God Yearns to Forgive You in Confession, Says St. John Vianney
What advice can the Curé of Ars offer to the reluctant penitent today?
The sacrament of Penance has become unpopular in recent decades. Pride, fear, embarrassment and the denial of sin itself keep many of the laity away. Simultaneously — especially considering its eternal ramifications — the topic of Confession rarely receives the attention it deserves from the pulpit. Throw in this year’s COVID-19 restrictions, and you’re looking at a world in which comparatively few Catholics have confessed their sins in many months.
In this environment, especially during Advent and Christmas, we need to turn to St. John Vianney.
The “Curé of Ars,” is not only the patron saint of parish priests, but he may be the greatest champion of the sacrament of Penance since its institution by Jesus. To defend that bold claim, we can begin by looking at raw numbers.
We live in an age in which many parishes offer the sacrament of Penance for one hour a week, but in an average week of his priestly life, Father Vianney heard well over 100 hours of Confessions. Vianney commonly heard 15 to 18 hours of confessions per day. The exact number of confessions he heard every year is difficult to determine, but his biographers put the number in the tens of thousands. The wealthiest dignitaries and the poorest peasants were absolved by Vianney in that little town of Ars, France.
Thousands of people traveled many miles to confess their sins to Father Vianney — they even traveled from America. That would be an impressive accolade in today’s age of air travel, but these people made the slow and often treacherous journey by boat. It can be truly said that the line for Confession with Father Vianney stretched all the way back to the harbor of New York City.
They came to his confessional.
They came from all over France.
They came from the United States.
And, as Pope John XXIII reminds us, “when he was completely worn out and broken five days before his death and had no strength left, the final penitents came to his bed.”
Considering all this, Saint John Vianney was in a position to understand the sacrament as well as any saint since Apostolic times. He understood the sadness of sin, but he was also able to see the happiness of the penitent who is reconciled with God. Perhaps this is why Vianney was so well-known for his smile.
What advice can Father Vianney offer to the reluctant penitent today? There is a plethora of wisdom in his writings and sermons, but for me—a man who has often struggled to go to Confession—two quotes stand out in particular.
First, “When you confess your sins, you take the nails out of Jesus.” Over the years, when I have stared at crucifixes, I have often considered that my sins put those nails in Jesus’ precious hands and feet. But these words by Vianney—these remarkable words—help me realize that I can comfort the heart of God. I can take the nails out of Jesus, and so can you.
Second, “God is quicker to forgive than a mother to snatch her child from the fire.” Vianney’s words above highlight that, infinitely more than we want to be forgiven, God wants to forgive us.
And they highlight something else.
Sometimes, we reluctant penitents build up the idea of going to Confession in our minds, as though confessing our sins is a long and arduous process. But the truth is that the process of going to Confession often happens fast. After all, when you’re snatching someone from a fire, you do it as quickly as possible.
And, generally speaking, mortal sins don’t take any longer to confess than venial sins. Whatever your sins, and however numerous they might be, the absolution is the same. It is a beautiful prayer, and no Catholic should go through Advent or Christmas without hearing these words spoken by a priest:
“God, the Father of mercies, through the death and the resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
To you priests reading this, please allow me to offer a word of thanks for hearing our confessions. We members of the laity know that you have had a difficult year, to say the least. Please know that you are in our prayers. May God grant you the grace to lead us to Heaven.
Saint John Vianney, patron saint of parish priests, pray for us!