Confessional Training for Priests

fr. earlWhen you go to confession to different priests and hear various kinds of responses with various kinds of penances, you may wonder how priests are trained to hear confessions to begin with. This is the question that Fr. Earl Fernandes, Dean and Associate Professor of Moral Theology at the Athenaeum of Ohio, seeks to answer in this his January column for The Catholic Telegraph.

Dear Father, As we begin this Year of Mercy, I began to wonder about confession. How are priests trained to hear confessions?

Dear Reader, The training of priests to hear confessions has changed over the centuries. Prior to the Council of Trent (1545-1563), priests were trained largely through an “apprenticeship” model. The Council of Trent specifically took up the question of the sacrament of penance in the 14th session (November 25, 1551) and there, the Fathers of the Council formulated the doctrine on the sacrament. The Fathers defined the essence of the sacrament; determined its form and quasi-matter, the acts of the penitent (contrition, satisfaction, and confession of sins). They required formal integrity of the confession of all mortal sins that could be recalled after a thorough and diligent examination. The Council reiterated the precept of annual confession which had been imposed by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215).

To carry out its program of reform, worthy and competent clerics were needed. Therefore, a great concern of the Council of Trent was the formation of priests. With this in mind, the decree of July 14, 1563, on the erection of seminaries, occupies a place of prominence. One of its principal goals in dealing with the theological formation of future priests is “the administration of the sacraments, above all that which seems opportune for the hearing of confessions.” The Council of Trent mandated that seminaries offer a course of study in which practical questions were of principal importance. Largely, priests were trained to distinguish mortal and venial sins through case studies, which often involved a lot of canon law and basic moral principles. These case studies, often included tricky cases or cases of conscience, were compiled in great books called manuals. Unfortunately, the use of these manuals led to a reduction of the field of moral theology. People wanted to be forgiven and to receive absolution, but the idea of conversion was often lost. The “art” of hearing confessions was in some places reduced to a mechanistic practice of the sacrament.

Today, priests are trained differently. Hearing confessions must be distinguished from spiritual direction and pastoral counseling. While the skills from both those disciplines (Seminarians take courses in those disciplines.) may be useful in hearing confessions, the sacrament is the sacrament, not spiritual direction or counseling. Seminarians usually take a foundational course in sacramental theology and a separate course in the sacraments of healing (penance and anointing of the sick). This familiarizes them with the theology of the sacrament which flows from the scriptures, the Paschal Mystery of Christ, and the living Tradition. Usually, the course demonstrates how the sacramental theology and practice developed in history; shows what the crises in the sacrament were in the past and the response of the Church; and tries to lead the future priest to understand the present state of the sacrament as well as the culture so as to bring God’s mercy more effectively to the Christian faithful.

Continue reading Confessional Training for Priests.

Feature photo of penitent confessing courtesy of Creative Commons/Wikipedia.

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