Today the Church celebrates the Feast of St. Alphonsus Liguori: priest, moral theologian, Doctor of the Church, founder of the Redemptorists, and ardent lover of souls. St. Alphonsus Liguori is also the patron saint of confessors. In a time when Confession has fallen by the wayside for far too many Catholics, including some priests, St. Alphonsus shows us how much we need God’s love and mercy in this Sacrament.
Along with saints such as St. John Vianney and St. Padre Pio, St. Alphonsus is an example to the priesthood of how a priest must exude the love and mercy of the Sacred Heart in their person. Spiritual fathers should always seek to draw sinners back to God. This means a much needed return to the balance between sound moral theology and mercy and a renewed effort to draw the faithful to regular reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
St. Alphonsus Liguori was a spiritual father who sought the spiritual welfare of those entrusted to him. He knew the damage that sin causes each person, which is why he repeatedly called people to seek God’s forgiveness and mercy in Confession. A spiritual father who loves the flock entrusted to him always seeks to bring people to the truth so that they can become the saints God is calling them to be. St. Alphonsus is a guide for priests in drawing souls to Christ through Confession. He is also a great intercessor for the faithful who want a greater devotion to this Sacrament. He understood that truth and mercy are both required in the spiritual life.
St. Alphonsus frequently walked alongside the members of his flock in order to draw them into deeper communion with Christ. He was known to be a man of considerable patience and charity. Accompaniment—which is a watchword of our day—does not imply a change in moral teaching or turning a blind eye; rather, it is a movement of authentic love that seeks to bring others to an encounter with Christ. It is an aspect of communion through which the priesthood, religious, and the laity move into greater union with God by walking the path to holiness together. Part of the spiritual life is wrestling with what God requires of us, but never in a way that intentionally betrays the laws God has given to His Church. Our ultimate happiness is found by living in the truth. To love is to seek the truth.
Our Lord speaks forcefully about those priests who would lead others to sin, which is why any form of accompaniment that turns a blind eye or encourages someone to ignore God’s laws is to rupture communion, destroy charity, betray their ordination, and to ignore the spiritual fatherhood priests are called to live. God’s mercy is a form of leniency, but not as a departure from the truth.
St. Alphonsus knew that people were hungry for Christ, especially those who were trapped in sin. It is the same today. All priests who have experienced the immense love of the Holy Trinity should want to draw others into that love. Like St. Alphonsus, priests as spiritual fathers are meant to be ardent lovers of the souls Christ has entrusted to their care. This means a constant desire on the part of priests to call people to frequent reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
St. Alphonsus, St. John Vianney, and St. Padre Pio spent considerable amounts of time in the confessional and they repeatedly encouraged their flocks to receive the Sacrament. Not as an afterthought or to meet a once a year minimum, but as an essential aspect of the spiritual life that will lead souls to holiness. Priests are privileged to see those who are spiritually dead come back to life. The moral decay of our own time is nothing new in the history of the Church, nor is it an excuse to take a minimalist approach to this gift given to us by Christ.
St. Alphonsus was a brilliant moral theologian. He understood the teachings of the Church and he called all souls in his care to live in accordance with God’s law, but he also extended to the sinner the great mercy of Christ.
According to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in his book Doctors of the Church:
“Alphonsus recommended to pastors of souls and confessors that they be faithful to the Catholic moral doctrine, assuming at the same time a charitable, understanding, and gentle attitude so that penitents might feel accompanied, supported, and encouraged on their journey of faith in the Christian life.
St. Alphonsus never tired of repeating that priests are visible signs of the infinite mercy of God who forgives and enlightens the mind and heart of the sinner so that he may convert and change his life. In our epoch, in which there are clear signs of the loss of the moral conscience and —it must be recognized—of a certain lack of esteem for the sacrament of Confession, St. Alphonsus’ teaching is very timely.”
A renewal of the Sacrament of Confession is sorely needed. The Sacrament should be encouraged on a regular basis and made available to all the faithful. St. Alphonsus is the perfect intercessor for so great a need. He is also a much needed intercessor for the priesthood during this time of scandal. St. Alphonsus was enkindled with an ardent love for souls.
May our priests burn with that same love and may the Holy Spirit increase within us the desire for the mercy poured out upon us in Confession.