The science required for confessors

Par l'abbé Jean-Marie Perrot

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What kind of formation is today given to those who are going to bear this grave responsibility?

Our intention here is not to bring out the present deficiencies, but to underline the importance, in a perspective of an ecclesial come back, of this formation.

We know it: no one can hear confession without the proper power from the competent authority (most often the diocesan bishop).

Yet, no one received this faculty without having successfully passed an examination on the sacrament itself and on moral. Let’s not forget, for example, that saint Padre Pio waited several years before hearing confession, as health issues prevented him from taking the examinations. The formation – original, but also long-term – to the sacrament included what is called “moral cases”, typical situations of penitents and sins that the (future) confessor might ran into.

Father, doctor and judge

The meeting of a priest and a penitent in the sacrament of penance is an event to which the Church gives a very particular importance: She largely favors its celebration and solemnly protects the content of the confession.

She favors its celebration by easily dispensing the minister of most of the external elements (starting with the location), so that opportunities may be increased to approach the sacrament, especially so that the occasion is not missed for a soul to find its way back to a state of grace – although, shall we say it is highly suitable that in this sacrament as in any other, and in worship in general, the dignity of Christ be ordinarily manifested with a “noble simplicity”, to take on the expression by which the Vatican II Council has qualified the Latin liturgy. Such liberty is given pretty much only in life threatening situations for baptism and extreme unction; and also thus, for confession, since there is here, potentially, a question of life and death.

At the same time, the sacrament includes a secrecy of which no one can be relieved and which must be assumed by the minister at all cost.

The crucial importance of this sacrament is thus confirmed in the Church. It is still or at least it was – there’s hesitation in using past or present tense – through some dispositions concerning the priest on which we would like to expand a little more.

Because they usually do not have extraordinary charisms of prescience or discernment, priests who hear confession must adopt the humble approach that Padre Pio himself knew he had to follow in the spiritual direction: “I do not know how to direct the souls God has entrusted to me and will entrust me. For some, there would be a real need for supernatural light and I don’t know whether I have it or not, and I am sometimes tempted to find a little help in the pale and cold doctrine learned in books.” What doctrine did he follow? The one from the more reliable authors: John of the Cross, Francis de Sales, Alphonsus of Liguori, to only quote a few.

Classic books on confession hammered the same requirements, the same responsibility, humble and studious, around the three qualifications of the priest in this sacrament: he is father, doctor and judge (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.1465). Even in giving preeminence – all books do so – to fatherhood, a priest could hardly do with only “two or three pious ideas”, as a lecturer recently reminded some priests, and that goes not only for confession, but also for any speech, starting with the Sunday sermon. What kind of father, for that matter, in some circumstances, would only dispense vague ideas when he sees a meaningful drift in the demeanor of his child, or be satisfied with his own judgement when ask ed in-depth questions?

In the apostolic post-synodal exhortation Reconciliation et pænitentia of 1984, after almost two decades of escheat of the sacrament of penance, John Paul II had laid the bases for a renewal, by insisting – as first element of the greatness of the sacrament – on the dignity of the minister, configured to Christ through ordination. From this dignity comes an exigency on the part of the priest of holiness and science: “This ministry of the priest is without a doubt the most difficult and most delicate, the most tiring and most demanding, but also one of the most beautiful and most consoling (…) For the successful completion of this ministry, the confessor must necessarily possess human qualities of prudence, discretion, discernment, a certain firmness tempered by softness and goodness. He must also have a serious preparation, not a sporadic instruction but a complete and coherent one, in the diverse areas of theology, in the area of pedagogy and psychology, dialogue methodology and particularly in matter of deep and communicative knowledge of the Word of God. But, it is even more necessary that the confessor be inhabited by an intense and sincere spiritual life. To lead others on the path of Christian perfection, the minister of penance must himself first walk this path and give – more in acts than abundant speeches – proofs of a real experience of a life animated by prayer, and practice of theological and moral evangelical virtues, faithful obedience to the will of God, love of the Church and docility to her Magisterium.

All this gathering of human qualities, Christian virtues, and pastoral competences cannot be improvised and acquired without great efforts. For the sacramental penance ministry, the priest has to be prepared as soon as the time of the seminary, not only in the study of dogmatic, moral, spiritual and pastoral theology (which forms only but one theology), but also of human sciences, Dialogue methodology, and especially methodology of pastoral consultation. After that, he should be ready to throw himself at the task under some guidance to help him with  first cases. He would have to work towards perfecting himself, and towards updating his formation through regular studies. (n.29)”.

In the time of the dictatorship of relativism

In confession, this demand for holiness and science – what makes the confessor as minister of the sacrament also a confessor in the sense of the profession of the faith – appears today more crucial than ever, because “on the other side” if we can say, with the penitent who comes to see him, the ignorance of the bases of Christian life or the impregnation of the ideas of the world can have gravely weakened truth and markers, criteria and resources.

Addressing the participants at the annual course on the internal forum organized by the Apostolic Penitentiary, Benedict XVI declared in March 2010, the year of the Priesthood: “We live in a cultural context marked by the hedonistic and relativistic mindset that tends to delete God from the horizon of life and does not encourage the acquisition of a clear set of values to refer to that would help one to discern good from evil and develop a proper sense of sin (…) The discussed « crisis » of the Sacrament of Penance, frequently calls into question priests first of all and their great responsibility to teach the People of God the radical requirements of the Gospel.”

To conclude let’s go back to Padre Pio: A few years ago, it seemed opportune to the province of the Capuchins of Foggia to which Padre Pio belonged, to publish in one volume the community sessions of “moral cases” from 1920 to 1951, at various times when he was present. The conclusion of this work talks of Padre Pio as a “magisterialis et pastoralis theologus”, a theologian whose science made him worthy of the teaching of the souls as well as their pastoral care. Not only, the extraordinary charismatic gifts he received don’t totally explain his ministry at the confessional; but, moreover, all along his existence, he cared to deepen the theological science that his studies and his time of forced reclusion (due to his sickness or to the sanctions forbidding him any pastoral activity) had allowed him to acquire.

Fr. Jean Marie Perrot