Brother Ambrose, FSC, was my 6th grade teacher at Immaculate Conception School in the South Bronx. Rumor had it that he had spurned a minor league contract to join the Christian Brothers, That and his general commanding presence made him a hero to the 56[!] eleven to thirteen years-old whom he shepherded through a long day -- no change of classroom, no special teachers for art, music - really, not much of anything, save some solid learning. But Brother Ambrose spiced the algebra and the sentence-diagramming with anecdotes that I still remember (whether kosher or apocryphal I have yet to determine).And so on to Saint Philip Neri, the joyful apostle of Rome, noted for his founding of the Oratorio, his long hours in the confessional, and his imaginative penances. According to Brother Ambrose, one of the saint's penitents confessed to having spread lies about a neighbor. Philip listened with his accustomed patience, and then instructed the penitent: "for your penance take a pillow to the roof of the house where you live, slit open the pillow, and scatter the feathers over Rome. Then come down and proceed to gather up the feathers until the pillow is once again full."The penitent quite reasonably objected that il Santo was imposing an impossible task. To which our saint replied: "So too it's impossible completely to rectify the harm done by calumniating your neighbor."A recent article in Commonweal spoke of the peril of providing in the Sacrament of Reconciliation too rote a penance for the sins confessed: "Say three 'Hail Marys' and make a good act of contrition." The author writes:
for many of us these assigned recitations have become little more than an easy reset button: Say the right words and its as if the bad deeds had never been done. When assigned as penances, memorized prayers often seem to minimize the gravity of the sins to which they correspond. They are a small, quick chore that puts the seal on large redemptive gains.
And he deplores the consequences:
the sorrow we feel for our sins should be commensurate with the sins, and the expression of sorrow commensurate with the sorrow. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, The penance...must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed (1460). Over time and many confessions, the sense of dissonance from having received incommensurately light penances for serious sin accumulates.
Among his many virtues, Saint Philip was not one to condone "incommensurately light penances."Happy feast of the joyfully creative confessor.

Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is a longtime Commonweal contributor.

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