The following comes from an April 18 posting on Catholic World Report.
I remember that in the early nineties, while I was an assistant priest in Flores, a girl from a secondary school in Villa Soldati, who was in her fourth or fifth year of the program, got pregnant. It was one of the first instances at that school. There were various opinions about how to address the situation; some were even considering the girl’s expulsion, but no one asked or cared about what she was going through. She was afraid of the reactions and allowed no one to get close to her. Until a young instructor, a husband and father, a man whom I greatly respect, offered to speak to her and to look for a solution together with her. When he saw her during a recess, he gave her a kiss, took her hand, and asked her gently: “So you are becoming a mother?” The girl started to cry and did not stop. This gesture of nearness helped her to open up and tell about what had happened to her. And it allowed her to arrive at a mature, responsible answer to her dilemma, so that she avoided missing years of school and remaining alone to confront life with a child. But she also avoided—because this was the danger—being considered a heroine by her classmates for having become pregnant.
What the instructor did was to bear witness to her by going to meet her. He ran the risk of hearing the girl reply, “And what does it matter to you?” But for his part, he was very compassionate, and the fact that he approached her showed that he wished her well. When you try to educate only with theoretical principles, while overlooking the fact that the important thing is who we have in front of us, you fall into a sort of fundamentalism that is of no use to young people, because they do not assimilate the lesson of being accompanied by a close, living witness.
From this insight, Bergoglio derives also a bit of advice for confessors. He asks them, when they go into the confessional, to be neither rigorists nor laxists. “The rigorist is someone who applies the norm and nothing else: the law is the law, period. Basta.” The laxist “sets it aside: it is not important, nothing will happen…just go on that way.” The problem, explains the future pope, “is that neither one cares about the person in front of him”. And so, what should confessors do? “Be merciful.”
Anyone acquainted with Padre Bergoglio knows how important the personal relationship is for him, the personal encounter, attention to the person. One of his anecdotes helps us to understand this better. As Auxiliary Bishop of Buenos Aires, he had to travel one day to conduct a series of spiritual exercises in a convent outside the city, and he had to take the train. As the hour drew near, he left his office in the archbishop’s chancery to go pray for a few minutes in the cathedral. As he was leaving, a young man who appeared to be psychologically disturbed approached to ask him whether he could hear his confession. The young man spoke as though he were drunk, probably under the influence of some drug.
“I, the witness to the Gospel, who was engaged in the apostolate, told him: ‘Soon a priest will arrive, and you can confess to him, because I have to do something else.’ ” Bergoglio knew that that priest would arrive a short time later. “I walked away, but after a few steps, I felt tremendous shame. I retraced my steps and told the young man, ‘The priest is going to be late; I will hear your confession.’ After hearing his confession, I brought him to Our Lady to ask her to protect him. Finally I went to the station, thinking I had missed the train. When I arrived, I realized there had been a delay and, so, I managed to take the train as planned. On the way back, I did not go home directly, but first went to my confessor, because what I had done weighed on me: ‘If I do not confess, tomorrow I cannot celebrate Mass . . .’ ”
To read the entire excerpt (book chapter), click here.