August 4th, Feast of St. John Vianney
The holy Curé of Ars is well recognized as the great apostle of the confessional. Pope Benedict, in declaring the Year for Priests, explicitly presented St. John Vianney as a model for priests in their ministry as confessors.
Much has been said and much is known of how this holy priest spent untold hours (even to sixteen and more hours a day) in the confessional. That he could “read souls” is well attested by testimony even from before his death. It has even been related that the evil one once cried out, “If there were two priests like John Vianney, my kingdom on earth would crumble!”
And so, we all must pray that the good Jesus would send us more priests like the humble St. John Vianney. The priests as well must implore the Savior for all the many graces necessary for growth as a confessor.
Still, the priests must also imitate the example of St. John Vianney – we priests should be asking ourselves, “How did the Curé become such a good confessor?” This question will lead us back to Monday’s saint: Alphonsus Liguori.
St. John Vianney’s teacher and guide
It is a simple historical fact that St. John Vianney did not start out as a particularly good confessor. It is well known that he began as a rigorist, leaning even to certain tendencies of the Jansenist heretics (as did nearly every French priest of the era). However, through the reading of St. Alphonsus Liguori’s works on confession, St. John Vianney learned how to be a good confessor.
“Let it not be imagined, however, that the gentleness with which M. Vianney welcomed sinners degenerated at any time into weakness. He absolved them only after he had assured himself of the sincerity of their contrition. Until 1840 he certainly followed the rigorism which at that time prevailed in most of the confessionals in France. He still applied the principles that were taught in 1815 in the Grand Séminaire of Lyons. From 1840 onwards, thanks to some conversations with M. Tailhades, a pious priest, and one inclined to leniency; thanks to the counsels of M. Camelet, superior of the diocesan missionaries, who, whilst evangelizing the country, had acquired a profound experience of souls; above all, thanks to a study of the theology of St. Alphonsus, which had just been published in French by Cardinal Gousset, the Curé d’Ars showed himself sensibly less strict: barring quite extraordinary cases, it never again happened, as it had in former days, that the same sinner was compelled to return to his confessional as often as five, six, or seven times. […] However, to the very end of his life, before he would consent to absolve an inveterate sinner, M. Vianney always insisted on adequate sings of conversion.” (The Curé d’Ars, by Abbé Francis Trochu, TAN edition, p. 294)
To be a good confessor
The introduction published in the Rite of Penance, which received the approval of Paul VI and was promulgated by the same, offers the following indications regarding the pastoral exercise of the confessional ministry:
“In order to fulfill his ministry properly and faithfully the confessor should understand the disorders of souls and apply the appropriate remedies to them. He should fulfill his office of judge wisely and should acquire the knowledge and prudence necessary for this task by serious study, guided by the teaching authority of the Church and especially by fervent prayer to God. Discernment of spirits is a deep knowledge of God’s action in the hearts of men; it is a gift of the Spirit as well as the fruit of charity.” (n. 10a)
It is obvious that no man can hope to be a good confessor if he has not dedicated himself to the serious study of the great doctors and spiritual masters of the confessional. If even St. John Vianney was in error before reading St. Alphonsus, how much more do today’s priests stand in need of instruction from the Doctor of Morals! Indeed, it would be more than rash for a priest to hear confessions without working to acquire the knowledge and wisdom required of the confessor, and this he can only hope to gain through study.
The priest will need to study not only the clear instructions of the Church regarding confession, and the great writings of the saints and theologians on the administration of the sacrament, but will also need to acquire a solid knowledge of the spiritual life in general.
It goes without saying that every confessor should be familiar with the essential canons from the CIC on confession: Canons 595-997. Additionally, he must know the instruction given him in the “Introduction to the Rite of Penance” which is published in the first pages of the Roman Ritual, The Rite of Penance (1973, ‘75 in English). Finally, special mention should be given to the recent document (from the Congregation for the Clergy) on confession and spiritual direction released in March 2011 - read it here.
Certainly, the priest should at least read The Dignity and Duties of the Priest by St. Alphonsus Liguori, focusing especially on the chapter regarding the duties of the confessor. Even this short chapter contains a wealth of useful and necessary information.
Additionally, we point to the more recent works of Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, The Priest in Union with Christ, and of Fr. Federico Suarez, About being a priest – however, we do note that Fr. Suarez breaks from the best tradition in maintaining that the primary role of the confessor is that of judge (St. Alphonsus and others have held that it is rather the role of father which must be primary).
For a good and comprehensive study of the moral and spiritual life, as well as of the progressive stages of interior growth, we recommend Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange’s masterpiece, The Three Ages of the Interior Life – and if a two volume work of over 1,000 pages seems to any priest to be excessive, let such a man consider whether he has a true zeal for the salvation of souls and whether he may perhaps be risking his own salvation by his gross tepidity.
Finally, we must also mention the importance of works of applied moral theology (including casuistry): St. Alphonsus insisted that a priest who neglected this study was gravely negligent in hearing confessions. We may point to St. Alphonsus’ own works, especially the Pratica del Confessore. And, for those who cannot yet read Italian, we recommend the classic Handbook of Moral Theology by Fr. Dominic Prummer.