The feast of Padre Pio is a good occasion to repeat my invitation to a priests’ pilgrimage which honours and seeks the intercession of St Pio and several other great saints of the confessional.

If you know a priest who might be interested in celebrating the Jubilee of Mercy with Pope Francis, and becoming a holier minister of divine mercy, please direct them to

I must confess I don’t have much devotion to St Pio, although I’m familiar with him obviously. I watched a movie on his life when I was in the seminary. I’m fairly sure it’s this one, which you can view for free on YouTube:

But I’m afraid the movie just confirmed my prejudice that Padre Pio was a grouchy eccentric, whose company I would avoid. I’m sure this characterisation is unfair, and friends have recommended books about him which will revise my thinking.

Maybe my prejudice derives from the knowledge that St Pio sometimes deferred or even refused absolution. That was a common practice in centuries past, but it’s almost unthinkable now. St Josemaría, for example, advised against it, because in the modern context it can drive penitents away from the sacrament and the Church. Padre Pio, though, was in a unique position: like the Curé of Ars a century earlier, crowds made the pilgrimage specifically to his confessional. In that context, I doubt he ever drove anyone away.

In any event, sometimes the priest has no choice but to refuse absolution, though it is never done lightly. Graham Greene always excelled at evoking the dramatic tension present in the Catholic moral vision. Here’s his take on what the refusal of absoltion looks like, from The Heart of the Matter:

Kneeling in the space of an upturned coffin he said, ‘Since my last confession I have committed adultery.’

‘How many times?’

‘I don’t know, Father, many times.’

‘Are you married?’

‘Yes.’ He remembered that evening when Father Rank had nearly broken down before him, admitting his failure to help … Was he, even while he was struggling to retain the complete anonymity of the confessional, remembering it too? He wanted to say, ‘Help me, Father. Convince me that I would do right to abandon her to Bagster. Make me believe in the mercy of God,’ but he knelt silently waiting: he was unaware of the slightest tremor of hope.

Father Rank said, ‘Is it one woman?’


‘You must avoid seeing her. Is that possible?’

He shook his head.

‘If you must see her, you must never be alone with her. Do you promise to do that, promise God not me?’

He thought: how foolish it was of me to expect the magic word. This is the formula used so many times on so many people. Presumably people promised and went away and came back and confessed again. Did they really believe they were going to try? He thought: I am cheating human beings every day I live, I am not going to try to cheat myself or God. He replied, ‘It would be no good my promising that, Father.’

‘You must promise. You can’t desire the end without desiring the means.’

Ah, but one can, he thought, one can: one can desire the peace of victory without desiring the ravaged towns.

Father Rank said, ‘I don’t need to tell you surely that there’s nothing automatic in the confessional or in absolution. It depends on your state of mind whether you are forgiven. It’s no good coming and kneeling here unprepared. Before you come here you must know the wrong you’ve done.’

‘I do know that’

‘And you must have a real purpose of amendment. We are told to forgive our brother seventy times seven and we needn’t fear God will be any less forgiving than we are, but nobody can begin to forgive the uncontrite. It’s better to sin seventy times and repent each time than sin once and never repent.’

He could see Father Rank’s hand go up to wipe the sweat out of his eyes: it was like a gesture of weariness. He thought: what is the good of keeping him in this discomfort? He’s right, of course, he’s right. I was a fool to imagine that somehow in this airless box I would find a conviction … He said, ‘I think I was wrong to come, Father.’

‘I don’t want to refuse you absolution, but I think if you would just go away and turn things over in your mind, you’d come back in a better frame of mind.’

‘Yes, Father.’

‘I will pray for you.’

When he came out of the box it seemed to Scobie that for the first time his footsteps had taken him out of sight of hope. There was no hope anywhere he turned his eyes: the dead figure of the God upon the cross, the plaster Virgin, the hideous stations representing a series of events that had happened a long time ago. It seemed to him that he had only left for his exploration the territory of despair.

I think this is an extremely unlikely scenario these days. In our culture, nobody would bother going to confession if they weren’t already contrite.

Evelyn Waugh’s take, from Brideshead Revisited, is a more likely scenario. Julia has just learned that her fiancé is sleeping with another woman. Rex, whom we’re never supposed to like, blames Julia’s chastity. ‘What do you expect?’ he said. ‘What right have you to ask so much, when you give so little?’

She took her problem to Farm Street and propounded it in general terms, not in the confessional, but in a dark little parlour kept for such interviews.

‘Surely, Father, it can’t be wrong to commit a small sin myself in order to keep him from a much worse one?’

But the gentle old Jesuit was unyielding. She barely listened to him; he was refusing her what she wanted, that was all she needed to know.

When he had finished he said, ‘Now you had better make your confession.’

‘No, thank you,’ she said, as though refusing the offer of something in a shop. ‘I don’t think I want to today,’ and walked angrily home.

From that moment she shut her mind against her religion.

I like both these scenes very much. They’re a good reminder that no one is compelled in the sacrament of confession. Freedom is paramount, and so is conscience, and so is Truth. Three absolutes which should be in harmony, but in the mess of the human condition, they are in tension.