Monday, August 1, 2011

The good confessor, according to St. Alphonsus

August 1st, Feast of St. Alphonsus
St. Alphonsus teaches that there are four roles which the priest must perform with excellence in order to be a good confessor: He is a father, a physician, a teacher, and a judge. To fulfill these aspects of his duty as a confessor, the priest must, of course, be holy – but personal holiness alone will not suffice. Indeed, the confessor must be well-learned in the matters of moral theology. Here, we recall that St. Teresa thought it better to have a confessor who was learned but not holy, than one who was holy but not learned.
On the feast of the Doctor of Moral Theology, we consider the advice which St. Alphonsus gives to confessors. We should hope that priests would find a renewed zeal to read the works of the Patron Saint of confessors.

Summary of St. Alphonsus’ advice to confessors
1. It is extremely dangerous to hear confessions. A priest will have to render an account to God for every confession he has heard. Without holiness and learning, the priest puts both his soul and the souls of his penitents in grave danger. Indeed, it would be better if such priests did not hear confessions at all.
2. Knowledge: The priest must be learned in order to hear confessions well – this applies especially to his role as teacher. It will not be enough for the confessor to have simply a general knowledge of moral theology, rather he requires a good understanding of applied morals and of the cases discussed in the manuals. For a priest to hear confessions without having consulted the classical works of moral theology (among which, St. Alphonsus’ hold primacy of place) is an act of grave presumption – he risks not only his soul, but also the souls of his penitents.
3. Charity and firmness: The confessor must be filled with charity, which means he must be holy. He is to receive all persons (both saints and sinners, the wise and the ignorant, the rich and the poor) with kindness and to advise them without fear or concern for personal gain. Particular care is required when hearing the confessions of women, since there is danger of impurity.
4. Fortitude: The confessor must know when and how to withhold (i.e. differ) absolution. A confessor exposes himself to grave danger of damnation by either being too rigorous or too lax. As one confessor sins by being too harsh, so too the priest who absolves a penitent who is not disposed for absolution is certainly guilty of sin. “Generally speaking, the greater the rigor with which the confessor treats his penitents, when there is question of the danger of formal sins, particularly against chastity, the more he will promote their sanctification.”

Above all else, the confessor must be filled with a zeal for the salvation of souls!

