Ignatian Confessors: Fathers of Souls

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 “It is a greater work to make a righteous man out of a sinner than to create heaven and earth.” (St.Augustine) 
Confessor: Father of the Soul, Spiritual Director, and Soul-Friend

The Ignatian will form himself with a keen sense of the sublime privilege and responsibility as confessor of souls. As St. John Eudes states:

“In the Tribunal of Penance you are the living image of the power and majesty of the Son of God. There you are as it were little gods, vested with the powers of God, doing what belongs by right to Him alone, blotting out sin, communicating the grace of the Holy Ghost to souls. Consequently, in the Sacred Tribunal you should serve the interests of God, thinking only of Him, desiring only to establish His kingdom in thehearts of men.

“As a judge representing the Supreme Judge, yours is the power of bestowing or refusing absolution. God communicates to you His power of judge in a more excellent manner than He does to the judges of earthly courts. They judge bodies; you judge souls. They judge temporal affairs; you judge eternal ones. Their power is a passing one; yours reaches beyond to eternity. What you absolve or condemn on earth is absolved and condemned in heaven. Their judgments are recorded on paper; yours are written with the Blood of Christ in the eternal books of divine justice.” (St. John Eudes, Le Bon Confesseur)

Aware the he is truly the ear and mouth of God

Holiness as the Christian’s participation in the divine life of the Most Blessed Trinity is unchanging. However the attainment of holiness is a most individual matter: there are no slapdash solutions for one and all. Henri Ghéon, describing St.John Vianney, wrote that the priest with his lantern would arrive at midnight to find penitents awaiting him and would take his place in the confessional:

“A soul lay open before him. All that seems to us simple enough, but for him each time it was a drama, a test, a cross.

“That secret place where even angels do not enter—the place not only of actions but of thoughts and the obscure medley of motives— opened its door so that he, a stranger, became a confidant.

“This stranger, this confidant, was no longer a man like other men, a man curious, amused, possibly indiscreet: he was the representative of God on earth; for the ear that listens and transmits only to God what it hears is truly the ear of God. The mouth that replies, guides, consoles, binds and looses is truly the mouth of God. The Curé d’Ars was that ear and that mouth. And he knew it. 

“He knew it as all priests know it, but more. Confessions, rapid and numerous as they were, were never to him mere pieces of routine.

“He never allowed the consciousness of his task as a priest to be out of his mind for an instant. Every time, he listened as God, he replied as God—with much trembling, for he was only a humble servant, but in the possession of all the resources that God can give and in the certainty that Christ lived in him… 

“To absolve a soul is not everything. The priest must also be able to give advice, sometimes heroic, sometimes more prudently weighed, which will enable the soul not only to avoid the sins to which it is more particularly tempted, but to swim against the stream as high as its own nature, aided by the grace of God, is capable of going” (Henri Ghéon, The Secret of the Cure d’Ars)

How strong a sense of responsibility therefore weighs upon the confessor! If surgeons go into operating theaters conscious of the grave consequences that even a tiny error can have, how much more so should a surgeon of souls be conscious of the consequences his judgments in the confessional and his spiritual direction will have?

 The Confessor: Warrior of the Spirit

At times when one meets a real confessor in the confessional, there for hours on end hearing confessions with intelligence, tact and patience, one cannot help imagining that underneath his priestly garb there is really a soldier’s battle jacket – for a warrior he is, engaged in the greatest war,for the salvation of souls.

For it requires the soldier’s tenacity and grit,  the mountaineer’s alertness and patience, to stay for hours in a confessional –  and hours is the only way we should be hearing confessions.

