God’s forgiveness at Mater Dei’s chapel on Sunday September 15, 2019, I learned that in order for one to evangelize, first he and she has to pray to the Holy Spirit for his anointing and then place the Bible on one hand and the lives of the saints on the other. Saints like St. Leopold Mandić help us recover the power of sacramental confession. And, obviously, for us priests, they convince us that hearing someone’s confession is always a priority over other ministerial duties.