A priest classmate recently told me that whenever he preaches about confession, he now talks primarily about how much he personally needs confession. He said that this one of the most important lessons he’s learned during his time as a priest. In the early days of his priesthood, he would preach regularly about God’s mercy, the gift of the sacrament of penance, how Catholics should confess at least once a year, and how to make a good examination of conscience, grow in sorrow, and establish a firm resolution of amendment of life. But few of these homilies made a noticeable impact in drawing people back to the sacrament.
When he started to ask some of his parishioners why his preaching on confession was so barren, they told him that the obstacle to returning to the sacrament was the priesthood. A few had the idea that the priest was too holy and would not be able to relate to their struggles with sin. The vast majority had the idea, particularly after the revelation of the clergy sex abuse scandals, that priests were too sinful to be able to forgive sins and give advice in the struggle against sin. Regardless of what perspective they were coming from, they saw the priest as the chief impediment.
So my friend decided to try another approach. He began to preach on his experience as a penitent — how he goes to confession each week, how he battles against the same temptations from week to week, how he receives strength from the sacrament to persevere as a disciple and an apostle and how the joy of absolution is one of the greatest joys he has experienced in life. He also conveys how his experience as a penitent has made him, he thinks, a far better confessor, capable of relating to people who struggle with many of the same issues he does and of giving them not only advice but, through sacramental absolution, the power of God to heal and strengthen them to begin again.
He told me that since he changed his approach, people have been coming in such numbers that he’s had to add several extra hours a week. He’s concluded that the most effective way to get people to return to the sacrament is not by words but by example; the words “follow me” are far more compelling than the most beautifully-written homilies about the objective greatness of God’s mercy and the sacrament's power.
I am convinced that he is right. I was once a confessor on a retreat for adults, many of whom, for multiple reasons, did not seem interested in receiving the sacrament. Another priest on the retreat, sizing up the situation appropriately, suggested to me and to the other confessors that, before we offer the sacrament to the faithful at the end of a penance prayer service, we go to confession to each other to show them that we, too, are in need of it. We agreed to do it.
At the end of the prayers of the faithful, four of us went to the other four, knelt down and confessed our sins, and received absolution. Then we got up as the priest who absolved us dropped to his knees to do the same.
I believe that every adult in the room ended up going to confession that night. When they were talking about their experiences at the end of the retreat, many of them said that the highlight was the penance service. Several noted that they hadn’t been to confession for years and weren’t planning to go that night, but after having seen the priests humbly go to confession before them, they were deeply moved and said they felt the courage to do the same.
That’s why in this series of articles on the “great miracle” of the Curé of Ars’ “besieged confessional,” it is important to pause to consider St. John Vianney as a penitent. One of the reasons why he was able to become one of the greatest confessors in the history of the Church was because he was a very devout and regular recipient of the sacrament. He knew how much he needed the sacrament; that’s one of the reasons why he was willing to sacrifice so much to make the sacrament available to others who needed it, too.
St. John Vianney preached often about his experience as a penitent. One of his favorite stories was of his first confession. It was the time of the persecutions against priests during the French Revolution when priests who hadn’t taken the oath to the civil constitution were being hunted down and guillotined in the squares of major French cities. One of the courageous “refractory” priests, Fr. Groboz, had come to the Vianney home in Dardilly, where he would occasionally take refuge and rest from those who were pursuing him. After blessing each of the kids in the family, he turned to the young John Mary and asked him how old he was. “Eleven,” the boy replied. “How long is it since you last went to confession,” Fr. Groboz queried. “I have never yet been to confession,” the future saint told him. “Well, let us set right this omission at once!” Then, the later extraordinary apostle of the confessional knelt down under the clock in his parlor and confessed the sins he had committed since his baptism. He never forgot the peace he experienced. He never forgot what a grace it was to have priests near so that he could go to confession. For the rest of his life, John Vianney sought to make up for lost time.
An even greater illustration of St. John Vianney as penitent happened in 1845. A 37 year-old priest, Fr. Louis Beau, was appointed as the pastor of Jassans. One of the first things this young cleric did upon arriving in his new assignment was to pay a visit to his neighbor in Ars. When he arrived, Fr. Vianney was in the confessional, so Fr. Beau had lunch with the parochial vicar. At the end of lunch, the Curé D'Ars returned from the Church. He was exceptionally delighted to meet his new confrère and held his hands in his own for a considerable length of time. Then he asked Fr. Beau to come to his room. When they got there, the famous confessor turned to his much-junior colleague and said, “Friend, your predecessor was kind enough to hear my confession; you will do me the same service, n’est-ce pas?”
Before the stunned Fr. Beau was able to say yes or no, Fr. Vianney pointed to a chair, Fr. Beau sat down, and Fr. Vianney, kneeling before him, confessed his sins. Fr. Beau would remain his regular confessor until the saints' death 13 years later. By his actions, Fr. Vianney showed his great faith in the power of the sacrament. He didn’t seek out a “specialty confessor,” but humbly asked a priest he barely knew, since he knew he was confessing principally to Christ and not to a man.
In recent years, the popes have been repeatedly calling priests to be good penitents in order that they might become great confessors. Pope John Paul II, elected to the papacy 31 years ago today, wrote in "Reconciliation and Penance," his 1981 encyclical on the sacrament of confession: “In order to be a good and effective minister of Penance, the priest needs to have recourse to the source of grace and holiness present in this Sacrament. We priests, on the basis of our personal experience, can certainly say that, the more careful we are to receive the Sacrament of Penance and to approach it frequently and with good dispositions, the better we fulfill our own ministry as confessors and ensure that our penitents benefit from it. And on the other hand this ministry would lose much of its effectiveness if in some way we were to stop being good penitents. Such is the internal logic of this great Sacrament. It invites all of us priests of Christ to pay renewed attention to our personal confession.”
St. John Vianney paid attention to this internal logic of the sacrament — and that was one of the secrets of how God was able to form him to be one of the great confessors who have ever lived.