Theory and practice of the confessional by Caspar Erich Schieler, Richard Frederick Clarke
"There is nothing more excellent or more useful for the Church of God and the welfare of souls than the office of Confessor. By his sacred ministry the sinner is lightened of the burden of sin, freed from the yoke of Satan and concupiscence, and clothed again with the robe of innocence previously lost. Weak knees are confirmed (Is. xxxv. 3); that is, men weak and idle in mind receive new vigor, and lastly the just are aroused and enkindled to persevere in goodness and to reach with freshly spurred zeal for the crown of justice laid up for them (2 Tim. iv. 8).
"How great and arduous is the office of Confessor appears clearly from the fact that by it he is made a judge in the place of Christ and that of his judgment he must some day render a strict account to the Supreme Judge. To him, therefore, apply the words with which the pious king of Israel charged the judges appointed by him, 'Take heed what you do: for you exercise not the judgment of man, but of the Lord God; and whatever you judge, it shall redound to you' (2 Paral. xix. 6). In this tribunal, however, the priest may not consider himself to be only a Judge to hear the culprit's confession, to correct him, and then, having imposed sentence, to send him away. He must also act the part of the Shepherd and, following the example of the Good Shepherd, must know his sheep, bring back to the fold those that strayed away and fell among thorns, and finally lead them unto wholesome pastures and the waters of eternal refreshment. He must be a Physician giving suitable remedies to the sick, and treating and healing with anxious and skillful hand the wounds of the soul. Lastly he must be a Father, and like the father in the Gospel cheerfully receive with the kiss of peace the prodigal son returning from exile, where he had been lost and consumed by hunger and filth; he must vest the son found again with the first robe, refresh him with the fatted calf and delicious dishes, and restore him to the former place and dignity of heir and son.
"Therefore let the priest who goes to hear confession seriously ponder over these offices of judge, shepherd, physician, and father, and endeavor, as far as in him lies, to fulfill them in deed and work. Above all let him remember that he acts in the place of Christ and as an ambassador for God, as the Apostle often tells us" (Cone. Bait. PI. II. nn. 278, 279, 280).
His present volume is a practical commentary upon these weighty words of the Fathers of the Baltimore Council. The tremendous responsibility of the Catholic priest exercising the ministry of the Sacrament of Penance must appear in a truly dazzling light to the mind of every one who but glances over the following pages. Human intelligence can never fully grasp the true significance of this divine sacrament, which works at the same time forgiveness of sin and sanctification by grace; which is for poor fallen man at once the judgment of God's infinite hatred of sin and the manifestation of His infinite mercy for the repentant sinner; which brings humiliation and punishment while it fills the soul returning to God with unspeakable joy and comfort. Who can tell the number of souls troubled by sin and sinful temptations who have found peace and consolation, strength and holy courage in this sacrament? the number of souls kept not only for days, but for years in the bondage of evil passion and Satan who were, by the words of absolution, freed from that ignominious slavery and led again to enjoy the freedom of the children of God ? the number of souls snatched from the brink of perdition by the strong hand of God extended to them through His minister in the confessional? the number of souls buried in spiritual death by grievous sin who were brought out from their tombs to supernatural life and the sunshine of heavenly grace by the power of sacramental confession? Only the book of life reveals them all.
To be the minister of such a sacrament is, indeed, a glorious calling. Most excellent in itself and most useful for the Christian people is the office of Confessor. But the Fathers of the Council tell us it is also a most arduous office. In very truth, the faithful administration of the Sacrament of Penance demands a great deal more of the personal cooperation of the minister with the recipient than any other sacrament. Not to mention the fact that in the other sacraments, marriage alone excepted, the acts of the recipient desirous to receive the sacrament have nothing directly to do with the substance and validity of the sacrament, while in confession these acts are not a mere condition, but form the materia ex qua the sacrament arises, there is not the slightest doubt whatever of the most serious and grave duty of the confessor to assist the penitent as far as possible towards a worthy and profitable confession. He is not only bound, as in all other sacraments, to insure the validity of the sacrament and to assure himself of the required disposition of the recipient, but here more than elsewhere he must himself effect and bring forth, as well as he can, the worthy and right disposition of the penitent. Nor is this all. Confession is not merely to free the sinner from sin for a few passing moments; it must so strengthen his will and direct his heart that he will avoid the coming danger and resist the future temptation. Herein lies the difficult and arduous task of the confessor. It is in the discharge of this duty that the priest needs all the love and charity, patience and meekness, of the spiritual father; all the prudence and close attention, the knowledge and experience of the spiritual physician; all the understanding of the holy law and the firmness, impartiality, and discretion of the spiritual judge; the watchful care and patient search of the spiritual shepherd; the holy knowledge and wisdom of the spiritual teacher; the fervid prayer, saintly life, and burning zeal for souls necessary to him who is to be the minister of Jesus Christ unto sinful man redeemed by His precious blood.
Even this is not all. Confession is not only a means of cleansing the sinner from the stain of sin and vice, and of giving him strength and courage in the battle against temptation ; but it is also to help the just and holy man to rise continually higher on the ladder of Christian perfection. It is the sacrament for saint and sinner. The greatest saints of God in holy Church had the greatest reverence and desire for holy confession. St. Charles Borromeo went to confession every day. Hence the tender care of the flowers and fruits of Christian virtue in the heart of his penitent is another important duty of the father confessor. How is he to fulfill it in a manner profitable to the penitent and to himself, unless he is well acquainted with the principles and facts of the spiritual life by a thorough study of Christian ascetics and the earnest practice of Christian perfection? What a responsibility when a soul called by God to the higher walks of Christian life, and willing to follow the call, be it in the world or in the cloister, falls into the hands of an ignorant, neglectful, or heedless confessor! But what glory to God, what happiness of soul, what merit for heaven, when by holy zeal and skillful effort the minister of God in holy confession leads the Christian soul, panting after God as the hart panteth after the fountains of water (Ps. xlii. 2), into the sanctuary of God's love, grace, and mercy! What a glorious ministry!
We can only hope and pray that Catholic priests will carefully read the beautiful and instructive lessons that Dr. Schieler's book offers, and ponder over them day and night. There is no greater blessing for Church and State, society and individual, than an army of priests who are confessors according to the spirit of Christ; for they are in a fuller sense than others " good stewards of the manifold grace of God " (1 Petr. iv. 10).
S. G. MESSMER.