During his fruitful decades as the Curé of Ars, St. John Vianney not only labored to get his people to come to confession but to help them become good and better penitents. In his instructions on making good confessions — by which he meant not merely minimally “valid” ones but truly fruitful and life-changing experiences of conversion — he drew on the traditional teachings of the Church, his own experience as a penitent, and mainly on the unparalleled expertise he gained from confessing so many people from so many walks of life for so many years. He was a privileged witness not only to hundreds of thousands of beautiful confessions, but also scores of poorly done and even invalid ones. He synthesized this accumulated wisdom in catechetical instructions and sermons and this spiritual coaching remains eminently practical and helpful for Catholics today.
Since many penitents would need to wait several days in line to go to confession, he wanted them to spend that time well, and hence gave them regular conferences on making better confessions. He phrased the general dispositions needed to confess well in terms of the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love. The first virtue is a “faith that sees God in the priest.” To believe in Christ means to believe in what he said and did, and our faith in Christ needs to take seriously that Christ established a concrete means by which sins can be forgiven, when on Easter Sunday evening he breathed the Holy Spirit on his ministers and sent them out to forgive sins just as God the Father had sent him (John 20:19-23).
The second preparatory virtue is “hope that can make us believe that God will give us the grace of forgiveness.” Hope is a trust that God will make good on his promises. In the Gospel, Jesus repeatedly reminds us that God does not wish the death of the sinner, that his merciful love is everlasting and that heaven rejoices more in the return of one of God’s “lost and dead” sons or daughters than basically everything else. The Curé of Ars said that, without ever presumptuously taking God’s mercy for granted, we should approach the sacrament with confidence that God will joyfully welcome us back.
The third virtue is “love that brings us to love God and makes us regret in the heart ever having offended him.” This love helps us to form genuine sorrow for sins and moves us to seek reconciliation with the Beloved we’ve displeased by choosing other persons or things ahead of him and what he asks of us. Without this love, confession remains just an exercise in shameful self-disclosure, akin to a child’s being forced against his will to apologize in order to avoid further punishment. With love, the Sacrament of Penance facilitates a real reconciliation with the God who loves us first.
Vianney applied these virtues to the three traditional areas of preparation for confession: how to make a thorough and prayerful examination of conscience, how to grow in sorrow for our sins out of love for God, and how to make a firm game plan to overcome in the present and future the sins to which we’ve succumbed in the past. Today we’ll focus on the examination of conscience.
Many of the parishioners of Ars had really never been trained how to make a good examination of conscience. The indoctrination of the French Revolution worsened the situation and deformed many consciences, by pretending that some sins were in fact good actions, like executing priests and religious. St. John Vianney therefore needed to begin his training on how to examine the conscience well with a thorough catechesis on what sin is before he was able to teach them about specific sins.
Pope John Paul II wrote about the importance of the catechesis that John Vianney needed to do in his apostolic exhortation Reconciliation and Penance. “First of all,” the Pope stated, “an indispensable condition [for a good preparation for confession] is the rectitude and clarity of the penitent's conscience. People cannot come to true and genuine repentance until they realize that sin is contrary to the ethical norm written in their inmost being; until they admit that they have had a personal and responsible experience of this contrast; until they say not only that ‘sin exists’ but also ‘I have sinned’; until they admit that sin has introduced a division into their consciences, which then pervades their whole being and separates them from God and from their brothers and sisters. The sacramental sign of this clarity of conscience is the act traditionally called the examination of conscience, an act that must never be one of anxious psychological introspection but a sincere and calm comparison with the interior moral law, with the evangelical norms proposed by the Church, with Jesus Christ himself who is our Teacher and Model of life, and with the heavenly Father, who calls us to goodness and perfection” (31).
The patron saint of priests tried to help his people achieve this clarity of conscience in his own inimitable way. He began by describing what sin is without mincing words: sin “is the executioner of the good God and the assassin of the soul.” By sin we give “blows to the face of our Father” and choose the most horrible Barabbas over Christ. Vianney once asked, “If you were to see a man building a large pyre, piling up the piece of wood one on top of the other, and you asked him what he was doing and he replied, ‘I am preparing the fire that will burn me,’ what would you think? In committing sin, that’s however what we do. It’s not God who throws us in hell; we do that by our sins. The damned will say: I lost God by my fault.” St. John Vianney admitted, “We are weak and can fall into sin,” but stressed that we should never despair because we are still free moral agents to whom “the good God doesn’t refuse us his grace.” To examine our conscience well, therefore, we need to begin with what St. John Vianney called a “holy horror” for the sins committed and for what sin does to God and to our souls.
Next, in our examination, we need to focus on particular sins. That’s why he routinely preached on various vices and their corresponding virtues, to help their consciences become sensitive.
Third, he cautioned them to look not just at the sins but at the relationship they wound. We need to look at our correspondence to the God of the commandments and not just the commandments of God. An examination of conscience is far more than a forensic accounting of moral deficits, but a look at how and why we’ve chosen against God and those he loves.
Fourth, he said that the examination nevertheless needs to be a thorough and regular accounting. The Curé of Ars once counseled a businessman who had made a poor examination, “It is necessary to put your conscience in better order than you put in order your business affairs.” The stakes of one’s soul are far more important than of one’s money. If we’re going to take our “moral bottom line” more seriously than a businessman takes his economic health, Vianney taught, “we will do well to make an examination of conscience every night.” It is easier to make reconciliations on a daily basis, after all, than to try to do it over the course of a week, months or years. A general examination of conscience at night before going to bed is a crucially important practice in the Christian spiritual life in general and a sine qua non for becoming a holy penitent.
Lastly, he taught that we need to beware of our tendency to make excuses or exculpations for the sins we commit. To a priest who once said, “but my intentions are good,” St. John Vianney replied in a phrase that’s since become famous. “O my friend, good intentions! Hell is paved with them!” The spirit may indeed be willing, but if the flesh is weak, we still end up betraying the Lord and need to repent like St. Peter.
Next week we will focus on St. John Vianney’s counsels on contrition.