Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Traditional Catholic pastoral theology: How to hear confessions

Another post taken from Fr Frederick Schulze's Manual of Pastoral Theology (1914).  This time the subject is hearing confessions.

This post may be read in conjunction with my other post on confession.


99. Great and manifold are the obligations laid upon the shoulders of a confessor. No man, it is true, is lost except by his own fault. But this does not hinder that also others, either directly or indirectly, may have a share in such loss and become more or less responsible for it. One imprudent word, one too severe rebuke, one too lax decision given by a confessor who is not considerate enough and is too hasty in his sacred function, may cause the eternal ruin of an immortal soul....

100. The hearing of confessions is often a sore trial to the priest. He may suffer both in body and soul. To sit still in a narrow place, and this for several hours in succession, as the case may be, to inhale the breath of persons face to face with yourself, to bear the cold of the winter and the heat of the summer, is rather wearisome. Still harder is the strain wrought upon the mind. The confessor is responsible for each penitent; he is bound to examine every single case, lest through his fault a soul redeemed by the precious Blood of Christ be lost. Moreover, though diving, as it were, continually into the very abyss of crime and wretchedness, of carnal lust and filth, he must keep himself pure from all moral abomination.... The young priest, just commencing to hear confessions, naturally will stand appalled when confronted at once with the various sins men are wont to commit. Sins, which hitherto he has known only from books or in theory, now are brought home to him in their ghastly reality and their full hideousness.... He must ever preserve a deep horror of sin....

101. However, the hearing of confessions is also a source of grace and blessing to the priest. By means of it he obtains a deep insight into the human heart and thus becomes endowed with a great deal of practical knowledge, enabling him to give the proper consolation and to tender the right advice....

103. A priest, by undertaking to hear confessions, at once assumes several offices or charges which he is expected to exercise with great care and circumspection in order that his ministry may become fruitful. The first office is that of a spiritual father....

104. The priest, in order that he may be a true father to his penitents, has need of charity and patience. Harsh treatment, cross words, severe scolding are improper in the confessional.... Therefore, a confessor must avoid all harshness and bitterness, even towards those who seem to be indisposed and unworthy of absolution; this will help to soften the heart of the most wicked, whilst otherwise a sting will be left and the poor penitent may feel like a reprobate, like a child to whom, instead of bread, a stone is given....

105. A charitable and loving air, manifested even in the very tone of your voice, should pervade the whole confession from beginning to end. Try to help the poor sinner in every way possible.... It is indeed necessary to admonish the sinner, in order to make him realize his miserable state and the danger of damnation, to which he is exposed; but this must be done in the end, when the sins have been confessed, immediately before absolution. The admonition ought to be charitable and practical, and not a mere commonplace talk....

107. The second office incumbent on the priest whilst hearing confessions is that of a spiritual physician. He is bound not only to heal the wounds inflicted upon the soul in the past, by diffusing the oil of divine grace through absolution, but also to provide for the future; he must remove the poisonous germ of the spiritual disease, i.e., sin, as far as possible, lest the wounds break open again and cause a new disaster; he must add strength and power to prevent relapses....

111. Distinction must be made between sex and age. Women are apt to follow their feelings, momentary emotions and passionate sentiments. Hence it may be enough to appeal to their imagination. Not so with men, who are accustomed to reason and to judge, and to go to the bottom of things. If you wish to succeed with them you are compelled to bring forth arguments which convince the intellect, you must appeal to their honor and arouse their ambition. Again, young people ought to be treated differently from those who are more advanced in years. The former may need a check upon their enthusiasm, the latter must, perhaps, be stirred up lest they sink into spiritual lethargy. Regard should be taken of a person's occupation. The laborer, the mechanic, who has to work hard from morning till night to make a scanty living, often becomes careless about his religious obligations. Envy, jealousy, drunkenness, play havoc with him. A wise confessor will not fail to remind him that he has also duties towards God, that he should be content with the lot assigned him, that by humbly accepting his situation he will be able to lay up merits for heaven. Rich and well-to-do people must be told that they should make a good use of the things Providence has awarded them; that they should help and support the poor. Not only the city capitalists, but also wealthy farmers sometimes acquire such a greediness for money that they seem to forget entirely what they owe to God and His Church....

