The Priest in Union with Christ by Garrigou-Lagrange - Part 3, Section 2, Chapter 1

The Priest's Ministry in the Confessional

Section Two


Chapter One


One will sometimes hear a distinction made between preachers and confessors as if those who preach need not give much attention to the priest's ministry in the confessional, a work which is often less satisfying, more difficult, and sometimes irksome. However, a priest who does reserve all his energy for the pulpit and very little for the confessional is bound to find his preaching abstract and theoretical; his sermons will lack variety and he himself will not display that sincere and profound zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of souls which comes from practical labours for the conversion of souls.

To hear confessions well requires patience, self-denial, great love for souls. At the same time two extremes have to be avoided: excessive kindness and undue severity.

Some of the faithful no longer go to confession because they have found a confessor so tolerant of their failings that they have gradually ceased to realize the gravity of mortal sin. They look on confession as a mere formality with little value for their moral life. They have lost their supernatural appreciation of the value of confession; is that surprising, when the confessor himself is without that same supernatural outlook? Others— and these are in the majority—no longer go to confession because they have found their confessor too severe. And yet the faithful who confessed their sins to St. John Vianney were not deterred by his firmness, since his charity was even greater. He would sometimes readily inflict a severe penance on himself in place of the penitent in order to help him.

It is generally true to say that a priest who is careful about his own confession makes a good confessor for other people. But just as a person who has never learned how to obey never makes a good ruler, so also a priest who is careless about his own confession does not know how to hear the confessions of others.

St. Alphonsus (Praxis confessarii, c. i) explains that a good confessor is a father, a doctor, a teacher, and a judge. These are universally accepted as the four aspects of a priest's work in the confessional.1

As a father the confessor must be blameless in his priestly life, wise, mature in his judgment; he must possess abundant charity, showing himself equally kind to all—to the poor, to the uneducated, to the greatest sinners. He must receive them all with patience, gentleness, fatherly love, saying to them: "Trust me completely and tell me of the state of your soul. Do not fear. God is only too willing to forgive you all your sins if you are sincerely sorry. That is why he has waited for you, in order that he might spare you." If that is the attitude adopted by the priest, the penitent will realize that he is kneeling before a genuine father.

As a doctor the confessor needs that priestly prudence which will guide him correctly in asking questions about the source of the penitent's spiritual ills, so that he may suggest suitable remedies, protect the "sick" person against future dangers, warn him to avoid the occasions of sin and to make necessary restitution, and so on.

As a teacher the confessor must have sufficient knowledge of theology, so that he never loses sight of the great mysteries of salvation—the redemptive Incarnation, eternal happiness, eternal punishment—nor of the two supreme precepts of love of God and one's neighbour, which provide the supernatural approach to the Decalogue and its applications. Therefore the priest must never cease from his study of moral theology, especially of the more frequent cases and censures.

As a judge the confessor will sometimes have to ask questions, so far as is necessary for the integrity of the confession; he must also decide whether to give or to refuse absolution. For this purpose he must judge correctly the gravity of sins, their nature, and the state of the penitent—whether he is sufficiently attrite or not. He must also impose a penance proportionate to the offence committed, but which is not beyond the power of the penitent to fulfil.

These various duties of a confessor demand numerous virtues —a spirit of faith, confidence in God, great charity, priestly prudence, justice, courage, and also steadfast chastity in order to help those who fall into frequent sins of impurity. Fruitful perseverance in this ministry requires a fervent zeal for the glory of God and the saving of souls; otherwise the priest is overcome by weariness and may even reach a stage where he acquires an aversion for souls. For this reason unlimited charity and sincere apostolic zeal are indispensable virtues—as St. Alphonsus repeats so often in his excellent work, Homo apostolicus, tr. 16 and 21.

The duties of a confessor2

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 ?" If there is no reply, that is a sign that he still considers himself blameworthy in the sight of God, and he must then be helped with care and discretion to reveal what may be of a serious nature and altogether necessary for the integrity of his confession. In such cases the priest should ask explicitly about those sins which may probably 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.3

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. For instance, if the penitent confesses an act which of its nature produces culpable pollution, the priest must not ask whether pollution actually took place. This question must never be put to women.

Contrition and amendment. In helping the penitent to make a sincere act of contrition and a firm purpose of amendment the confessor must be guided by his priestly charity, and avoid being too lenient or too severe. He should remember that here he will receive much assistance from the sacramental grace of Orders, which is a modal determination of sanctifying grace and therefore of charity, and entitles him to increasingly higher actual graces in hearing confessions.

When a penitent is not sufficiently disposed to receive the sacrament, priestly charity urges the confessor to do all that he can to obtain sincere sorrow and a firm purpose of amendment. It guides him in the use of all his powers of persuasion, and while the priest is thus trying to help the penitent, so is Christ helping his minister. In fact, without this profound confidence in Christ's help at that moment, the priest would never succeed in his efforts to urge or make acceptable the necessary spirit of contrition. The priest's voice alone, without God's help, could never dispose a penitent. What is required in such circumstances is a supernatural eloquence, brief and to the point, convincing and full of charity. He must say to the penitent: "My child, try to appreciate the evil you have committed. What evil has God done to you that you should despise his authority in this way? If Jesus Christ had been your greatest enemy, could you have treated him more abominably than you have done? It was out of love for you that he sacrificed his life on the cross to save you from eternal punishment—and see what you have done and said against him in return. What will happen to you if you persevere in your refusal to make a humble submission to God, if you do not ask for his grace of sincere contrition and amendment ? Then again, what good have you obtained from all your sins? You are simply preparing yourself for a life of unhappiness here on earth and the loss of eternal life. Remember the words of Christ: 'Come to me, all you that labour and are burdened; I will give you rest' (Matt, xi, 28). God has so far given you time for conversion—do not delay any longer. Together with me you must intercede from the bottom of your heart for the grace of conversion, so that you may be genuinely sorry and receive through absolution the grace of contrition and of firm resolve to co-operate with God's help in the avoidance of sin for the future."

That is how saintly priests have always succeeded in moving their penitents to sorrow for sin, thus avoiding laxity and jansenistic severity.

The confessor who possesses genuine priestly charity readily absolves all sinners who are well disposed for the sacrament or in whom he cannot find any sign of insufficient dispositions. And those who are not properly disposed he tries to move to sincere contrition.

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.

1The following five paragraphs appear in the original at the end of Chapter Six, under the heading Recapitulatio, but they seem to be more appropriate here. Tr.

2Cf. Fr. Desurmont, op. cit., II, 130.

3Cf. St. Alphonsus, Praxis Confessarii; and St. Charles Borromeo in the course of his instructions: Quae in ministratione sacramenti Poenitentiae parochus et confessarius observet.