He knew who he was.
In Robert Bolt’s The Mission, Captain Roderigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro) took large sums of money to travel deeply into the Paraguay rain forest, strip people from their families and sell them into slavery. He was proud, wealthy and ruthless. Even more, he was not to be trifled with. And so when he found himself humiliated upon discovering that his fiancé and half-brother were in love with each other, he killed his beloved half-brother in a duel.
Reckoning with the murder of his sibling and loss of his fiancé, Roderigo also began to grapple with the man that he had become. So he sought a harsh isolation in a cell of the Spanish Jesuit Mission in Asuncion, Paraguay. And fell into black despair. He knew who he was.
Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) also knew this mercenary. But he disagreed with Roderigo about who he was.
Approaching the man who attacked and enslaved the very Guarini tribe Fr. Gabriel was evangelizing, the priest felt a pity that overshadowed his anger.
Roderigo: Leave, priest.Fr. Gabriel: Maybe you wish I was your executioner. Perhaps that would be easier.Roderigo: Leave me alone. You know what I am.Fr. Gabriel: Yes. You’re a mercenary, you’re a slave trader…and you killed your brother. I know. And you loved him. Although you chose a strange way to show it.Roderigo: Are you laughing at me? Are you laughing at me?Fr. Gabriel: I’m laughing at you…because all I see is laughable. I see a man running away, a man hiding from the world. I see a coward.Roderigo: Go on. Go on.Fr. Gabriel: So is that it? Is this how you mean to go on?Roderigo: There is nothing else.Fr. Gabriel: There is life.Roderigo: There is no life.Fr. Gabriel: There is a way out, Mendoza.Roderigo: For me, there is no redemption.Fr. Gabriel: God gave us the burden of freedom. You chose your crime. Do you have the courage to choose your penance? Do you dare do that?Roderigo: There is no penance hard enough for me.Fr. Gabriel: But do you dare try it?Roderigo: Do I dare? Do you dare to see it fail?
Roderigo knew who he was.
And so he accepted Fr. Gabriel’s challenge and chose his penance. The slave trader took the means of his sin – swords, shield, pistol and armor – bundled them into a clunky netted mass. Then, he tied the burden to his body. Barefoot and muddy, up slippery rocks and under harrowing cliff waterfalls, Roderigo dragged his weapons – his sin – heavily behind him. Over hours and days, as the Jesuits and their charge crept deeper into the rainforest toward the very community Roderigo so heartlessly violated, the penitent man winced and heaved, collapsed only to began crawling again. His lacerating efforts became so intolerable to watch that, in a fit of impatience and mercy, Fr. John (Liam Neeson) pulled out his knife and severed the rope leaving the clanging bundle to roll down the muddy mountainside into the river. Roderigo, exhausted, picked himself up, hobbled down the slope and retied his burden. He needed to start again. Later that afternoon during a moment of rest, Fr. John approached Fr. Gabriel,
Fr. John: Father? He’s done this penance long enough, and, well, the other brothers think the same.Fr. Gabriel: But he doesn’t think so, John. Until he does, neither do I. We’re not the members of a democracy, Father. We’re members of an order.
The penance continued. Roderigo was evil and he knew it. His penance could kill him – should kill him – he is worthless, beyond salvation. Mud-caked, dehydrated, half-dead from exhaustion, Roderigo dragged his means of murder into the Guarini tribe village. Startled and bristling upon recognizing the enemy, a tribesman grabbed a knife, raced over to Roderigo and thrust it up to his neck. Enduring a spitting tirade in an indecipherable tongue, the broken man sat defenseless awaiting the just release – death as the ultimate payment for his unforgivable sins.
But instead, the tribesman cut the rope. The burden was freed by the victim he had wronged. And Roderigo wept inconsolably.
He knew who he was. And for that he wept bitterly.
But in the act of penance and subsequent absolution, Roderigo discovered who he truly was. He wasn’t a slaver, a mercenary, a perpetrator of fratricide. No. Beneath the muck, grime and stench of his sin, he was a child of God. And in that awareness – in that moment when the impossibly thick rope was cut from his bleary and beaten body – Roderigo rediscovered a forgotten dignity, experienced inexplicable mercy, and tasted the grace of redemption.
No matter the sin, he was never beyond redemption. Though dislocated from God, he ultimately reached purity through the unmerited grace of absolution (with a mind concentrated by the hard work of penance).
Roderigo’s spiritual odyssey is grueling. But so is ours. Our sin is black and our purification can burn as we face up to how short we fall of God’s will. But the kiss of absolution is gentle and sublime. And it is always there waiting for us. Haughty critics who sneered at Catholic confession as a morbid self-denying process were gently reminded by G.K. Chesterton,
The morbid thing is NOT to confess [your sins]. The morbid thing is to conceal your sins and let them eat away at your soul, which is exactly the state of most people in today’s highly civilized communities.
Each Sunday, in the Penitential Act of the Mass, we recite the Confiteor (Latin for I confess).
I confess to almighty Godand to you, my brothersand sisters,that I have greatly sinnedin my thoughts and in my words,in what I have doneand in what I have failed to do,through my fault,through my fault,through my most grievous fault;therefore I ask blessed Maryever-Virgin,all the Angels and Saints,and you, my brothers and sisters,to pray for me to the Lord our God.
When Roderigo served his penance and received absolution, he was finally reminded who he was. And we are reminded as well. Just who are we?
Sinners, to be sure.
But above all, infinitely loved children of God.
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