117. The principal office which a confessor has charge of is that of a judge.... The priest is authorized not simply to declare that forgiveness is granted or withheld, he himself passes the sentence, though only as the representative of the Most High.... The exercise of this judicial charge implies three distinct acts: The confessor must take cognizance of the sins committed; he must judge of the disposition of the penitent, and, according to it, either absolve or withhold absolution; he must impose a penance to satisfy for past offenses....

119. After the sinner, by his own accusation, has furnished testimony against himself, the principal act follows. The confessor will decide whether the delinquent is worthy of absolution or not.... From those who are properly disposed, absolution cannot be justly withheld, except this be necessary as a remedy and as the sole remedy for a future amendment. We must consider persons as indisposed, who, filled with a mortal hatred against their neighbor, do not wish to lay aside such morbid sentiments; those who do not intend to restore ill-gotten goods or repair an injury caused through slander or evil talk, though it is in their power to do so; such as are living in a voluntary proximate occasion of mortal sin, which they do not intend to quit; who are members of forbidden secret societies and refuse to resign such membership; in a word, all who are wanting in any grave duty and obligation. Whenever you happen to meet with such penitents you must not at once tell them that you cannot absolve them; on the contrary, try by all means possible to change their mind and disposition.... After all your efforts have been in vain you may and ought to refuse absolution. A prudent and zealous confessor will, very seldom, indeed, be compelled to have recourse to this extreme measure.... It is a good thing with the majority of penitents, especially with the common class of people, to excite them to a true and deep contrition before absolution. Do not tell them only to make an act of contrition by themselves, but propose to them divers motives, thus to dispose their hearts and make them feel really sorry for their sins. Many approach the confessional without a true contrition, or, at least, they omit to make earnest and strong resolutions in respect to the future. A brief admonition, given by the confessor, will supply this defect and secure the validity and fruit of the Sacrament.

120. Whenever the priest makes use of his power of absolving he is ordered to perform another act, which bears a judicial character, that of imposing a penance.... Care should be taken, as far as possible, to have the work of penance arranged so that it may fulfill its double purpose - to satisfy for sins of the past, and be a remedy against future relapses. For mortal sins only a grave penance should be assigned, and that in proportion to the number and species. Regard certainly must be had of a person's condition, age, sex, and other circumstances. Do not be too strict. Never give a penance which you know is accepted rather unwillingly, or which requires extraordinary humiliation and exertion, or which a person cannot fulfill without exposing himself to ridicule and suspicion. As a rule, do not impose a penance which will last too long, for example for whole weeks, or even months; such a penance is easily forgotten or neglected. The penitential works are reduced to three: prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. Prayer comprises not only vocal orations, but also meditation, reception of the Sacraments, hearing of Mass, visits made to the church for adoration, benediction, etc. Being the easiest, it also forms the most common kind of penance confessors are wont to give.... Fasting denotes all kinds of mortification, viz; abstaining from meat and delicacies in eating, from certain luxuries, avoiding of parties and social gatherings otherwise lawful, bearing of daily humiliations, etc. It is a penance adapted especially to those who are given up to pride and lust. Alms-giving means all works of charity, viz; supporting the poor by money, food, clothing, converting sinners, visiting and consoling the sick. Persons who are greatly absorbed by worldly matters, who cling too much to their wealth and earthly possessions, who have sinned against justice and the love due to their neighbor, may be highly benefited by a penance of this kind. We would advise, however, always to have a short prayer added to it, in particular for the conversion of sinners and the poor souls in Purgatory....

