Capuchins: Penitents and confessors

by Erik Lenhart

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As a Capuchin, I was both edified and challenged by Pope Francis' words to the Capuchins last week. At a special Mass with the Capuchins at St. Peter's, the pope held up Sts. Leopold Mandic and Pio of Pietrelcina as examples of mercy in the presence of their relics. While Padre Pio was a mystic known for miracles of bilocation and the stigmata, Pope Francis highlighted Pio's commitment to the ministry of reconciliation. The pope's advice was to assist penitents to "find a father who embraces him and says, 'God loves you,' and makes the penitent feel that God really does."

John Allen's recent article "The Pope Celebrates Capuchins, the Denver Broncos of Religious Life" in Crux was also good encouragement and challenge to the Capuchins. My brothers and I have been consistently surprised at the rising profile of the Capuchins. Rather than parading Super Bowl champs, our spirit is rather to be linemen, people in the trenches of ministry with the poor, willing to do unsung yeomen's work. The Capuchins have been in the U.S. for over 150 years, and in that time the majority of work has been dedicated to serving immigrants in urban areas.

As Allen mentioned, "Another defining feature of Capuchin identity is closeness to ordinary people. Generally, you'll find Capuchins not on TV or testifying before Congress, but hearing confessions, saying Mass, teaching school, and performing the other pastoral basics, knowing not merely the names of the people they serve, but also their hearts." The reason that the Capuchin friars are drawn to the "ordinary people" is that our Franciscan imagination sees the "ordinary" as footprints and mirrors to discover the Lord. Every friar will tell you that they take great inspiration from the holiness of the people, whom they have served.

Always looking to our founder, Francis of Assisi as a model, Capuchin friars ought not to aspire to positions of power within the church, but we serve obediently when called. For this reason, it is an unanticipated delight that Cardinal Seán O'Malley (who is a Capuchin) has not only served so obediently, but also effectively as an international leader. O'Malley began his ministry tireless working alongside Latino immigrants in Washington D.C., and has taken that same spirit to the global church. I remember hearing O'Malley share a charming story from his days as a novice. One of the duties of a novice was to care for the pigs kept on the property. Occasionally, the pigs would escape from their pen and wander into the nearby graveyard. The novices formed a team called the "Gadarenes" (Matthew 8:28-34) whose job was to heard the swine out of the cemetery. "Dirty work" is what truly forms a Capuchin spirit of "gritty" ministry.

Ash Wednesday begins Lent with a gritty type of ritual. Many people left our parish with ashes on their noses, shirts, and one person inexplicably even had ashes in her teeth. The messy symbol of ashes is a great parallel with Franciscan spirituality. The Capuchin comfort with human messiness has influenced our devotion to the sacrament of reconciliation. When I was in studies, a Jesuit from Tanzania once told me that it is common knowledge that Capuchins are the best confessors. I suspect that Capuchins are good confessors, because we're good penitents. The habit we wear is the 13th-century habit of a penitent, a public sinner, who has received and continues to receive God's mercy. The on-going reception of mercy is messy business, and as heralds of mercy, our task is to receive and give what the Lord has given us prodigiously.

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