A Sweet Remedy for Our Troubled Times

The Practice of Confession According to St. Francis De Sales

In these tumultuous times in the world and in the Church, we need more than ever to plunge into the mystery of God’s infinite mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and to be inspired by the witness of the saints. What better place to start than the exemplar confessor, spiritual director, and Doctor of the Church, St. Francis de Sales? In order to understand the profound spiritual teaching of this great saint regarding the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we need to situate his life in its proper context. He was the firstborn of a Catholic noble family, born August 21st, 1567, in the Catholic Duchy of Savoy, thirty miles south of Geneva. Francis de Sales was born into a conflicted world of religious debate, fresh off the Protestant Reformation which began in 1517 and the “wars of religions” which followed. Since 1536, Savoy was controlled by the followers of John Calvin and, even though the bloodshed of war ceased with a truce, there was no true religious tolerance. This environment would affect Francis for the rest of his life as he was touched by the theological debates and personally invested in the reconciliation of the fallen-away Protestant brethren. It is believed that over the course of his life, thanks to his preaching and writing, over eight thousand Protestants returned to the Catholic faith. His parents, Francis de Boisy and Frances de Sionnaz, being nobility, had high hopes for their son to have an affluent career in public life. This led Francis to a superb education in law and, out of his own initiative and without telling his father, he added courses in theology, according to his desire to become a priest. His studies obtained for him a doctorate in both canon and civil law.

One of the most impactful events in Francis’s life occurred while studying in Paris at the age of 19. While studying theology, he came across the very controversial topic of predestination and, looking at his sins, he became convinced that he was predestined to hell. The worst part about this plaguing thought was not the pain of punishment, but the thought that he would be unable to love God for all of eternity, as hell is the place where there is no love. Relief came in a prayer of abandonment addressed to God: “Whatever may happen, O Lord . . . I will love you always . . . at least in this life will I love you, if it is not given me to love you in eternal life.” Notice the purity of heart of this prayer. Francis does not fear hell because of the extreme physical pain that we see the damned suffer in artistic depictions and in the Gospel, where hell is spoken of as a “blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 13:42). Instead, he realizes that this physical pain is nothing compared to the spiritual pain of not loving, which is the very reason for our existence. This prayer expresses the perfect contrition referred to in the traditional translation of the Act of Contrition which invites the penitent to say, “I detest all my sins because of Thy just punishments, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who art all-good and deserving of all my love.” As he continued his studies in Padua, he still had anguish from a theological standpoint regarding predestination but he once again found a resolution in prayer, as he realized that God’s name is not “the one who condemns” but “the one who saves,” the etymological meaning of Jesus. These trials and resolutions formed his spirituality greatly as he reconciled God’s unconditional goodness and love and will that all men be saved with man’s free will to respond to this love in the present moment.

In spite of his desires for Francis’s worldly success, Francis de Boisy eventually gave his fatherly blessing for Francis to become a priest, and Francis was ordained December 18th, 1593. His first mission in Chablais, a Calvinist territory in Savoy, was slow but fruitful. Many citizens and civil authorities, including the duke, were converted to Catholicism, which led to the territory becoming Catholic once more. In 1597, de Sales was named the coadjutor of the Bishop of Granier, and a few years after he was ordained a bishop. He described on that day that “God took me from myself to take me to himself and give me to his people.” While he preached the Lenten sermons in Dijon in 1604, he met the young widow Jane de Chantal. He became her spiritual director and, after several years of waiting and discernment, she founded with his help a new religious congregation: the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary. Francis was an on-demand preacher and spiritual director, which influenced his decision to decline the request of the bishop of Paris to become his coadjutor. With his health failing, he desired to return to Annecy to retire, but he was sent on a mission by the pope to oversee a monastic election and to be a part of a delegation to greet King Louis XIII in Avignon. On his return trip, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died in the gardener’s cottage of the Visitation monastery in Lyons, December 28th, 1622, at the age of 55. Francis de Sales was beatified in 1661, canonized in 1665, and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1877.

Francis’s masterful preaching and spiritual accompaniment was recorded in his many writings, which expressed his “spirituality for all” that went to the profound depths of the mystery of God in an accessible way. From these writings we are able to receive some wisdom from him, as an experienced confessor, on the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We will begin by looking at the spiritual truths about the sacrament which he expressed in his writings and then we will look at his Advice to Confessors, which he wrote to his priests as their bishop.

By his living relationship with the God who saves, Francis was able to express fundamental truths regarding the infinite sweetness and mercy of God which help us to situate this great sacrament of mercy. It is easy to be overwhelmed with the misery of our sins but, when we place ourselves at the source of mercy, at the foot of the Cross where Jesus won our redemption, we are filled with great love and confidence in order to humbly acknowledge our sins and be cleansed by Jesus’s blood.

