ROME – That old biblical adage that ‘the last will be first’ is applicable to any number of people and situations, not the least of which is Argentine Father Luis Pascual Dri, who, though last on the list of the pope’s new cardinal appointees, carries a high place in the pontiff’s esteem.

Often pointed to by Pope Francis as an icon of what a confessor ought to be, Dri for years has spent countless hours in the confessional of the Our Lady of Pompei shrine in Buenos Aires, scrupulously harboring doubts as to whether he has “forgiven too much.”

However, in a recent interview with Avvenire, the official news platform of the Italian bishops, Dri said that it was Jesus “who gave me the bad example.”

“Jesus forgave everyone: Peter, the adulteress, Matthew, everyone…Even the Good Thief on the Cross,” he said, saying that whenever he is frowned on by his fellow friars because “the faithful always go away happy” after going to confession, he has a ready answer.

“I kneel in front of the tabernacle, and I say to [Jesus]: ‘Forgive me, Lord, if I forgive too much, but deep down, it’s your fault,’” he said.

Cardinal-elect Luis Pascual Dri in his soundproofed confessional in Buenos Aires. (Credit: Vatican News.)

At 96, Dri is the oldest of the 21 new cardinals who will get their red hat from Pope Francis Sept. 30, though he said he will likely not make it to Rome due to his age and health.

Though Dri, like Pope Francis, is largely bound to a wheelchair, every morning and afternoon since he retired in 2007, he has sat in the confessional of the Our Lady of Pompei Shrine in Buenos Aires, offering confession to whomever chooses to approach.

Born in 1927, Dri has often been mentioned by Pope Francis in conversations with priests as an example of a good confessor in terms of his attitude of welcome and mercy.

According to an article by Andrea Tornielli, the Vatican’s editorial director, in Vatican News, the Vatican’s state-run media platform, Pope Francis referred to Dri for the first time after his election in March 2014 during a meeting with priests in Rome, and he mentioned Dri again a few months later during a Mass for priestly ordinations in May of that year.

Tornielli, who prior to his Vatican position was a well-known writer for the Vatican Insider news site, conducted an interview book with Pope Francis in 2016 titled “The Name of God is Mercy,” during the Jubilee of Mercy, in which Francis again hailed Dri as an example of a good confessor.

Francis pointed to Dri again in a homily during a February 2016 Mass with Capuchin friars, and he has also mentioned Dri’s example during a recent meeting with priests in Rome.

In his many references to Dri, Francis has referred to the Capuchin as “a great confessor,” saying that while he was still in Buenos Aires, he and Dri often talked about mercy, and that Dri at times confided that he was afraid he had “forgiven too much.”

Pointing to Dri’s habit of pinning the blame for his eagerness to forgive on Jesus, Francis once said, “This, I will never forget. When a priest lives mercy on himself like this, he can give it to others.”

In his interview with Avvenire, Dri said he draws inspiration from Capuchin saint Leopold Mandic, a contemporary of Padre Pio to whom both he and Pope Francis share a devotion.

Dri said he has read many of Mandic’s writings and has “learned a lot” from the fellow Capuchin.

Canonized by St. Pope John Paul II, Mandic suffered a crippling illness for most of his life, and due to his physical weakness, would spend most of his time sitting in the confessional. He would often spend 10-15 hours a day hearing confessions, and was known for being merciful and generous with his penances.

Similar to what Dri said, Mandic in his writings said that whenever he received criticism for being too lenient with penitents, he would respond saying, “Should the Crucified blame me for being lenient, I would answer Him: Lord, you gave me this bad example. I have not yet reached the folly of your having died for souls!”

In 2016, Pope Francis hosted the remains of Mandic and the partially incorrupt body of St. Pio of Pietrelcina, commonly known as “Padre Pio,” in St. Peter’s Basilica for public veneration as one of his many initiatives for the Jubilee of Mercy.

In his interview book with Tornielli, Francis, like Dri, pointed to Mandic as an example of mercy, quoting a homily once given by Cardinal Albino Luciani prior to his election as Pope John Paul I, in which he invoked the image of a donkey who falls on the road, saying beating it with a stick to get it back on its feet would do nothing, whereas a tender and helping hand would succeed.

