Within this year-long series of articles on St. John Vianney, the 150th of whose birth into eternal life provided the occasion for Pope Benedict to declare the Year for Priests, it has been fitting to dedicate a mini-series on what contemporaries and historians call his greatest miracle of all: his confessional, besieged day and day.
In the last ten columns, we have seen how the Curé of Ars spent the vast majority of his priestly life, as much as 18 hours a day, reconciling sinners to God. Throughout the day he prayed without ceasing— at the altar, in his meditation, and in his fasts and penances— that sinners would be given the grace of repentance and conversion. He would preach routinely about the greatness of God’s mercy and then would go out in search of the lost sheep, trying to invite, persuade, or gently pull them to come to receive it. After he had helped people return to the sacrament, he would then work to help them become ever better penitents, teaching and assisting them to examine their consciences better, to grow in sorrow, and make firmer and wiser purposes of amendment. While the Mass always remained the source and the summit of his priestly life, the confessional became in a sense his altar, his cross, on which he sacrificed himself in union with Christ for the redemption of the world.
Today I’d like to conclude this mini-series on the Curé of Ars and the Sacrament of Penance by focusing briefly on a few other aspects of his confessional ministry.
The first concerns the practical tips he gave on how to go to confession. He encouraged penitents to be candid, clear, concise and contrite. With proper preparation, he said, the confession even of someone who had been away for years should be able to be done within a few minutes. He tried to help those who were prone to loquacity, especially in giving non-essential details, to prune their confession and give just those circumstances that were directly relevant to committing the sin. This was not so much to save time, but because he generally saw that the greater the details, the less sorrowful the penitent; rather than identifying the root causes of sins, the extra details were normally employed to “explain” or “excuse” them. That’s why he counseled from the pulpit, “Avoid all the useless accusations. They waste the confessor’s time, fatigue those who are waiting to confess and extinguish devotion.”
Second, he sought to remove whatever fears people might have in coming to confession. He knew that many were reluctant to confess because they worried what the priest might think of them. He sought to reassure them, first, by telling them that there was nothing that they could say that would surprise the priest. “Is it really humiliating to accuse yourself of your sins?,” he asked. “The priest knows well what you’re capable of.” Then he told them what the priest’s reaction would be to their humble self-accusation and trust in God’s mercy. “The priest will have mercy on you. He will cry with you,” as often St. John Vianney did.
Third, he sought to help them to receive sacramental absolution prayerfully, by getting them to grasp what it really meant. “When the priest gives absolution, it’s necessary to think of only one thing: that the blood of the good God is flowing through our soul to wash it, purify it and make it as beautiful as it was after baptism.” Absolution is a great miracle, just like the miracle of baptism, when the soul that was deadened by sin experiences the miracle of the resurrection. It is not uncommon in some places, especially where confessional lines are long, for priests to have penitents to say their act of contrition simultaneously with the prayer of absolution, or for penitents to begin praying their penance while the absolution is being given. The Curé of Ars wanted no such multi-tasking. He tried to help his penitents slow down to reflect on what was occurring, which he was convinced would help them grow to love the sacrament more and experience more of its fruits.
Fourth, St. John Vianney tried to get his parishioners and penitents to pray for their confessors. “The penitent should pray,” he suggested repeatedly, “that the good God give to his confessor the necessary light and grace.” Just as he was praying and fasting for penitents, so he was asking them to do the same for him and his brother confessors. He knew, perhaps more than any other priest in Church history, how much priests are in need of prayer to act to act effectively in the person of the Divine Physician with each penitent who comes. They need God’s grace to understand not just the sins but the sinners who come before him, to remain patient with those who try their patience, to be gentle with those who are particularly sensitive, to be firm with those who need a good spiritual kick in the pants, to cry with those who lack contrition, to give hope to those in despair, to guide with clarity those who are lost and confused, and to know what to say and what not to say in order to help the penitent turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.
In this Year for Priests, it is especially fitting for all the faithful to pray for priest confessors as St. John Vianney suggests. It is hard for those who are not priests truly to imagine the difficulties and incredibly delicate balances between justice and mercy when confessing, for example, those who are guilty of heinous crimes. It’s hard to grasp the pain a priest experiences when he is incapable of giving absolution to someone who refuses to abandon a near occasion of sin. It’s difficult to conceive the angst in a priest’s paternal heart when a child penitent totally freezes up and won’t say anything at all. It’s surreal to envisage what it’s like when a penitent is totally unintelligible manner yet seems to be asking you moral advice about whether something he or she did was sinful. And it’s almost unfathomable when penitents ask for your help in resolving moral difficulties at work or at home that, if put into case studies, would challenge the greatest moral theologians in the world. Not to mention when any of these occur five minutes before Mass is supposed to start! For all of these reasons and more, please pray for confessors!
Fifth, the patron saint of priests always reminded his penitents that, if they wanted to receive God’s mercy, they had to be merciful with others. “Unless you forgive others their sins,” Jesus said in the Gospel, “your Heavenly Father will not forgive yours” (Mt 6:15). St. John Vianney helped them to see that their absolution required forgiving others 70 times 7 times. “The good God will pardon only those who pardon,” he said. “That’s the law.” He helped his parishioners to live by it.
Finally, he not only sought to help them forgive others but to bring others to receive the same forgiveness they had received from God. He tried to make them cheerful apostles of the sacrament of reconciliation, spreading the joy of being forgiven to their family members, friends and neighbors. Far more effective than 100 homilies on confession is the witness of a satisfied customer. The geometric explosion in the number of penitents in the tiny, barely accessible hamlet of Ars, was ascribable not only to God’s grace and the Curé’s prayers but to the testimonies of so many penitents whose joyful personal tales were compelling advertisements.
It’s a great lesson for all of us today with regard to those we know who are in great need of God’s mercy. The most effective means in getting them to return is, in most cases, not to point the finger at them and tell them that they need to go to confession. It’s to go to confession ourselves and then to share with them the incredible joy we have in being reconciled with the Father. Advent is a great time to experience personally this wisdom of the Curé of Ars.