Last week we discussed how demanding St. John Vianney was in requiring a firm purpose of amendment from those who came to him to receive the Sacrament of Penance. For a confession to be valid, he knew that there had to be sincere conversion — shown in a firm intention to amend one’s life and avoid the near occasions of sin — flowing from genuine sorrow for one’s sins. Unless one is willing to do what Jesus metaphorically describes in the Sermon on the Mount — to “pluck out one’s eyes” and “cut off one’s hands” if they are leading one to sin (Mt 5:29-30) — absolution would be invalid even if a priest were to give it. Out of ardent pastoral love for his penitents, the Curé of Ars was exigeant in ensuring that each one had a firm resolution to do precisely what penitents say they’re ready to do in the Act of Contrition: “to do penance, to sin no more and to avoid whatever leads me to sin.”
If the patron saint of priests was tough with penitents in terms of the forming resolutions not to sin, he was exceedingly mild in terms of the penances he would impose. This was a huge source of concern to his brother priests who accused him of being too soft and of lowering the standards of the type of penance that should correspond to the gravity of sins committed.
The penance that a priest gives an absolved penitent is not supposed to be arbitrary; rather, it’s meant to be a form of “spiritual medicine” that the penitent does in order to repair some of the damage caused by sin. As the Catechism says, “Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must ‘make satisfaction for’ or ‘expiate’ his sins. This satisfaction is also called ‘penance’” (1459).
Like a doctor giving a prescription to a sick patient to bring about the restoration of health, the confessor, in prescribing a penance, needs to adapt it to the state of the person and the seriousness of the spiritual infection. “The penance the confessor imposes,” the Catechism continues, “must take into account the penitent's personal situation and must seek his spiritual good. It must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed. It can consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear. Such penances help configure us to Christ, who alone expiated our sins once for all” (1460).
The colleagues of the Curé of Ars thought that the penances people were saying they received in Ars were not corresponding to the “gravity and the nature of the sins committed.” Many of them tried to talk to him about it directly. Others reported him to the bishop. The light penances of the pastor of Ars were a common topic in clergy get-togethers.
St. John Vianney was aware of the criticism. “I am accused of being somewhat easy with certain pilgrims,” he admitted to Brother Athanasius, one of his chief helpers in his later years in Ars. But he had a ready defense: “Surely I must take into account the trouble it costs them to come from so far and the expense to which they are put.” Making expensive journeys to Ars and waiting in line for up to eight days to go to confession, St. John Vianney believed, was already powerful medicine for most of the penitents. “They reproach me,” he continued, “but can I really be hard on people who come from so far, and who, in order to do so, have made so many sacrifices?”
He thought that the more effective medicine to spur penitents on to repair the damage due to sin was to prescribe honey rather than vinegar. “Were I to impose severer penances,” he said, “I should discourage them.”
This doesn’t mean, however, as some thought at the time, that his behavior was akin to bleeding heart judges who dole out slaps on the wrists for serious felonies. He knew that out of justice, reparation needed to be made; he didn’t want to put the full burden of that reparation, however, on his penitents.
When a priest who was a defender of rigorous penances came to visit him and asked, “How can we strike a happy medium in this matter?,” the Curé of Ars let him on a secret that revealed how much he had become configured to Christ through his work in the confessional. “My friend,” he replied, “here is my recipe: I give them a small penance and the remainder I myself perform in their stead.”
Through his rigorous fasts, bodily mortifications, vigils of prayer and especially his heroic stamina in the confessional, St. John Vianney did the vast majority of the penances corresponding to the gravity of his penitents’ sins. Just as Christ paid the price for our sins on the Cross, so St. John Vianney was paying most of the cost for his penitents’ penances through his cruciform life. We can say that St. John Vianney understood the inherent “logic” of the penances to be imposed far better than his colleagues, because, as the Catechism passage above describes, the ultimate penance was paid for by Christ.
That said, when the good of penitents demanded it, St. John Vianney could be as creative and challenging with medicinal penances as St. Philip Neri or any priest in the history of the Church.
To a future nun who was battling pride and begged his help to grow in humility, St. John Vianney assigned as a penance to kneel on the steps of the Church with her arms extended in the form of a Cross as people were leaving Sunday Mass. It was a quick cure, as most looked at her as crazy!
To an elderly gentleman who confessed that an excessive desire for worldly respect was inhibiting his leading a publicly Christian life, he told him to go pray the Rosary out loud in the front of the Church. By the end he had learned that he could survive without the cheap esteem of those who value the wrong things.
To a worldly young man whose principal fault was vanity — which terrified him from giving witness to the faith — he prescribed a penance that was like a burst of radiation for the cancer that was killing his soul. After having him pray acts of faith, hope and love before leaving Church, St. John Vianney assigned him to participate in the upcoming Corpus Christi procession in his hometown. He was to secure a place as close as possible to the Blessed Sacrament, right behind the canopy. Since he and his friends had been known to make fun of those who took part in the procession, he dreaded their seeing him now participating in it, and prayed during the two weeks between his confession and Corpus Christi that rain would cancel the procession. The rain didn’t come.
“Were I to live a hundred years,” the young man said years later, “I should never forget those two hours spent walking behind the canopy. Cold perspiration bathed my forehead; my knees shook under me.” But the experience not only made him bolder in his own living of the faith, but his example touched the heart of his friends and many others and brought them to examine the immature state of their own spiritual life. Within two years, he had founded a St. Vincent de Paul Conference in his hometown comprised of 30 of his friends who had been won over by his example on that Corpus Christi.
Most of the penances he gave, however, were simple, straightforward and light: a few prayers asking the help of God and the saints to continue to correspond to grace just as they had corresponded to the grace that had brought them back to confession.
His medicinal penances, both those he gave and those he did on behalf of those who had come to him, remain a model for doctors of the soul today.