Exodus 17:3-8; Romans 5:1-2.5-8; John 4:5-42
Mass in the prison is always interesting. The men are very attentive to what is going on and quick to understand my meaning. I spoke recently about how it seems there are no longer any bad people who die. Everyone who dies was one of the best people who ever lived. They were happy, fun-loving, sociable, popular and, invariably, would give you ‘the shirt off their back’ and what’s more, they would now be ‘up there’ – ‘at peace’ – drinking beer with their dead relatives or catching huge fish in their new fishing boat.
The prisoners were smiling and nodding in agreement. I joked that sometimes I wondered what would happen if I mischievously said, ‘I think so and so was such a bad person they must have gone straight to hell.’ What would the reaction be?
The truth is that I am no more entitled to say someone has gone to hell than they are to say someone has gone to heaven. It simply isn’t up to any of us to make that judgment, one way or the other. As St Paul says: There must be no passing of premature judgement. Leave that until the Lord comes; he will light up all that is hidden in the dark and reveal the secret intentions of men's hearts. Then will be the time for each one to have whatever praise he deserves, from God (1 Cor 4:5).
He will light up all that is hidden in the dark and reveal the secret intentions of men's hearts; not us.
So next time someone dies, either a famous personality or someone close to us, let us not say they have gone to heaven or to hell; let us simply say they have gone to stand before the throne of judgment from which the Lord will pass just and final sentence on each one. Indeed, that throne would be aptly named the Throne of Justice.
However, let us never forget that the Lord has another throne of judgment. This throne stands on earth in every confessional throughout the world and only a validly ordained priest may sit on it. This throne is called the Throne of Mercy.
We come to this throne to humbly confess our grave sins, our mortal sins – and sometimes we have only venial sins to confess. We examine our conscience and confess our sins – their name and their number. And we do not receive a sentence of hell at this throne; we receive only and always a sentence of mercy and forgiveness.
Let me read to you Joey Lomangino’s account of his confession to the famous priest St Padre Pio. He was not ready for what happened when he went in.
I went into Fr Pio, into the confessional, and I knelt down on the kneeling bench and Fr Pio was sitting right in front of me. And he took me by the hand like that and I was shocked because I thought of the American confessional, you know, with the panel. So when I knelt down and Fr Pio had me by the hand he told me in Italian, ‘Joey, confess yourself.’
And to be very honest with you I was embarrassed because I wasn’t leading the right life and I was just so flabbergasted I didn’t know just what to say. And so Fr Pio took me by the hand, like that, and he tells me in Italian, confess yourself and again, I just found it very difficult to speak to him.
And then in perfect English he says to me, ‘Joey,’ he says, ‘do you remember when you were in a bar with a woman named Barbara? Do you remember the sins you committed?’ And in perfect English he went right down the line and telling me the people I was with, the places I was at, and the sins I committed. And, of course, I was perspiring, but I had the grace by God to realise that if I had to endure all of that to get back to being happy, it was worth it. And I really believed that Fr Pio could help me.
So, of course, when he came to the bottom of all my sins when it felt to me like a thousand years he said to me in Italian, he says, ‘Are you sorry?’ And I says, ‘Yes, I am Fr Pio’ and he gave me absolution for my sins and my eyes started to roll in my head and I started to rub my eyes like this.. and then all of a sudden my mind became very, very clear and he put up his stigmata hand to my lips, I kissed the stigmata then he gave me a little smack in the face and he tells me in Italian, “Joey, a little patience and a little courage and you’re going to be alright.’
I was thirty-three years old and I felt like I was sixteen. I had a firm purpose of amendment; I was sorry for all the sins I committed in my life and I felt so good and so clean that I just didn’t want to get involved with anybody because I was afraid that just by talking I was going to lose the grace that I received.
Perhaps Joey’s account of his privileged moment with St Pio will help us to understand the Samaritan woman’s account of her privileged moment with Jesus. Like all good confessors Jesus ‘sat straight down’ and the woman makes her entrance.
‘Go and call your husband’ said Jesus to her ‘and come back here.’ The woman answered, ‘I have no husband.’ He said to her, ‘You are right to say, “I have no husband”; for although you have had five, the one you have now is not your husband. You spoke the truth there.’
A moment later: The woman put down her water jar and hurried back to the town to tell the people. ‘Come and see a man who has told me everything I ever did...'
After Mass I was kept busy for half an hour hearing the confessions of a number of the prisoners. If you come to Reconciliation this Lent I promise you, you will not receive justice; you will receive only mercy. Your sins will be completely forgiven, once and for all, and you will be entirely restored to friendship with God. And then, and then, you will have nothing to fear from the Throne of Justice.