The scorpion which has stung us is poisonous when it stings us, but when it is made into an oil it is an excellent remedy against its own sting; sin is shameful when we commit it, but when it is changed into confession and repentance, it is honorable and salutary. Contrition and confession are so beautiful and sweet smelling, that they efface the ugliness and dissipate the stench of sin. . . . Imagine yourself to be on Mount Calvary beneath the feet of Jesus Christ crucified, whose precious blood trickles down from all parts to wash you from all our iniquities; for though it is not the actual blood of the Savior, it is nevertheless the merit of his blood shed for us, which waters abundantly the penitents around the confessionals. Open your heart wide, then, that the sins may go out by confession; for the more they go out from your heart, the more precious merit of the divine Passion enter in to fill it with blessing.1

What de Sales expressed so eloquently is the spiritual reality which takes place in the confessional. What is dead because of sin is raised to life by the miracle of God’s mercy, and so we have no need to fear, no matter how great the sin is; Jesus’s love is greater. He paid the price for all of our sin and so, once we walk out of that confessional, our souls are white as snow even though they may have been crimson red with sin when we walked in (cf. Is 1:18). Our sins “are buried before God and the confessor in such a way that they will never be remembered.”2 Take courage, for “confession and penance render a man infinitely more honorable than sin renders him blamable.”

In front of this amazing reality of God’s crucified love, we can humbly “ask for the grace and light of the Holy Spirit to discern our faults well,”3 and acknowledge our sins before the crucified Christ.

Detest your sins, which alone can cause you to be lost on that dread day. Ah! I will judge myself now, so that I may not be judged; I will examine my conscience and condemn myself, accuse myself and correct myself, so that the Judge may not condemn me on that dread day: I will therefore go to confession.4

We start with the greatest sins.

Detest them and cast them away as by as great a contrition and displeasure as your heart can conceive, considering these four things: that by sin you have lost the grace of God, forfeited your place in heaven, incurred the everlasting pains of hell, and renounced the everlasting love of God.5

This may seem exaggerated, but in order to fight our natural tendency to justify our behavior by saying that “it’s not that bad,” we need to place ourselves in front of the reality of the ugliness of sin which leads to death. It is not a light matter, but a question of life and death. This is especially true of mortal sin by which we separate ourselves from the love of God and lose the state of sanctifying grace, but it is also true of the affections we have for venial, “harmless” sins. There is no harmless sin, and de Sales warns us against an attitude of complacency, which is poison for our souls. This is why he encouraged not only a general confession at the beginning of our quest for the devout life, which “helps us to know ourselves better, stirs us up to a salutary confusion for our past lives, causes us to wonder at the mercy of God who has borne with us so patiently; it tranquilizes our hearts, refreshes our spirits, urges us to good resolutions . . . and gives our hearts confidence to express ourselves well at our subsequent confessions,”6 but also regular devotional confession.

If venial sin displeases God, the affection which we have to venial sin is no other thing than a resolve to be willing to displease his divine majesty. Is it possible that a noble soul should will not only to displease her God, but to take pleasure in displeasing him? . . . these affections are directly contrary to devotion, just as the affections to mortal sin are contrary to charity; they weaken the powers of the spirit, hinder divine consolations, open the door to temptations, and though they do not kill the soul, yet they make her exceedingly sick.7

We need confession both to fight against affection to mortal sin which is contrary to charity and to fight against affection to venial sin which is contrary to devotion. True devotion encourages us to strive for perfect contrition. “So when the penitent only hates sin with a weak, though true contrition, he resolves indeed not to sin anymore; but when he loathes the sin with a powerful and vigorous contrition, not only does he detest the sin, but also all affection to the sin and all that springs from it or leads to it.”8 But de Sales warns us against an excess of severity with ourselves which can be rooted in a spirit of pride and self-righteousness. We must be humble because, as St. Teresa of Avila said, humility is truth. “Dear imperfections, they force us to acknowledge our misery, give us practice in humility, selflessness, patience, and watchfulness; yet, notwithstanding, God looks at the preparation of our heart and sees that it is perfect.”9 We must acknowledge that we are weak creatures which fall easily, and at the same time be vigilant in the fight against sin out of our love for God, trusting that “we shall always be victorious, provided that we are willing to fight.”

We must not therefore be troubled because of our imperfections, for our perfection consists in fighting against them, and we cannot fight against them if we do not see them, nor conquer them if we do not encounter them. Our victory does not lie in not feeling them, but in not consenting to them, and to be harassed by them is not the same thing as to consent to them. Indeed, in order that we may be exercised in humility, it is necessary for us to be sometimes wounded in this spiritual battle: but we are never overcome except when we have lost either life or courage.10

After this examination of conscience at the foot of the Cross, “then we will go humbly to our confessor honoring God and the sacred priesthood in the person of the priest. We ought to look upon him in confession as an angel whom God sends to reconcile us to his divine goodness.” The priest acts in persona Christi in the sacrament, and so this confession is a direct contact with the Divine Physician who gave his authority to his Apostles “and those who were to receive the same authority by legitimate succession.”11 the night of Easter, when he said, “Receive the Holy Spirit; whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven” (Jn 20:23). Of course we know that the priest is human, with flaws like the rest of us, and we must acknowledge “that you are not an angel, no more than he is”12, but this fact does not take away from the reality of the priesthood which Jesus instituted to continue his redemptive mission through the forgiveness of sins. De Sales suggests that you “never suffer your heart to be infected with sin for any length of time, since you have so easy a remedy at hand.”13 He suggests going to Confession often because we are not only cleansed from our sins by the sacrament, but we are given “strength to avoid them hereafter, a clear light to discern them well, and an abundant grace to repair all the loss which they have caused you.”14 He knows that this process is not easy for our pride, but he encourages us by saying that “you will practice the virtue of humility, of obedience, of simplicity, and of charity; and in this one act of confession you will exercise more virtue than any other whatsoever.”15

This good disposition of the penitent is encouraged by a confessor who reflects the qualities of God, and who welcomes them as God the Father welcomes his prodigal son. “Remember that at the beginning of their confessions the poor penitents call you Father, and that you must indeed have a fatherly heart towards them, receiving them with a great charity, bearing patiently their uncouthness, ignorance, weakness, slowness and other imperfections.”16 Like a good physician the confessor must be prudent in discerning what is the state of the penitent soul and its specific need. If they are burdened by shame or a lack of hope, then they must be encouraged of the “great mercy of God which is infinitely greater in pardoning them then are all the sins of the world to damn them.”17 If they are presumptuous, they must be admonished of the gravity of sin and that “it is a question of his eternal salvation”18 If they are lost or perplexed, they must be guided patiently in making a good examination of conscience. In order to be a better physician, at times, one needs to ask the patient some questions in order to discover the source of the pain and to prescribe the proper remedy. De Sales suggests asking the penitent what their state in life is because “one must proceed differently according to each vocation.” The confessor must also act as a judge in order to determine if the “penitent has the intention of confessing completely . . . and whether he has the intention of leaving sin and detesting it completely.”19 If they are not so disposed, it is the duty of the confessor to “enkindle in him these dispositions if this be possible.” And if that’s not possible, then they must love with the tough love of a father who sometimes has to send away and punish in order to help their child realize the “dangerous and miserable state in which he finds himself in.”20

When it comes to the actual confessing of sins, Francis encourages us to be simple, precise, and to strive for great contrition and purpose of amendment. Out of routine we might confess, “I have not loved my neighbor as I ought,” when we should be more precise on what we did and why we did it in order to describe to the Divine Physician what exactly is hurting us and to get at the root of the problem. “Accuse yourself of this particular thing: Having seen a poor man in necessity, I did not help him as I might have done, through negligence, or through hardness of heart, or through contempt according to the reason of this fault.”21 We should not justify our actions by making excuses, but must humbly acknowledge our faults. It is once again the role of the confessor to act as a teacher by asking appropriate questions when necessary in order to identify not only the species of the sin, but also the degree of severity, and the frequency, especially for mortal sins. This is not to be nosy by prying into their private lives, but the work of a doctor who wants the good of the patient. If someone says, “I sinned through impurity,” the confessor must ask questions delicately without “lecturing or scolding,”22 in order to help the penitent come face-to-face with their sin so they receive all of God’s mercy in that wound. That statement can mean “I entertained one impure lustful thought about a coworker” or “I am in an adulterous relationship with my coworker for the last ten years.” There is a big difference between these two statements, and so the advice and penance needs to be adapted to the person and their situation.

After the confession of sins and subsequent questions, restitution is imposed. “Once the confessor has well recognized the state of conscience of the penitent, he must dispose and order what he sees to be necessary to render the penitent capable of the grace of God. This concerns the restitution of the goods of another, the amendment of his life, and avoiding the occasion of sin.”23 We can see that this important part of confession is about helping the penitent to be capable of the grace which God wants to give through the sacrament. If we are still attached to the sin and its consequences, we cannot receive all the grace God wants to give. The restitution is an act of justice which manifests our desire to amend our life. Of course, the secrecy of confession needs to be preserved, so the way that this restitution is prescribed needs to be discerned. Distinct from the penance imposed, the confessor can give counsels which can be helpful for their cure by continual conversion: turning away from sin and turning more towards God.

Next, the penance is imposed by the confessor “with gentle and consoling words.”24 The penance is an integral part of the healing process, and the content and how it is communicated needs to be adapted to the personal needs of the penitent. There will never be an adequate penance to make up for our sins, for “according to the gravity of their sins, they deserve a heavier penance.”25 Still, we need to cooperate with God’s healing grace because, as St. Augustine said, “He who created us without our help will not save us without our consent.” The penance needs to be clear and “not confusing and mixed with all sorts of prayers,” and the confessor needs to confirm if the penitent is willing to perform it. It should be adapted to the sins which are confessed in order to serve “as a penance for past sins,” but it can also be a “preservation against future sins.”26 For example, if the penitent is struggling with sins of gluttony or lust, a penance encouraging the virtue of temperance, such as fasting by skipping a meal, is appropriate.

De Sales then encourages confessors to exhort the penitent about the tremendous mystery of redemption which will take place in the words of absolution, in order that they understand that by confession “since he washed his conscience in the blood of the Immaculate Lamb he should take care not to sully it again.”27 It is in the words of absolution that the penitent encounters Jesus the Divine Physician in a special way through the priest acting in persona Christi.

Be attentive and open the ears of your heart, to hear in spirit the words of your absolution, which the Savior of your heart himself, seated on the throne of his mercy, will pronounce on high in heaven before all the angels and saints at the same time that the priest in his name absolves you here below on earth: so that all this throng of the blessed, rejoicing at your happiness, will sing a spiritual canticle with incomparable joy, and they will all give the kiss of peace and fellowship to your heart, which is now restored to grace and sanctified.28

At the end of de Sales’s Advice to Confessors, he sums up in saying that in the “law of grace there must be nothing but sweetness.” Confessors must avoid being too harsh because “it sometimes happens that we are so austere in our corrections that we are more blamable than our penitents are culpable.”29 This sweetness is only possible when the confessor realizes that he is a sinner as well, in need of God’s tremendous mercy. He can be patient only when he realizes that God is patient with him. Confessors must keep in mind always the reality that it is Christ himself working through them, and so they must strive to always more closely conform themselves to him who “became man to unite himself to a merciful disposition” by lowering “themselves with the penitents by a gentle condescension.”30 It is no wonder that life and teaching of St. Francis de Sales has become such a source of inspiration and model for confessors and spiritual directors, for he lived according to these divine principles which he articulated. In doing so he was able to be an instrument of mercy where so many people encountered their Savior in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

  1. Introduction to the Devout Life, ch. 19.
  2. Advice to Confessors, 3.
  3. Spiritual Directory.
  4. Introduction, ch. 14.
  5. Introduction, ch. 6.
  6. Introduction, ch. 6.
  7. Introduction, ch. 22.
  8. Introduction, ch. 8.
  9. Letters of Spiritual Direction, 98.
  10. Introduction, ch. 5.
  11. Advice to Confessors, 1.
  12. Advice, 3.
  13. Introduction, ch. 19.
  14. Introduction, ch. 19.
  15. Introduction, ch. 19.
  16. Advice, 3.
  17. Advice, 3.
  18. Advice, 2.
  19. Advice, 4.
  20. Advice, 4.
  21. Introduction, ch. 19.
  22. Advice, 3.
  23. Advice, 5.
  24. Advice, 6.
  25. Advice, 6.
  26. Advice, 6.
  27. Advice, 7.
  28. Introduction, ch. 21.
  29. Advice, 7.
  30. Advice, 7.
Br. John Paul Puschautz, CSJ About Br. John Paul Puschautz, CSJ

Br. John Paul Puschautz, a brother of Saint John since 2011, grew up in Chicago, Illinois, and attended the University of Illinois, where he studied fine-art painting before responding to Jesus's call to religious life to seek and to follow Christ as the Beloved Disciple John. He currently resides in New Jersey, where he serves as a campus minister at Seton Hall University.

Comments

  1. Avatar norberto m castillo says:

    This is a very helpful reading for all.

  2. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Brother John Paul, your article prompted me to read The Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis De Sales. This reading and your article raise the question, what is the role of the Christian in the world. One can be in a great rapture of spiritual consolation and completely ignore Christ in the poor, the prisoner. According to DeSales, Catholic Social Teaching seems completely unnecessary to one living in the world. How do you respond to these concerns?

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