“This is the system, and Father Leopold applied this system in full,” he said of Mandic.

Speaking to Avvenire, Dri said that while Pope Francis was still in Buenos Aires as archbishop, “He called me often.”

Dri said he would often ask for Bergoglio’s advice, and the then-cardinal “always gave it to me with his concise and profound way.”

The secret to being a good confessor, he said, is “to welcome people well. Receive them with affection. Make them feel at home.”

Asked how a pastor can learn to become a good confessor, Dri said it is done “by confessing. There is no other way.”

“It’s the strokes of life that make you aware of mistakes and how to improve. To confess others, it is essential to become aware of one’s being a sinner. Only when you understand that you are no better than the faithful who seek you, then you can confess them,” he said.

One thing Dri said he has learned in all his years as a confessor, having heard thousands of confessions, is that “there is so much pain in the world, too much. And that we produce it. We are very good at inflicting pain on each other.”

“Why can’t we recognize ourselves as brothers? Because we have forgotten the Father. We do not deny God, no. We just live as if he isn’t there, which is terrible,” Dri said. “In the midst of all this pain, I would like confession to be a caress. I would like to alleviate at least a little people’s suffering.”

Confession, he said, “is my life,” and if he were no longer able to hear confessions, “it would be like taking my life.”

Dri said that when his fellow Capuchins told him that he had been named a cardinal, at first he thought it was a joke, “then I checked. And then I started crying. I cried for hours. But I came to the confessional anyway. I cried and I confessed.”

Though it is unlikely he will be able to attend the consistory this fall, Dri said he was recently invited by the pope to spend a few weeks with him at his residence in the Vatican’s Saint Martha guesthouse.

“I was able to hug him and talk to him for a long time, and joke, to joke a lot. His sense of humor is impressive,” Dri said, but recalled how as soon as Francis saw him, “he asked me to confess, and then again before leaving.”

Pope Francis, who has often jested that the confessional is not a “torture chamber,” has placed a strong emphasis on the sacrament of Confession as pope.

Not only has he has encouraged priests, and bishops, to be gentle and merciful listeners to penitents who come seeking forgiveness, which he has described as “a human right,” the pope in past interviews has said that he himself confesses every two weeks.

In Lent 2016 he launched the annual “24 Hours for the Lord” event highlighting the sacrament of Confession and during which priests throughout the world are asked to significantly expand the hours in which they are available in the confessional.

The event was another of Pope Francis’s initiatives for his Jubilee of Mercy, during which he also designated Missionaries of Mercy who among other things have special faculties allowing them to hear confessions anywhere without having to go through the usual channels to obtain those faculties when traveling outside of their diocese.

In a separate interview with Tornielli for Vatican News, Dri said Pope Francis knows that he confesses for hours on end, and he revealed that on some occasions, he has advised priests experiencing a problem to come talk to him.

“I have listened to them and now we are great friends, with some of them coming often,” Dri said, and thanked Pope Francis for “this trust he has placed in me, because I don’t deserve it.”

“I am not a person, a priest, a friar, who has done studies, I have no doctorate, I have nothing. But life has taught me a lot, life has marked me, and since I was born very poor, I feel I must always have a word of mercy, of help, of closeness, for anyone who comes here. No one should leave thinking they have not been understood or despised or rejected,” he said.

In addition to Mandic, Dri said he also learned a lot from Padre Pio, saying he lived at the same friary as Padre Pio – who was also a famous confessor, whose lines at the confessional were often hours long – in 1960, and had gone to confession with him.

“St. Leopold and St. Pio taught me so much, so many beautiful things about mercy, love, peace, tranquility, closeness. Although Padre Pio was so strong, so energetic, when he had to listen and forgive, he was Jesus,” Dri said.

Dri, who said he often stays in the confessional until “the candles are consumed,” stressed the importance of being close to the people who come for confession, as many don’t fully understand the sacrament.

He said he often soothes people, telling them not to be afraid, because “the only thing it takes is the desire to be better, nothing else.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen