Helping Penitents To Achieve True Conversion

St. John Vianney was well known for helping people to make better confessions. He began by teaching them how to examine their consciences more thoroughly. Then he focused on trying to help them achieve real sorrow for their sins, not so much out of fear of punishment, but out of love for Christ who died to forgive us these sins. These first two steps were the foundations for the third and final stage of preparation, which is the focus of today’s column: a firm purpose of amendment of life.
St. John Vianney knew that the greater one’s examination of conscience — identifying not just the sins but the various factors and occasions that led to the sin — the greater the game plan one would be able to form to seek to avoid these sins and occasions in the future. Likewise, the more contrite someone was for the sins committed, the greater the resolve that person would have not to wound the Lord, himself and others again by sin.

But even so, it’s not automatic that someone who has made a good examination of conscience and who is filled with sorrow will make a solid plan to amend one’s life. They might not necessarily be intending to commit sins in the future; they may even have a positive desire not to commit similar sins in the future; but they often lack the type of strategy and resolve to be brutal with themselves in seeking to avoid them.

When St. John Vianney encountered penitents with insufficient purposes of amendment, he did whatever he could to help them to achieve it. Many times this took the form of guidance and encouragement. Sometimes it took the form of strictness in helping them — to use Jesus’ image from the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:29-30) — to cut off their hands or pluck out their eyes if they were causing them to sin. In all circumstances his goal was to help his penitents not merely confess their sins but achieve real conversion. He knew, as he said in one homily, that there are “many who confess but few who convert … because there are few who confess with repentance.” He hoped that, by his preaching and his priestly work in the confessional, everyone who came to confession in Ars would leave converted.

One time St. John Vianney was returning from a sick call and met a woman from Paris in the village square of Ars. She had no intention to go to confession; she merely wanted to observe the curious phenomenon of the Curé of Ars. When the saint met her, he asked her to follow him to a place they could converse privately. Much like Jesus did with the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4), the saint revealed to her, with a divine light that we’ll have a chance to talk about in future columns, all that she had ever done. The woman’s first reaction was stunned silence, not knowing what to say, as all that she had tried to conceal to the world was now out in the open in her conversation with the saint. When she finally spoke, she said, “Father, will you hear my confession?”  After all, she thought, he already knew her sins; since this tough part was out of the way, she figured there was nothing stopping her from receiving absolution.

“Your confession would be useless,” St. John Vianney shockingly replied. With the same interior light with which he had seen her sins, he continued: “I can read in your soul and there I see two devils that enslave it, the devil of pride and the devil of impurity. I can only absolve you on the condition that you do not go back to Paris; seeing your dispositions, I know that you will return there.” Paris was an irresistible occasion of sin for this woman and she needed to be willing to cut Paris off from her life in order to make a valid confession. She was unwilling at this point, however, to do something so “drastic.” She told the priest that she thought he was exaggerating the dangers. So he prophetically revealed to her how low she would fall in Paris. She responded that she thought herself incapable of such depredations. Vianney assured her that she would commit them, but also told her what she would have to do when she eventually had hit this spiritual rock bottom: she was to leave Paris, begin certain practices of penance, and return to the south of France where she would meet him again. Everything happened precisely as he described. When he saw her three months later, she was chastened, humble and ready to make a firm purpose of conversion of life. She finally received absolution and the joy of reconciliation with God.

The Curé of Ars was as strong as steel in requiring a firm purpose of amendment, because without it, he knew that the sacrament would be invalid due to insufficient “matter.” He was consequently unyielding with those who deliberately lived in the occasion of sin, refusing to give them absolution until they had eliminated what was the cause of the spiritual downfall.

To a woman who repeatedly was falling into sin because of evil books in her library, he required her to burn the books before he would give her absolution. Those in illicit relationships needed to end them. Drunks had to eliminate the booze from their home and stop going to the bars.

To those who frequented the vogues — the sensual dances that he believed were volcanoes of lust that led to all sorts of sins — he refused to give absolution until the penitent would make a promise never to attend another one. A woman testified at his canonization that she was refused absolution for six years because as a teenager she was unwilling to make a commitment to forsake those dances. She said that St. John Vianney was always kind to her, would give her his blessing and promise to pray for her, but was adamant about the conversion required in the sacrament of penance. When the girl’s mother said that her daughter could go to another confessor, the Curé replied, “As you like,” but said that he hoped that she wouldn’t, because that would just be ducking the issue of the conversion the daughter needed. Eventually the girl recognized the seriousness of what she was doing and began to hate the sins that were keeping her from the Lord’s mercy in the confessional and from his body and blood in Holy Communion. She returned to the sacraments with a firm resolution and lived a good life thereafter.

With inveterate sinners who refused to give up the near occasions of their ruin, the saint would remind them of the eternal consequences of their stubbornness. “Unless you avoid such an occasion,” he would say, “you will be damned.” Hearing those words would often be enough to bring people to their senses. One such penitent, François Bourdin, left the confessional repeating, “What, I will be damned! Cursed by God forever!” This became a flash of light that led to his conversion, return to the confessional and good life from that point forward.

In helping the people to make a firm purpose of amendment, he was not encouraging them principally to use their willpower, but to trust in the power of God. “We trust too much in our resolutions and promises,” he said from experience, “and not enough on the good God.” He helped them to see that, even though it might seem impossible to them to eliminate a sinful occasion from their life, it was not impossible for God.

This is the wisdom that continues to underlie the act of contrition to this day: “I firmly resolve, with the help of your grace…” We need God’s help to eliminate the near occasions of sin, but, as St. John Vianney always taught, that help is never absent.

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About the Author

Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations. He is the former pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Fall River, Massachusetts and St. Anthony of Padua Parish in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

After receiving a biology degree from Harvard College, he studied for the priesthood in Maryland, Toronto and for several years in Rome. After being ordained a Catholic priest of the Diocese of Fall River by Bishop Sean O’Malley, OFM Cap. on June 26, 1999, he returned to Rome to complete graduate work in Moral Theology and Bioethics at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family.

Fr. Landry writes for many Catholic publications, including a weekly column for The Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River, for which he was the executive editor and editorial writer from 2005-2012. He regularly leads pilgrimages to Rome, the Holy Land, Christian Europe and other sacred destinations and preaches several retreats a year for priests, seminarians, religious and lay faithful. He speaks widely on the thought of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, especially John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. He was an on-site commentator for EWTN’s coverage of the 2013 papal conclave that elected Pope Francis, appears often on various Catholic radio programs, and is national chaplain for Catholic Voices USA.

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