Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Is confession a time for spiritual direction? An answer from St. Alphonsus

The confessional can be busy at times!

In my seminary days, I was strongly opposed to the idea of making confession into a time of spiritual direction. “After all,” I said, “there is only so much time and, if the priest gives too much advice, many confessions will go unheard.”
Thus, it was with great surprise that I read the recommendations of St. Alphonsus Liguori (the patron of confessors and the Doctor of Morals): After imploring confessors to take time to instruct and encourage the penitent he states, “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.” (from Selva, or The Dignity and Duties of the Priest)
St. Alphonsus sees spiritual direction as integral to the work of the confessor (see, especially the final chapter of his Pratica del Confessore). Still, we simply must admit that confession is not spiritual direction proper and there is the realistic fact of time constraints. What will be necessary, then, is to discuss the occasions in which it is appropriate (and perhaps even obligatory) for the priest to give some spiritual counsel to the penitent.

The need to question the penitent
The principal cause for which the confessor must question the penitent is in order to assist the penitent in making an integral confession. Hence, according to St. Alphonsus and the theologians generally, the priest is obliged to question the penitent if there is reasonable doubt that he has omitted either to examine certain areas of his life or to confess serious sins with the required specificity.
Here, we might say that the questioning should generally be directed towards grave sins in order to gain the integrity of the confession. However, it may also be profitable for the confessor to question some penitents about the life of prayer.
A few simple examples will illustrate our point.
1) If a penitent has not confessed recently (within a few months) and is not known to the priest (or is known to him as only a sometimes-practicing Catholic), but gives only a very general confession without mentioning any sins against God; it would be reasonable to claim that the priest ought to question the penitent in regard to the first three commandments, especially it will be good to question regarding the regularity of Sunday Mass attendance.
2) If a penitent has confessed mortal sins, but has made no reference to the Church’s teaching about not receiving communion after committing mortal sin and before going to confession; it would seem obligatory for the priest to question the penitent and educate him in regard to the Church’s teaching (cf. CCC 1385, “Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion.”).
3) If a penitent confesses lustful thoughts, it may be advisable (according to the prudential judgment of the confessor) to question the penitent as to whether such thoughts were occasioned by other sins (we refer to immoral images or writings) and as to whether these thoughts led to any external acts against the 6th Commandment (either solitary or with another). [here, we do note that the priest must be extremely cautious when questioning women regarding sins against chastity, but must also recognize the obligation of helping them to make an integral confession of all mortal sins]
There are, of course, many other circumstances when the priest ought to question the penitent; but we hope that these examples will provide some indication of the proper course.
Consider also the words of Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, taken from The Priest in Union with Christ: “The confessor must help the penitent to make an integral Confession, a sincere act of contrition and a firm purpose of amendment; he should also give suitable advice.
“Integrity. The priest is recommended to make a practice of questioning any penitent who comes to him for the first time unless the penitent is clearly well instructed, precise, and has already said on his own initiative everything that is necessary. The questions should normally bear upon the penitent's state in life; for example, whether he is married or not, his age, his occupation, the date of his last Confession.
“It is also useful to ask the penitent about the more common types of sin and their causes, if he has not been sufficiently explicit. In order to discover whether he may be hiding some sin of a more serious nature of which he is ashamed, the priest should put the following general question: ‘Is there anything else weighing on your conscience, anything at all which you would like to get off your mind?’ […] In such cases, the priest should ask explicitly about those sins which may likely have been committed by the penitent in his or her state of life, and implicitly about other more serious sins which could have been committed.
“In dealing with the virtue of purity, the priest must formulate his questions in such a way as to be readily understood by the guilty, and yet they must be sufficiently veiled and discreet as not to offend the innocent.”
Answering the penitent’s questions
Certainly, there will be times when the penitent has a question regarding the seriousness of a sin, or even as to whether a particular act is a sin at all. While the priest must be careful to keep the confession from turning into a simple conversation, a truly pastoral zeal should lead him to answer questions simply and directly. If the people cannot ask a priest for advice in confession, when will they ever have the opportunity?
When relapsing and habitual sinners cannot be granted absolution
There are cases in which the priest will not be able to grant absolution at that time. Such can occur when dealing with habitual sinners and relapsing sinners (called “recidivists”). Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, again in The Priest in Union with Christ, speaks well to the charity with which the priest must speak to the penitent when absolution must be deferred:
“If there is any doubt about the penitent’s resolve to avoid sin in the future, the priest should not refuse him absolution unconditionally but promise to give it when the penitent is better disposed. A case in point would be when the priest is doubtful about the dispositions of those who have contracted habits of sin, of those who frequently fall into the same sin after repeated Confession and without any effort at emendation, and of those who are in the occasions of sin. [Cf. St. Alphonsus, Praxis confessarii, c. iv.]
“The habitual sinner may be absolved as often as he seriously undertakes to employ the means necessary to overcome his habit, but he cannot be absolved if he refuses this undertaking.
“The recidivist is one who frequently falls into the same sin after repeated Confession, without making any effort to avoid the sin. He differs from the habitual sinner who often falls into the same sin but has not yet confessed his sinful habit. The absolution of these recidivists presents difficulties, since they cannot all be treated in the same way. There are those who repeatedly commit sins due to a malicious will [recidivi formaliter], and those who repeatedly commit sins due to frailty [recidivi materialiter]. These latter should be given advice and encouragement, and then absolved. As regards the former, St. Alphonsus, who steers a middle course between severity and excessive leniency, states that as a general rule they are not to be absolved unless they give special signs of their sorrow.
“Then there are those penitents who are in occasions of sin – either in a free proximate occasion, if it is one that could easily be avoided, or in a necessary occasion, if it cannot be avoided. A penitent unwilling to avoid a free proximate occasion of sin cannot be absolved; but one who is in a necessary occasion of grave sin may be absolved if he seriously intends to take the necessary measures to make the occasion a remote one. The priest’s charity will here be invaluable in pointing out the correct path to follow, which will avoid laxity on the one hand and rigorism on the other.”
Directing the penitent toward contemplation
Finally, it is the opinion of St. Alphonsus and of the best of the doctors of the spiritual life that the confessor ought at least occasionally to question the penitent regarding his interior life and, generally, to offer at least some advice, direction, and encouragement.
When a penitent has overcome mortal sin and is generally living in the state of grace, it will be essential to his spiritual growth that he begin to practice regular mediation – we give special mention to the Rosary. Likewise, as the soul grows into closer union with God, the Savior will lead the penitent more and more toward contemplative prayer: thus, the faithful servant of Christ will eventually be brought into the dark night of the senses (on the verge of the purgative and illuminative ways). At this time, especially, it will be necessary for the confessor to question and advise the penitent regarding personal and liturgical prayer.
St. Alphonsus states that the confessor is a father, a physician, a teacher, and judge. Especially in his role as father and teacher, the confessor must be ready and willing to direct the penitent through periods of spiritual dryness and toward the life of contemplation. Here, we must mention that the good director will move the soul toward contemplation neither too quickly nor too slowly. The confessor must listen to the penitent and learn from his words what advice and direction is needed – this will certainly take some time, but it is the most effective way of saving souls!
Confession as a universal avenue of spiritual direction
It is said that St. John Vianney could hear the confession of grave sinners who had spent years away from confession in not much more than ten minutes. Certainly, most priests will not be quite so wise as the CurĂ©, hence we should not be surprised if a confession occasionally takes more time. Still, in general, we can safely say that the questioning and directing of penitents will not usually be a grave burden on either priest or people. In fact, it may be good for the priests to offer confessions daily so that the “regulars” can make their confessions at ease and the “big fish” will not be rushed through.
The Holy Father recently spoke these words to the students of the Teresianum in Rome: “As she has never failed to do, again today the Church continues to recommend the practice of spiritual direction, not only to all those who wish to follow the Lord up close, but to every Christian who wishes to live responsibly his baptism, that is, the new life in Christ. Everyone, in fact, and in a particular way all those who have received the divine call to a closer following, needs to be supported personally by a sure guide in doctrine and expert in the things of God. A guide can help defend oneself from facile subjectivist interpretations, making available his own supply of knowledge and experiences in following Jesus. [Spiritual direction] is a matter of establishing that same personal relationship that the Lord had with his disciples, that special bond with which he led them, following him, to embrace the will of the Father (cf. Luke 22:42), that is, to embrace the cross.” (read the full text here)
If Pope Benedict really thinks that all the Christian Faithful need to avail themselves of spiritual direction in order to live responsibly their baptismal promises, it will be necessary for confession to serve as a means of accomplishing this task. There is simply no practical way of accommodating universal spiritual direction unless this be accomplished through the sacrament of reconciliation.
Obviously, it is possible for persons other than priests to serve as spiritual directors, but there is likewise real danger here – since the knowledge required to direct souls well can be gained only after many years of serious study and formation. When we recall the intensity of the formation of priests – who receive at least four years of 24/7 theological, spiritual, and pastoral formation (both through the common life of the seminary and through the academic program of the university), and who are in constant formation even after the completion of seminary – we do not see how a few weekend “classes” (even if taken over several years) can possibly prepare a lay person to be a spiritual director.
In any case, the lay faithful generally want the direction of a holy priest – and they deserve this guidance, since Christ has entrusted the duty of pasturing souls specifically to priests. Therefore, it will be necessary for priests to give some level of (informal) spiritual direction to penitents in the confessional.

UPDATE: We should be very clear, excepting the above listed circumstances (and, perhaps, a few others), it does not seem that a confession should take much time at all. Indeed, though the priest should always give some little bit of advise or encouragement, this should never devolve into simple conversation - this would be quite disrespectful of the sacrament itself. Moreover, even in the cases enumerated in this article, the level of "spiritual direction" appropriate for the confessional is still quite minimal - indeed, it should rarely take more than ten minutes to hear even a difficult confession. In fact, if priests stuck to giving direction almost exclusively in those circumstances listed above (and refused to allow vain conversation during confession), I should think that some confessional lines would move more quickly while the quality of the confessions heard would also improve dramatically.

A few articles on spiritual direction: What to look for in a spiritual director, and When you cannot find a spiritual director. It would be better to have no director at all, than to receive poor or errant spiritual direction.


Unknown said...

I just reposted this on Facebook.


PS: Your posts, Father, have been wonderful lately!

Unknown said...

Reverend Father,

I agree, of course, with Father Alphonsus. If confessions were offered more frequently, then I can see "direction in confession" becoming more normative.

This entails a sacrifice for the priest a la "a priest is not his own." The priest, in order to fulfill this task will have to spend more time in the confessional.

Now that I'm at an FSSP parish, there is confession offered everyday and for over ten hours on Sunday. I often receive jewels of advice and even questioning from the priests. The priests also say things like, "Why don't you make an appointment and we can discuss mental prayer, penances, etc."

However, at other parishes, confession is only offered on Friday night or Saturday afternoon. Prior to being at the FSSP parish, I've (regrettably) become frustrated because there will be 30 penitents in line and someone is in the confessional for 15-20 minutes! Then the priest comes out and says, "Sorry folks, that's all for tonight."

(BTW, would St Alphonsus say that priests are culpable for "confessions not heard" in such cases? As a practicing layman I have often thought to myself: "What's the point. I wait in line for an hour and don't get to go to confession. Why even try?"

Surely, I'm not the only one who has thought this. I imagine working Catholic men just give up. It's not right and not a sign of perseverance, but I can see the temptation.)

Of course, when confession is offered frequently, this isn't a temptation for the layman (especially the working husband/father who may have difficulties meeting the limited posted times).

Would you agree that St Alphonsus' and Fr Garrigou's advice assumes that parish confessions are offered more than "one hour" on Saturday?

ad Jesum per Mariam,

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

All good points.
I will say this: I cannot see how a priest with a true zeal for the salvation of souls would only offer confessions for one hour per week ... especially, if that hour is full and there are people waiting.

Certainly, if a confession goes unheard because the priest refuses to be available (within reason) to hear confessions, that priest will have to answer for such negligence.

BTW, it sounds like you have some awesome priests at your parish! I myself have also had very good experiences with priests of the FSSP during my seminary days.

Peace and blessings, and keep up the good work over at Canterbury Tales! +

dcs said...

here, we do note that the priest must be extremely cautious when questioning women regarding sins against chastity

It might be good to point out the same advice would hold for questioning children - Fr. Jone warns the confessor about teaching children sins by asking them pointed questions in confession.

Anonymous said...

I've been praying to St. Leopold Mendic to find me a good confessor and director. The two priests in my parish are good priests but I had a really traumatic experience with one before Mercy Sunday in the confessional and the other one leaves me tongue-tied. Am not comfortable with either.

I was used to going to confession once a week. In our parish, if you don't make an appointment, the only times scheduled for confession are inconvenient late afternoon times. I wish they would make it more available in the morning without having to make an appointment.


Larry said...

Fr. Erlenbush -

Is there a book you can recommend to get started with St. Alphonse Ligouri? I've delved into some Saints in some depth - Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux, and Catehrine of Siena, but haven't gotten into St. Alphonse much. I generally the Saints own words, rather than books written about the Saint.

BTW, did you know Jason Cargo (now Fr. Jason Cargo) at Rome? Or Fr. James Yamauchi? I don't know how large the Pontifical College for North America is, but both are Dallas Diocesan priests who recently were ordained after matriculating in Rome.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

I have lived in Parishes where one must call the Priest and make an appointment for Confession.

This happens all the time all over the United States.

Apparently, we Christian Catholics stopped sinning in 1965

Anonymous said...

If you "haven't been to confession in 30 years." or something, you really should schedule a time for your long-winded confession!

Since most priests are barely there 1 hour/week in most parishes, it's extremely inconsiderate and selfish to hog all the time, no doubt debating and defending your actions.

No routine confession should take more than 5 minutes.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Gerard Kelly SJ wrote a wonderful book called "The Good Confessor."

I think the post-Vatican II spirit tries to justify confession as spiritual direction because it doesn't like the Church's teaching on sin or sacerdotal absolution. Spiritual direction is part of confession -but perhaps primarily with reference to avoiding sin. I think prescribing a penance itself is an aspoect of this spiritual direction.
A priest hearing a good confession does not have to give advice. I think many priests always think they have to say something beyond the absolution and penance.

I think it's true that penitent immediately before his is his main duty, but the priest must also be prudent and not become loquacious. He must be like a ER doctor swiftly helping the penitent expose his sins and so that he cn apply the healing absolution (and questioning or advice only if necessary). Otherwise he makes the sacrament odious.

Michelangelo said...

Hi Father Erlenbush,

Excellent post! I hope the Pope doesn't make you a bishop any time soon such that you don't have time to devote to your blog! Selfish, I know, and I'm guilty!!! Anyway, I'm one of those hopefully repentant recidivists who gets the response from the confessor, "everybody does it!" You know that doesn't help, and I wish I was scrupulous, but I'm not, these are NEW sins... (not to be flip about it...) So we the laity lovingly bear the burden of wonderful, dear priests who weren't taught very well about this subject. And so, I just want you to know how good it is to have you tell us that the young priests are being taught the tried and true methodology of how to be a good confessor! And to give us good sources. Glory be to God!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Anonymous (3:50pm),
I would challenge you to expand your charity a bit ... is not confession specifically for the "big fish"? Shall we push the big confessions all to the side ... forcing them to take the additional step of setting an appointment.

This is the point: The angels rejoice more in heaven over one repentant sinner.

What I would say: It is better to encourage priests to give more time to hearing confessions than to set up more barriers for the "big fish" confessions.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Anonymous (4:46pm),
1st - give a pseudonym with your comment.

2nd - To say that "a priest hearing a good confession does not have to give advice" is to contradict both St. Alphonsus and the current directions given in the Introduction to the Rite of Penance (which was promulgated by Pope Paul VI).
It would be a very rare exception that a priest would not offer some bit of counsel to the penitent ... to help him overcome his sin and to grow in holiness.

The primary goal of confession is to bring the person into union with God ... and this can only be accomplished by attaining to the Unitive Way of the perfect (either now or in purgatory).
After gaining freedom from mortal sins and from deliberate venial sins, we must strive in earnest to attain to the inner-life of infused contemplation.

St. Alphonsus (the patron of confessors) exhorts priests to not settle simply for rooting out sin (it would be the vice of tepidity).

-- perhaps it is the nonsense that many priests have been saying in confession over recent years that has made the sacrament odious ... indeed, when confessors don't understand the spiritual life, they cause grave harm to souls --

D.A. Burke said...

The congregation for the clergy has just released a document that affirms much of what is said here and more. It can be found by following this link:


Tom said...

Father Erlenbush,

This was a very helpful post. I've always viewed the line for confession to be very similar to that part of the story in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, where Lucy has the magic potion that heals those who are about to perish. She "dawdles" or "hesitates" over Edmund, and Aslan reproaches her for delaying while others are on the brink of death. However, your post has given me much food for thought. I think there is a middle ground (and I think I can still reserve the right to be upset when one person (whom I see in line for Confession on a bi-weekly basis) taking up 30 minutes for confession), but I think St. Alphonsus has corrected me. You remain in my prayers.

Tom Gehrz

Greg said...

May I strongly suggest that you submit this article to Homiletic and Pastoral Review (and any and all other priestly publications out there I may not know of)?

Well said.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I have just posted a little UPDATE to the article, which should clarify a few points.

What I am advocating is that direction would be appropriate almost exclusively in those circumstances enumerated above ... and even then the "direction" would be limited to the specific need [e.g. asking questions of the penitent so as to gain the integrity of the confession, giving the penitent one or two points to meditate on over the next week, etc].

Certainly, confession is not a time for "conversation"!
This is what has made the sacrament so odious and has caused many people to become frustrated with any level of direction in the confessional (even when it is done appropriately).

Finally, I should also warn that it would be better to have no direction at all than to have bad direction ... when there are so many priests who give poor advice (either through heterodox thought, or through inexperience and lack of knowledge of the spiritual life), we must say that it would be better for both penitent and priest if these fools (i.e. the bad confessors) would not speak at all!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Tom G.,
Peace and blessings to you!

I think you are correct that something is not working right when a weekly confession consistently takes 30 min ... obviously, charity and patience are needed; but it does seem that there is something a bit off with that situation.
Take a look at my UPDATE, I think you will agree. And it may show that we are both in that "middle ground".

Tom said...

I have more thoughts, but let me say this before I forget:

As a recidivist myself, I tend to think my objections might be moot or potentially hypocritical. But I think everyone else (whom I must presume is in a better state than me) has reason to be upset when the person in front of them takes 15 minutes to confess. Here's why:

I tend to think St. Alphonsus was not speaking of the proverbial crashing airplane hypothetical when he says a priest is only held to account for those confessions he does hear, and not those which he does not hear. I tend to think the priest would have to answer for only absolving one person on the way down. No? I know the communal confession model is disfavored, but...

Unknown said...

Thank you for this!

Anonymous said...

Fr. Jone would even say (if I remember correctly) that the whole issue of integrity could be dispensed with if the confession would go on so long as to possibly cause scandal.

Even so, even with a "big fish" confession, one (it would seem) couldn't make an "integral" confession in the sense of being really detailed. It would seem that it would be more like, "I did X more times than I can remember..." for, probably, many things and that would be an honest, and therefore integral confession. Thus, it shouldn't really take that long.

The only times I've been perturbed in the confession line (yeah, mea culpa...) was when women are in there, and no offense to women as I would bet some men are like this too. However, when you can hear (which I know is also bound, and I wouldn't repeat) and they are obviously chatting or she's going on and on about this or that powder-puff pious thing, one (I thing) is entitled to a little pious annoyance. If confessions are only offered for 1/2 hour (or however long), I don't want to be delayed by someone's whine-fest. If you feel a need to pour your heart out to Father about whatever, please make an appointment! When one comes to a scheduled confession time, you need to get to the point and move along so that the next person can get to their point.


dcs said...

I think in the crashing airplane scenario the priest could definitely give general absolution.

Chatto said...

Father, this is slightly off topic, so apologies. How important is the "God, the Father of mercies..." part of the absolution? Our priest just starts with "I absolve you...". And he never gives penances, either. Do I need to go to someone else for Confession?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I'm gonna copy your question and my response over to the "Ask Father Ryan" page.

If the priest says only, "I absolve you from your sins", the essential words have been preserved. Still, it is really bad that he would not say the whole thing ... you might consider bringing a printout copy of the prayer and asking him to read it ... then tell him that he can keep it if he likes ... [just be sure that you don't come off as prideful or demeaning toward him].

[here is the prayer: "God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I ABSOLVE YOU FROM YOUR SINS in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."]

Peace to you! +

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