Excerpts from “The Dignity and Duties of the Priest” by St. Alphonsus
The danger to which a priest exposes himself by hearing confessions:
The great Pontiff, St. Pius V, said: “Give us fit confessors, and surely the whole of Christianity will be reformed.” He who wishes to be a good confessor must, in the first place, consider that the office of a confessor is very difficult and dangerous, and that on account of its difficulty and danger the Council of Trent has called it an office to be dreaded even by angels.
“And what,” says St. Laurence Justinian, “can be more perilous than to assume the responsibility of rendering to God an account of the life of others?” St. Gregory says that no error is more dangerous than that which is committed in the direction of souls. It is certain that if a soul be lost through the fault of her confessor, God will demand of him an account of that soul. […] Hence, according to St. Gregory, a confessor has to render to God an account of as many souls as he has penitents.
This is not applicable to those good priests who, penetrated with a holy fear, labor to qualify themselves for this great office, and afterwards devote themselves to the exercise of it, through the sole desire of bringing souls to God. It is intended only for those who undertake to hear confessions through worldly motives, or temporal interest, or self-esteem, or, as sometimes happens, without the necessary learning.
The knowledge required to hear confessions well
St. Laurence Justinian says: “Many graces and not a little knowledge is needed by him who desires to raise souls to life.” He, then, who wishes to hear confessions, stands in need of extensive knowledge. Some imagine the science of Moral Theology to be easy, but Gerson justly says that it is the most difficult of all sciences. And before him St. Gregory said: “ The directing of souls is the art of arts.” St. Gregory Nazianzen writes: “To direct men seems to me to be the greatest of all sciences.”
St. Francis de Sales also used to say that the office of confessor is of all offices the most important and the most difficult. It is the most important, because on it depends the eternal salvation of souls, which is the end of all the sciences. It is the most difficult, because the science of Moral Theology requires a knowledge of many other sciences, and embraces an immense variety of matter. It is also most difficult, because different decisions must be given, according to the different circumstances of the cases that occur; for, a principle by which a case involving a certain circumstance may be decided will not answer for the solution of another case containing a different circumstance.
Some disdain to read the works of the moralists, saying that to hear confessions is enough to know the general principles of Moral Theology, by which, they add, the particular cases may be resolved. I answer: It is certain that all cases must be decided by means of principles, but there is great difficulty in applying to particular cases just principles, of solution. This the moralists have done. They have labored to explain the principles by which many particular cases may be resolved. […]
We must, then, be persuaded that to hear confessions great science and also great prudence are required; for with knowledge without prudence a confessor shall do but little good, and to some his ministry will be more injurious than beneficial.         
The charity and firmness that the confessor should have
Sanctity is still more necessary, on account of the great fortitude which a confessor requires in the exercise of his ministry. “Only he that, is a great saint,” says St. Laurence Justinian, “can without injury to, himself occupy himself with the care of souls.”     
A confessor requires a great fund of charity in receiving all — the poor, the ignorant, and the vicious.           
Some hear the confessions only of pious persons; but when a poor peasant comes with a conscience loaded with sins, they hear him with impatience, and send him away with reproaches. […] When a sinner comes to confession, the more abandoned he is, the more [the good confessors] labor to assist him, and the greater the charity with which they treat him. “You are not,” says Hugo of St. Victor, “appointed judges of crimes, to chastise, but, as it were, judges of maladies to heal.”
It is indeed necessary to admonish the sinner, in order to make him understand his miserable state, and the danger of damnation to which he is exposed; but he must be always admonished with charity, he must be excited to confidence in the divine mercy, and must be taught the means by which he may amend his life. And though the confessor should be obliged to defer absolution, he ought to dismiss the penitent with sweetness; fixing a day for him to return, and pointing out the remedies that he must practise in the mean time, in order to prepare himself for absolution. Sinners are saved in this way, but not by harshness and reproaches, which drive them to despair. […]
On allotting enough time for the hearing of each confession
But some will say, if we treat sinners in this manner a great deal of our time will be taken up, and others who are waiting cannot be heard. But in answer I say, that it is better to hear one confession well than to hear a great number imperfectly. But the most appropriate answer is, that the confessor has not to give an account to God of the persons who are waiting, but only of the person whose confession he has begun to hear.
Fortitude is required of the confessor
The confessor also stand in need of great fortitude: And this first of all in hearing the confessions of women. How many priests have lost their souls in hearing these confessions! We must treat in the confessional with young girls and young women; we must hear their temptations and often the avowal of their falls; for they also are of flesh and blood. […]
On refusing absolution
Great fortitude is necessary in correcting penitents and in refusing absolution to those who have not the requisite dispositions, without any regard to their rank or power, or to the loss or injury which the confessor may sustain, or to the imputations of indiscretion or of ignorance which may be cast upon him. “Seek not,” says the Holy Ghost, “to be made a judge unless thou hast strength enough to extirpate iniquities, lest thou fear the person of the powerful.”
A Father of our Congregation had occasion to hear in the sacristy the confession of a priest, whom he refused to absolve. The priest, rising up in a proud and haughty manner, said to him: “Be-gone! You are a brute.” But there is no remedy: confessors must submit to such inconveniences and insults. For it often happens that they are bound to refuse or to defer absolution, either because the penitent will not do what they require of him, or because he is a relapsing sinner, or because he is in the proximate occasion of sin. And here it is necessary to examine how a confessor should treat relapsing sinners, and those who are in the occasion of sin. For, in order to save his penitents, the confessor should attend with the greatest care to relapsing sinners, and to those who are in the occasion of sin.           
Danger in being too harsh as well as in being too lax
But, before we enter on this subject, it is necessary to remark, that a confessor exposes himself to as much danger of damnation by treating his penitents with too much rigor as he does by treating them with excessive indulgence.           
Too much indulgence, says St. Bonaventure, begets presumption, and too much rigor leads to despair. […] There is no doubt that many err by being too indulgent: and such persons cause great havoc—and I say even the greatest havoc; for libertines, who are the most numerous class, go in crowds to these lax confessors, and find in them their own perdition. But it is also certain that confessors who are too rigid cause great evil. […] Too much rigor, says Gerson, serves, only to bring souls to despair, and from despair to the abyss of vice. […]   
Such also is the doctrine of St. Raymond, “Do not be so prone,” says the saint, “to declare mortal sins, unless it be clear from Scripture.” St. Antonine teaches the same. “It is very dangerous,” he says, “to decide whether or not something is mortal, if this be not clear from the authority of Scripture, of a canon, or of an evident reason.” “For,” as the saint adds, “he who, without some of the above-mentioned grounds, pronounces an action to be a mortal sin, exposes, souls to the danger of damnation.” […]
Finally, the same doctrine has been laid down more clearly by Gabriel Biel, who flourished in the year 1480. “The opinion,” he says. “that is more probable to me is, that we must never condemn as a mortal sin anything for which we cannot allege either a very evident reason or the formal testimony of Scripture.”


Vince K said...


What does St. Alphonsus mean when he says relapsing sinners should be refused absolution? Surely he does not mean that those who are prone to relapse should not be forgiven. If he merely means those who he knows will make no effort not to relapse, how does that differ from those who will "not do what they require of him"?