St.John Vianney showed this self-mastery to a heroic degree:

“Father Vianney went to bed at nine, or sometimes ten. No one could be sure that he slept. At midnight he rose, and taking his lantern went  downstairs. There were people round about the church, in the cemetery, in the porch which he had had built near the steeple. He made his way into the church, went down on his knees and asked God to bless the day that was beginning. He lit one or two tapers, himself sounded the Angelus, opened the door for pilgrims, and took his place in the confessional in the chapel of St. John the Baptist.”(Henri Ghéon, The Secret of the Cure d’Ars)  

The Confessor: A Living Argument for conversion

“Pure must be the hand of the one that wishes to cleanse others of their stains.” (St.Gregory the Great)   Therefore before confessing others first make your own confession. We know that St.John Vianney in the confessional was such a living argument for conversion of heart:

“The soul which came to lay itself bare before him did not always come very willingly. If it were afraid he gave it confidence. If it made pretences, he stripped it bare. If it gave only half its secret, he opened it wide; in himself he was a living argument that no one could resist. That men might show themselves just as they were, he showed himself just as he was, in all his boundless love fbr God; to the soul that lay open before him, he opened his own soul, and showed the love of God that was in it. If it was empty, he filled it. If it had begun to thirst for God, he quickened its thirst. And if it felt no thirst, he showed it the stream of God’s Grace welling in his own soul.” ( Henri Ghéon, The Secret of the Cure d’Ars)

A True Father of Souls

St. John Vianney acted as a true father of souls in the confessional – and a genuine paternal love can be, indeed frequently must be, demanding.

“We know that he could be hard, and he often was. If he could not persuade a sinner to renounce his sins, he refused absolution. He never concealed the gravity of sin. Simply, “My friend, you are damned,” he said. But he added, “How frightful.” And then he would burst into tears.

Time and again a sinner seeing him so distressed at the prospect of his soul being lost, ceased to regard that loss with a mere shrug of the shoulders, felt less certain in his reliance for salvation on the mere kindness of God.

God, unfortunately, pardons nothing to those who pardon themselves everything. Then a man would feel that he must make an effort, do something for himself. And for the most part M. Vianney demanded some fairly heavy penance. For  example,  there is one reported by Monsignor Convert, which gives a most apt illustration of his daring. 

One day the Curé d’Ars saw a man of high social rank enter his sacristy. The unknown approached respectfully, and the curé—mistaken for once, or perhaps pretending to be—thought he guessed his purpose. He pointed to the stool where penitents usually knelt.

“Monsieur le Curé,” the man hastened to say politely, “I have not come to make my confession, but to discuss things with you.”

“Oh, my friend, you have come to the wrong place; I have no skill at discussion. But if it is consolation that you want, kneel there and believe that many another has knelt there before you and has not regretted it.”

“But, M. le Curé, I have already had the honour of informing you that I had not come to make my confession, and that for a very good reason: I have not the faith. I do not believe in confession any more than in the rest of your doctrine.”

“You have not the faith? How I pity you. You live in a fog, a small child with his catechism knows more than you. I thought I was ignorant, but you are worse. You have not the faith? Very well, kneel there. I shall hear your confession, and afterwards you will have the faith, just as I have.” “But, M. le Curé, you are asking me to act an utter farce.”

“Kneel there.”

The persuasiveness, the sweetness, the tone of authority tempered by grace with which these words were spoken, brought the man to his knees, almost without his knowing it, certainly with much reluctance. He made the sign of the cross for the first time in years and began his confession. He arose, not only comforted, but a firm believer.

The curé, merely hearing him speak, had diagnosed the sheer emptiness of his soul. Though there was no explicit faith there, he had discovered that there was good soil wherein he might plant the seed of faith, or where the seed already lying dormant might grow.” ( Henri Ghéon, The Secret of the Cure d’Ars)

Relentlessly a Gentleman.

A drop of honey is more powerful than a barrelful of vinegar for attracting souls and as balm for the soul. The priest may be a roaring lion in the pulpit but must be a most gentle lion in the confessional.

The Cure of Ars radiated gentle manliness and courtesy and so made holiness attractive in the confessional, so much so that a young nobleman  thought the priest – who came of peasant stock – was also of noble birth  and education.

St. Leopold Mandic, according to his penitents, made the confessional “a welcoming room of courtesy” and when some priests said he was too gentle even on great sinners, the saint would point to the Crucifix and exclaim: “He died for souls, not us.”