122. It is no small task to hear the confessions of children. Sometimes they are not fully aware of the malice which the respective sin implies, or they confess sins which they have not committed, simply because they find them mentioned in their prayer books and catechisms, or finally they accuse themselves of sins which, at the moment when they were committed, their conscience was not aware of and which only afterwards they learned to be sins....

124. In the hearing of a child's confession a priest must use more than ordinary prudence and exhibit a great deal of patience and charity. Most of these penitents are quite shy and bashful at the first time.... Do not interrupt the penitent if he tells his sins not quite correctly, or omits the number and circumstances. Such questions ought to be asked later, when he has said all which he intended to say....

127. Friendly intercourse between people of different sex is liable to stimulate sensuality and to cause temptations. Neither the confessor nor the female penitent can lay aside their nature and the instincts of flesh and blood. We need not wonder, therefore, that the Tribunal of Penance, though a source of grace and salvation by divine institution, now and then becomes a snare of sin, an occasion of ruin and perdition, through the malice and weakness of man. The very fact that the penitent reveals the deepest secrets of his heart, and that women are led mostly by their feelings, is tempting; it lures forth from the breast of the priest a sentiment of sympathy which, if not kept within reasonable bounds, almost imperceptibly passes over into personal attachment. Evidently, therefore, a priest, in hearing the confessions of women, must arm himself with prudence, circumspection, and zeal....

129. Always avoid familiarity with female penitents. Hence suppress at once any improper feeling which may creep into your heart. Do not trust yourself too much in this regard. The devil knows what he is after; he does not lay his snares openly, but secretly and from afar.... Lest some danger should arise from this source, a confessor, when dealing with a female penitent, must avoid things which tend to foster personal predilection. Do not address the penitent in words that savor too much of tenderness....

130. If a female penitent should, directly or indirectly, make manifest that she is attached to her confessor, she must be told, rudely and abruptly, never to come near him again, but to seek another confessor, if such be possible. Especially hysterical women and old maids sometimes allow themselves to be carried away by the feelings of admiration which they have for their confessor. They become jealous of other women and manifest this jealousy by word and action. Always be on the lookout against these persons. They are liable to do a great deal of harm. They are not ashamed sometimes to tell lies in the confessional or to put questions referring to imaginary dangers of their souls simply to lure forth from the heart of the priest first sympathy and afterwards affection....

131. The other extreme must also be avoided. Let not your fear and caution degenerate into a hatred of women, just as if they were all full of perversity and each of them a devil in a female garb....

132. Nuns are persons of the female sex who have embraced the state of perfection, viz; the religious state. In order to devote themselves to the exclusive service of God they have bound themselves by the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. They have left their homes, their families, their kindred, and by thus voluntarily cutting off the ties of flesh and blood, have made sacrifices of which only a truly Christian soul is capable. No matter what the single individuals are as to character, virtue, learning, etc., they deserve esteem and respect on account of their profession and the state to which they belong. No priest should overlook this and speak of nuns simply as troublesome creatures....

134. The priest, who is appointed to hear the confessions of sisters, should be a man of experience and be well versed in ascetic theology.... Ignorance and imprudence on the part of the confessor may do immense harm not only to the individual nun, but to the whole community of which she is a member...

136. A confessor of nuns must endeavor to get the full confidence of all his penitents. Nuns are not saints, but feeble human creatures, subject to human faults, and liable to commit even mortal sins. If one, perchance, should accuse herself of a mortal sin, you must not be struck with horror, resort to sharp rebukes, or give her a dreadful scolding. It may lead to the worst results and be the cause of a long train of sacrilegious confessions and communions. These poor nuns have no opportunity to open their hearts to another priest besides their ordinary and extraordinary confessor. Hence, treat them always with the utmost kindness, lest they lose confidence in you....

