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Q&A: How are priests trained to hear confessions?

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Father Earl FernandesDear 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 (Nov. 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.

In addition to the theology from which practice flows, seminarians usually take a practicum. During the practicum, they learn the rite itself; memorize the formulation for absolution; study cases; and engage in practice scenarios. Sometimes “practice penitents” are brought in who “confess”. The goal is to see how the seminarian reacts and responds; to test whether he gives proper counsel; and to demonstrate that he can carry out the rite effectively, giving a suitable penance and absolution. Seminarians are also trained to lead penance services and to help penitents examine their consciences.

In the confessional, a priest must integrate the theology from his classes, especially moral theology, and apply it to a particular case and a particular penitent in particular circumstances. Thus, understanding of persons is critical. During the entire period of formation, a future priest is encouraged to develop listening skills but also to develop those skills that help a person to empathize with a penitent. The sacrament itself has a dialogical structure, and ultimately, the penitent must encounter Christ; hear His voice; and, experience His mercy so that he or she can continue his or her journey with the One who shows forth the compassionate face of the Father of Mercies. To be honest, the best training for hearing confessions is to be a penitent. The experience of receiving God’s mercy helps the priest “teaches” the priest who to share the gift of mercy with others.

Father Earl Fernandes is dean of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and the Athenaeum of Ohio. To ask Father Earl a question about the Catholic faith, send an email to Steve Trosley.

This A Question of Faith column by Father Earl Fernandes first appeared in the January 2016 print edition of The Catholic Telegraph.

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