Thank you.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

The relapsing sinner must be willing to avoid the "occasions" of sin ... especially those which are proximate intrinsic occasions of sin.

Thus, a relapsing drunkard ought not to be absolved if he refuses to stop going to the bars every night (this is Alphonsus' position).
Likewise, a relapsing fornicator cannot be absolved if he is living with the person to whom he is not married.

There are many other examples ... the penitent must agree to take the necessary steps to avoid the occasions of sin. If these steps are very difficult, St. Alphonsus would recommend withholding absolution until the steps are taken -- this will give the penitent the added impulse to actually do what needs to be done.

St. Alphonsus would also recommend deferring absolution in order to impress upon the penitent the seriousness of the sin and the great need for contrition -- especially with relapsing sinners in regard to sins against chastity.

Hope this clarifies a bit! +

Anonymous said...

I've loved St. Alphonsus and his books since I was in high school. Recently I heard a religious sister in a traditional habit say that his spirituality isn't for "our times".

I disagree. Would that we had more of the laity and priests following St. Alphonsus.

God bless you, Father Ryan (I still can't get over how young you are!), for this article.


Paddy said...

Thanks for this. This particular book is one that I return to regularly. If the wisdom it contains had been followed, much of the scandal that has accrued to the church from the behavior of certain priests would have been avoided.

Brad said...

I have noticed the disdain of, shall we say, the more liberal Catholics, especially those who see sin as structural as opposed to personal, when the concept of the Eucharist as reward for good behavior is brought up. I think it is incredibly hard-hearted of them. If only the patricians knew just what a miserable, bloody-kneed struggle it is for some of us to avoid near occasions, indeed, to avoid sin itself. The only reward is Him.

"His sufferings were inexpressible; but it was by them that he merited for us the grace necessary to resist those temptations to despair which will assail us at the hour of death,—that tremendous hour when we shall feel that we are about to leave all that is dear to us here below. When our minds, weakened by disease, have lost the power of reasoning, and even our hopes of mercy and forgiveness are become, as it were, enveloped in mist and uncertainty, —then it is that we must fly to Jesus, unite our feelings of desolation with that indescribable dereliction which he endured upon the Cross, and be certain of obtaining a glorious victory over our infernal enemies. Jesus then offered to his Eternal Father his poverty, his dereliction, his labours, and, above all, the bitter sufferings which our ingratitude had caused him to endure in expiation for our sins and weaknesses; no one, therefore, who is united to Jesus in the bosom of his Church must despair at the awful moment preceding his exit from this life, even if he be deprived of all sensible light and comfort; for he must then remember that the Christian is no longer obliged to enter this dark desert alone and unprotected, as Jesus has cast his own interior and exterior dereliction on the Cross into this gulf of desolation, consequently he will not be left to cope alone with death, or be suffered to leave this world in desolation of spirit, deprived of heavenly consolation. All fear of loneliness and despair in death must therefore be cast away; for Jesus, who is our true light, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, has preceded us on that dreary road, has overspread it with blessings, and raised his Cross upon it, one glance at which will calm our every fear." --Blessed Emmerich

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Veronica, You are certainly right! St. Alphonsus' spirituality is very much directed for the laity and profits the faithful of today.

Especially, I would point to his, "How to converse continually and familiarly with God", and his "Uniformity with God's will" [aka Conformity to God's will]; not to mention his Stations of the Cross.

many of his spiritual writings are available for reading online in English at

Blessings and peace to you! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I noticed that, in the opening paragraph, I had listed the roles of the confessor in the improper order -- it now reads (in the proper order) "father, physician, teacher, judge"; rather than (as previously) "father, teacher, doctor, judge".

Sorry, part of the confusion is that the italian/latin "dottore/doctor" is best translated in english as "teacher" rather than "doctor" (since, "dottore/doctor" does not refer to a medical physician, but to a learned teacher) ... hence, to avoid confusion, it is better to translate "padre, medico, dottore, giudice" as "father, physician, teacher, judge".

Unknown said...

Reverend and Dear Father,

this is absolutely wonderful. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.

ad Jesum per Mariam,
Taylor Marshall

Michael said...

Yes, this is very beautiful. Unfortunately, there have been many times where I have gone to confession, admitted to great sins only to leave the confessional feeling the priest just did not care and that I should probably "re-confess" the same sins to a different priest who might be more vigilant about his sacramental ministry.

Anonymous said...

I have similar sentiments to Micheal on confession
However am most grateful to our 70 year old priest who offers confessions twice daily .

Also most of the churches where i live only offer confession once a week if at all - so if one is in need for confession there is a lot of looking around involved

Unknown said...

S. Afonso is amazing! He teach the art of the art, on matter of penence, with love, but with true reason of life in God. This God hate the sins, but give anothers ways for the sinners. I love this saint. Glory be to the Lord, and Mary.

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