150. The confessor, in meeting a person who appears to be scrupulous, should first examine the case closely.... Symptoms of real scrupulosity are a groundless fear of offending God at every moment and in almost every action, a fear not founded upon reason, but caused by a vague feeling; a frequent change of opinion; a constant agitation and distress, an excessive anxiety and doubt as to certain particulars, such as the intention in pious exercises, devotion in prayer, sorrow in contrition, a never-ending perplexity; a desire of again and again confessing sins, which have been already duly confessed; an obstinacy of opinion even against the advice and commands of a prudent confessor. As soon as you have come to the conclusion that the penitent is really scrupulous, you must investigate the cause and shape your remedies accordingly. Usually there is a combination of causes, and therefore it may be well to apply now one, now another remedy. The principal means to effect a cure is blind obedience to the confessor and Spiritual Director. All theologians agree on this point. The trouble, however, is that many scrupulous persons decline the yoke of holy obedience. They say that the confessor does not understand them correctly, or that he is too lax, etc. To these you may answer: No one can be a fair judge in his own case, much less if he is tormented by vain illusions; to trust ourselves rather than those whom God has placed over us is an unbearable pride, which deserves the severest censure. If this does not quiet the penitent, then either send him away and say that you cannot help him, or at least treat him with the utmost rigor....

151. The confessor, in giving instructions to a scrupulous penitent, must be decided in his commands and forcible and resolute in all what he says, because otherwise he would only confirm the penitent in his false alarms. Tell these afflicted souls that they ought not to cease praying, though they find no relish in it; command them to despise their scruples, and to act against a momentary doubt, even if their conscience be not quiet afterwards. Forbid them to reflect much upon their actions, to talk to others about the matter, to consult books for the purpose of solving difficulties. Assign to them the day and time when they may come to confession; never hear them at other times, even if they say they have committed a mortal sin; be firm and make no exception. In confession never allow them to mention their scruples; nor permit them to repeat past sins, except they can swear that the sin was never confessed before. On the whole, always foster hope in these unfortunate people. Make them regard God as a merciful Father and not as a stern Judge....

154. Habitual sinners are like persons suffering from a serious and fatal disease, which disease has weakened the whole system to such an extent as to bring a man near death, and to require a more than ordinary skill on the part of the physician if an effective cure shall be obtained. The evil habit has become, as it were, a second nature. The unfortunate victim is so much entangled in the meshes of his passion and held down by the bondage of the devil as to lose almost all his will-power. Not at once, but only gradually, he may hope to be healed of his spiritual malady. A confessor ought to keep this in view and always treat the penitent with clemency, without, however, becoming lax and over-indulgent. As far as the absolution is concerned, we believe with St. Alphonsus, that whenever the cause of the habit and relapse lies in intrinsic weakness, the penitent ought to be absolved, provided he be earnestly determined, "hic et nunc," to break the fetters which hold his soul in captivity, and to avoid sin in future.... The practical way to proceed, we deem, is this: Ask the penitent who comes to you the first time how long the bad habit has been continuing, whether a former confessor called his attention to it and suggested particular means to remedy it, whether he applied these means, how and why he fell back into the old sin, how soon after confession the relapse occurred. The answer which the penitent gives to these questions will at once throw some light upon the matter and help you in forming your judgment as to whether he is worthy of absolution or not. Arouse his conscience with all the force of speech and the unction of spirit you have, show him the terrible danger in which his soul is found, fill his heart with a wholesome fear and make him feel truly sorry for his sins, but encourage him also and tell him that there is hope of recovery, provided that he will work for his salvation with the full energy of his will. Offer your help to him and point out the time when he must come to confession again, but absolve him as long as he is disposed and sincerely resolves to do his very best in future. If, when he returns, he says: "Father, I had the misfortune to fall again into my old sins," inquire whether he followed your advice, whether he employed the means of amendment suggested and thus made some efforts to avoid the sins which he used to commit in the past; or whether he neglected the matter altogether....