Last week, we began to look at how St. John Vianney, once he got his parishioners to return to the Sacrament of Penance, sought to help them get more out of it. His strategy was to help them improve in each of the three classic areas of preparation for a good confession: to examine their conscience more thoroughly and deeply, to have increased sorrow for the sins committed, and to form a stronger resolve and better game plan to avoid those sins in the future. After having covered his catechesis on the examination of conscience last week, today we turn to what he and the Church have always described as the most important part of preparation.
That last sentence in intended to be somewhat provocative, because many people — both today and at the time of the Curé of Ars — think that the most important element in preparing for a good confession is the examination of conscience. The examination is, after all, what most Catholics spend the majority of their time on before coming to confession. While it is certainly good that people spend time doing a quality examination of conscience, there is something more important, both quantitatively and qualitatively: contrition.
“It is necessary to spend more time asking for contrition than making the examination of conscience,” St. John Vianney used to preach unambiguously to his people. He counseled them to spend a great deal of time in prayer asking God to grant them true sorrow for their sins. He knew, first, that it was sorrow that would help turn their confession into a real occasion of conversion. He also recognized that it was contrition that would transform the experience of confession from a dry accounting of one’s transgressions into an opening for profound reconciliation with a merciful Father against whom one has sinned and to whom one says “sorry” in the sacrament.
Pope John Paul II, in the 1984 Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliation and Penance, the most extensive treatment in the history of the magisterium on the Sacrament of Penance, called contrition the “essential act of Penance on the part of the penitent.” He defined it as “a clear and decisive rejection of the sin committed, together with a resolution not to commit in again, out of the love that one has for God and that is reborn with repentance.” He went on to say that contrition is the “beginning and the heart of conversion, of that evangelical metanoia [total revolution in one’s way of thinking] that brings the person back to God like the Prodigal Son returning to his Father.”
John Paul II particularly wished to emphasize the connection how true contrition brings about the “radical change of life” called conversion. He said that traditionally people regard the conversion to which true contrition leads as a “mortification” in which we try to eradicate the roots of sin from life. Jesus used the image of cutting off our limbs and plucking out our eyes if they’re leading to sin. That Pope said that there’s an aspect of this “death” involved, but he stressed that “contrition and conversion are even more a drawing near to the holiness of God, a rediscovery of one’s true identity that has been upset and disturbed by sin, a liberation in the very depth of self and thus a regaining of lost joy, the joy of being saved.” Contrition and conversion is meant, in other words, to bring us true joy, the joy that comes from experiencing anew the full depth of the merciful love of God. This is the reason why St. John Vianney would call contrition, “the balm of the soul.”
John Paul II worried that “the majority of people in our time are no longer capable of experiencing” that balm because they are no longer sufficiently motivated by the love of God to experience true sorrow, and without that sorrow, they won’t be able to have the type of conversion that draws them anew into the depth of God’s holiness. This is the reason why helping people form true contrition out of love for God is so important to help people experience the full power of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
St. John Vianney realized this and worked so hard, both in the pulpit and in the confessional, to help people achieve this sorrow.
On one occasion a penitent was confessing his sins matter-of-factly without sorrow. The Curé of Ars began to weep on his side of the confessional. The penitent was startled and asked him, as any of us might, “Father, why are you crying?” St. John Vianney responded, with words that soon became famous, “I am crying because you are not.”
He would often break down in the confessional over the sins that people were confessing. His tears routinely became contagious as penitents discovered what the proper interior response should be to what they had done. Witnessing this priest’s weeping over their sins often was enough to bring them to profound repentance, and it was common a common sight to see people sobbing from sorrow and joy as they leave the saint’s confessional.
On other occasions, St. John Vianney would point to the confessional crucifix — indicating the price Jesus had paid for the sins the penitent was confessing at that moment — and begin to weep. Most penitents sooned joined him. To one man who had only what Church tradition called “imperfect contrition” — the “contrition of fear” of eternal damnation and the other consequences of sin — he replied in a way that brought him quickly to “perfect contrition,” which is a sorrow based on love for God. “Save your poor soul!,” Vianney said with infinite tenderness. “What a pity to lose a soul that has cost our Lord so much. What harm has he done to you that you would treat him in this way?”
Many penitents attested that even when they were confessing their sins with sorrow and tears, each of their admissions would provoke from him a profound and seemingly uncontrollable sigh or groan. He taught them indelible lessons of the horror a son or daughter should have for sin against his or her all-loving Father. Once a young priest who had come to the patron saint of priests for confession left not only with his sins absolved but with a much deeper realization of the sorrow that should characterize both penitent and confessor. He stated, many years later, “Every one of my accusations provoked on his part an exclamation of faith, commiseration and horror for the smallest sin. ‘What a pity,’ he would say, over and over again. I was particularly struck by the accent of tenderness with which he uttered the words. That simple ‘What a pity!’ in all its beauty showed what damage sin had done to my soul.”
St. John Vianney would say that contrition not only should precede a good confession and follow it, since true contrition will lead to acts of penance, reparation, the firm purpose of amendment necessary for a radical change in life. Using a domestic analogy, he taught, ““You see a house that is all filthy. It is the same with your soul. After the examination, even after confession, it is necessary to have contrition to wash it.” The tears of contrition become like a second baptismal path washing the dirt of the soul, even the most embedded, away.
The contrition St. John Vianney had for sins extended also to his own. He often confided that his one great aspiration was to retire to a monastery where he could “weep over his sins” and “poor life.” That genuine sorrow out of love for God was something he couldn’t help passing on to all those who heard him speak about the mercy of God and all those who received it through him in the confessional.
Next time we will focus on what St. John Vianney taught must flow from genuine contrition: a firm purpose of amendment.