Last week we examined how St. John Vianney used his pulpit to draw people to God in the confessional. Through his homilies at Mass and his catechetical lessons for kids and adults, he preached most of the time on the beauty of God’s mercy, our need for forgiveness, and God’s loving wisdom in establishing the sacrament of penance to envelope us in that mercy. On occasion, however, when his people were not persuaded to confess their sins out of love for God (what the Church traditionally calls “perfect contrition”), he did not hesitate literally to try to “scare the Hell out of them,” by helping them achieve a sorrow for sins based on the fear of the personal consequences of sin, especially the ultimate terror of an eternity in Hell apart from God (“imperfect contrition”).
Even when he had to resort to the latter to persuade inveterate impenitents, however, he could not keep up a fire-and-brimstone style for long. He would break down in the pulpit, weeping almost uncontrollably over the fate of the damned. His tears were probably his most eloquent and persuasive homily on the reality of Hell, the sadness we should have as a result of sin, and the tragedy of failing to take advantage of the gift of God’s mercy while we still have time.
It took about a decade in his tiny parish of 230, but eventually his regular, versatile and bold preaching about how much we need the sacrament of penance got through to his parishioners and they began to come in great numbers. St. John Vianney would eventually set aside a few hours on Saturdays to hear the confessions of his own people, so that they would not have to wait in line for days with those coming from all over France.
As Pope Benedict mentioned in his letter to begin the Year for Priests, St. John Vianney’s success in preaching people into the confessional should inspire and encourage all priests today. “Priests ought never to be resigned to empty confessionals or the apparent indifference of the faithful to this Sacrament. In France, at the time of the Curé of Ars, confession was no more easy or frequent than in our own day, since the upheaval caused by the revolution had long inhibited the practice of religion. Yet he sought in every way, by his preaching and his powers of persuasion, to help his parishioners to rediscover the meaning and beauty of the Sacrament of Penance, presenting it as an inherent demand of the Eucharistic presence.”
Still, it is the experience of many priests today who try “in every way, by [their] preaching and powers of persuasion” to help people return to the sacrament that — no matter how often they preach about it or what their tone — many Catholics don’t seem to respond to any message and treat the sacrament as if it’s an optional part of Catholic life. A 2005 Gallup survey showed that of Catholics who go to Mass each Sunday, 42 percent say they never go to confession, 30 percent say they rarely go, and just 26 percent say they are faithful to the precept of the Church to go at least once a year. Only one out of 50 practicing Catholics reports going to confession once a month or more. If we were to factor in the frequency of those Catholics who don’t come to Mass every Sunday and who are probably in ver greater need of God’s mercy, the low numbers would be much more alarming still.
Faced with this phenomenon as well as the various types of deeply-embedded “darnel” that have been sown among Catholics with respect to the sacrament of penance, many priests do not know really where to begin in trying to help their people, practicing and un-practicing, to return. Where should their preaching and catechesis start?
The most detailed and helpful answer to this question came in Pope John Paul II’s 1984 apostolic exhortation “Reconciliation and Penance,” which he wrote after he and bishops from across the world spent a month studying how to respond to the crisis of the sacrament of penance. It is the greatest document published in the history of the magisterium on the subject of confession and it’s well worth re-reading this Year for Priests. Its examination and advice are still as relevant today as they were 25 years ago.
Pope John Paul II said that preaching and catechesis are the “first means to be used” in trying to get people back to the sacrament. In paragraph 26, he specifies ten different catechetical themes that are needed to eradicate the various weeds choking the growth of the word of God in people’s hearts today as well as to help nourish any seeds that have taken root.
The first is about reconciliation, which he defines as the “need to rebuild the covenant with God in Christ, the Redeemer and Reconciler … and with one’s brethren.” He suggests this catechesis be based on Jesus’ many homilies on reconciliation with God and others in the Gospel.
The second is on penance, which “literally means to allow the spirit to be overturned in order to make it turn toward God.” There can be no reconciliation with God and others unless it is preceded by conversion and repentance, which are not just superficial feelings but a crucifixion of the “old man” so that the “new” can be born by the power of Christ. This catechesis is all the more needed, John Paul II says, because contemporary man “finds it harder than ever to recognize his mistakes” and say he’s sorry.
Third, there needs to be a catechesis on conscience and its formation, because if the conscience is poorly formed, it will turn into “a force that is destructive of the true humanity of the person” rather than serve as the “holy place where God reveals to him his true good.”
Fourth, there must be a teaching on the sense of sin, which has become “considerably weakened in our world.” If we don’t recognize that sin is poison of the soul and that sins are particular spiritual toxins, we’ll never sense our need to go to the doctor.
Fifth, there’s a need for catechesis on temptation and temptations, and how to respond to them with faith and the power of God.
The sixth and seventh parts of the catechesis focus on fasting and almsgiving, respectively. These are not merely “signs” of conversion, repentance, mortification and charity, but “means” by which we can become configured with Christ who himself fasted and gave all.
The eighth and ninth aspects John Paul II describes concern the “concrete circumstances in which reconciliation has to be achieved” — namely, the family, civil community, and social structures, and the like — as well as the “four reconciliations” that remedy the four fundamental rifts caused by sin: with God, oneself, others and the whole of creation.
Lastly —and as we begin the month of November, this point takes on added significance — there’s a need for a “constant catechesis” on the four last things: death, judgment, hell and heaven. “In a culture which tends to imprison man in the earthly life at which he is more or less successful,” John Paul II explains, pastors must “provide a catechesis that will reveal and illustrate with the certainties of faith what comes after the present life. … Only in this eschatological vision can one realize the exact nature of sin and feel decisively moved to penance and reconciliation.”
This ten-part preaching and catechetical strategy John Paul II recommended adequately responds to the most common and serious questions, misunderstandings, and doubts modern man has with regard to the sacrament. He says that “pastors who are zealous and creative” will never lack opportunities to impart these points to their people. He specifically mentions homilies, Bible studies, lectures, religious education curricula and especially “old style popular missions.”
This last point is particularly one for the Church to ponder today. Is it merely a coincidence that the throngs started to come to St. John Vianney’s confessional only after he had participated in such “old style” popular missions?