The ministry of the confessional was an area where Alphonsus’ scruples multiplied.
He found it difficult to transition from theory to practice: What was his responsibility in the area of questioning the penitent to secure a full confession? What questions were to be asked of different types of penitents, from children to adults, with little or no instruction in the theology of the sacrament? How was he to judge that the penitents were in the right frame of mind to receive absolution?
The theological formation he had received had much to do with his initial hesitations in confessional practice….When opinions for or against a course of action seemed of equal weight, the prevailing advice was to suspend judgment and not act without further consultation. If one had to make a decision, then it had to be for the safer course, which meant, in practice, the imposition of a further burden on the unfortunate penitent.
The result was that confessors, including the young Alphonsus, were faced on numerous occasions with the decision to defer or refuse absolution. This was logical in theory, frustrating in practice.
Further, Alphonsus was gradually coming to the conclusion that this confessional practice was out of harmony with the spirit of Christ and the gospel. Quite simply it did not work. He was learning from bitter experience and personal anguish of conscience that imposing obligations where there were none, deferring or refusing absolution as the virtual norm, could not be the right way of dealing with souls whom he wished to bring back to the life of grace and the sacraments.
It was only at the cost of severe mental suffering that he was eventually able to lay aside the rigorous principles he had learned and devise others more in keeping with the spirit of the Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son.
His suffering of conscience was the price he had to pay as he evolved his own approach to dealing with sin and sinners. And yet, side by side with the problem of his own conscience went his mastery over the consciences and spiritual problems of others.
As the leading missioner of his day, he spent long hours in the confessional; bishops, priests, religious as well as laypeople sought his advice and direction. He showed special sympathy to those who, like himself, had experienced the agony of a scrupulous conscience. In his dealings with them he was able to draw on what he had been through himself.
His pamphlet, Rest for Scrupulous Souls, widely used throughout the Catholic world, has even in this century been regarded by psychiatrists as a masterpiece.
Adapted from Alphonsus de Liguori by Frederick Jones, CSsR, copyright ©1998 (Liguori Publications, 803765).
Related: Plentiful Redemption: An Introduction to Alphonsian Spirituality (807206); With Open Heart: Spiritual Direction in the Alphonsian Tradition (810909); Simple, Heartfelt Words: Preaching in the Alphonsian Tradition (#813764).
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