The Administration of Penance
Third Meditation - Spiritual Direction
I. In the Presence of Jesus Christ, God and Judge of the living and dead, let us consider and make an impartial study of this particular subject, which, owing to misunderstandings, has given rise to lamentable abuses. We shall take the new code of Canon Law as our guide in everything pertaining to spiritual direction.
Canon 588: During the entire course of studies the religious shall be under the special care of a prefect or master, who shall lead them on in religious life by timely admonition and instruction.Canon 562 applies the same ruling to the Master of novices. Both these canons clearly give no right to the spiritual director to require of his religious subordinates any kind of manifestation of conscience, not even the right to hear their confessions, unless they go to him entirely of their own free will. Canon 1358 rules that in each seminary there should be, besides the ordinary confessors, a spiritual director with the same attributions.
As regards the other faithful, nothing is laid down. Hence, their own parochial clergy and their confessors are sufficient to guide them along the way of salvation.
Only canon 530 speaks of the "manifestatio conscientiae", in the following terms:
1. Religious Superiors are strictly forbidden to induce their subjects in any way to manifest their state of conscience to them.According to this Church law, every Superior is absolutely forbidden to constrain his subjects in any way, direcdy or indirectly, to manifest their consciences to him; although it is recognised as useful and convenient for the subject "ultro et libere", spontaneously without any coercion or moral obligation, to declare his doubts and moral anxieties to the aforementioned Superior, if the latter is a priest.
2. The subjects, however, are not forbidden to manifest of their own free will and choice their consciences to the superiors; on the contrary, it is proper that they should approach their superiors with filial confidence, and if they are priests, to
reveal to them any doubts and anxieties of their consciences.
It is useless to look for a single other allusion to spiritual direction in the present Code; it would seem as though the Church knew nothing more about this matter - the Church that speaks and legislates so copiously for confessors and confessed.
The conclusion should not be wider than the premisses; therefore, a person can be a good Christian, and even a great saint, either in the world or in religion, without that continual and absolute subjection to a spiritual director, and even without a director at all; though, of course, one cannot deny that a director may well be an asset and a guide when there is need for one.
II. If we inquire about the exact scope of spiritual direction we have the answer, fortunately, in texts of the highest authority.
First of all, the above-quoted canon 530, according to which spiritual direction consists in revealing to a priest, with filial confidence, doubts and anxieties troubling one's conscience. And note that this direction is something entirely different from confession, because the Superior is severely forbidden to hear his subjects' confessions, unless they "of their own free will ask to be heard; but without grave reason this should not be done habitually". "Superiors must beware - says canon 516 - of inducing, either personally or through others, any of their subjects by force or fear or by importunate urging, or in any other way, to come to them for confession."
It stands to reason, then, that in spiritual direction the person directed has no need to utter a single word indicative of sins past or present, seeing that sin alone is sacramental "matter" of confession.
It also follows, that to impose a narration of past sins, under the pretext that a person's spiritual background must be known before sound advice can be given to him, is a requirement exceeding the bounds of justice, and always a cruel and harsh one.
How much of illusion or mere curiosity there is contained, perhaps, in investigations like these! How much more thankful souls would be to me if over their sad lapses, already pardoned, I mercifully drew the veil of oblivion! How much more I should be like God Himself!
I am, I am he that blots out thy iniquities for my own sake: and I will not remember thy sins. (Is. xliii, 25.)And if they are yet to be forgiven, why demand their declaration, since in confession they are to be repeated?
In a word: everything will go well if I content myself with the two offices of judge and physician of souls which canon 888 assigns me towards penitents; and if I exercise these offices only in order to absolve and heal the wounds of mortal sins which must of necessity be brought to the tribunal, or of venial sins that penitents may choose to confess, or in order to answer to the best of my knowledge and ability the questions they ask me concerning matters of conscienc,> such as difficulties, anxieties, doubts, etc.
III. Another text, whose testimony is of equally high authority, is contained in Leo XllI's decree Quemadmodum addressed to religious women on December 17th, 1890:
"Male fuit inducta intima conscientiae scrutatio quae unice Sacramento Paenitentiae reservata est.""There was no right to introduce that close scrutiny of conscience which is reserved only to the Sacrament of Penance." And the great Pontiff cancels, and orders the erasure of, any rules that obliged religious women to make such an intimate declaration of conscience:
"Irritat, abrogat eas in eo quod cordis intimam manifestationem quovis modo ac nomine respiciunt."The same decree continues:
"Valeant ultro et libere aperire suum animum Superioribus ad effectum ab illorum prudentia in dubiis et anxietatibus consilium et directionem obtinendi pro virtutum adquisitione ac perfectionis progressu.""They may spontaneously and freely open their minds to their Superiors in order to obtain prudent counsel and direction in their doubts and worries, for the purpose of acquiring virtue and progressing in perfection."
It tallies with the teaching of canon 530. It reminds me that when people spontaneously come to me for direction it is only to clear away worries and doubts which may prove an obstacle to the acquisition of virtue and to progress in perfection.
In doubts and worries about temporal goods I go to a lawyer for help, but I go only when these doubts and worries torment me; when I have no worry at all, why should I go? And month after month may elapse without my being afflicted by any worry or doubt.
Dear God, like Thee, I wish to respect human consciences, above all, the consciences of the weak, of women and children. Our conscience is a coffer locked by God with two God-made keys: one, He keeps for Himself - scrutans corda et renes - so let us live in peace; God will not surrender that key to anyone, not even to the wisest of cherubim, who will not delve into my heart unless I open it to them.
The other key of my conscience, God gave it to me, and will never take it from me, and will oblige me to use it only for a single declaration, attended by all the
divine precautions of the Sacramental Seal, of my sins to a confessor; and woe be to this confessor if he does not bury them in everlasting silence!
O God, in my dealings with souls I wish to be like Thee:
For thy power is the beginning of justice: . . . because thou art Lord of all, thou makest thyself gracious to all. . . . being master of power, thou judgest with tranquillity; and with great favour disposest of us. . . .(Wisdom, cf. xii)IV. With a view to shedding further light on the nature of spiritual direction, let us take a paragraph from that wise and holy man, Fr. Granada, from a famous sermon he preached on the occasion of a scandal produced by one of his penitents:
"Not even to confessors should the penitent give an account of the virtues or favours he has received from our Lord, if there is no particular need to do so. The rendering of a certain kind of obedience to spiritual Fathers is very dangerous, because it gives rise to familiar friendship between penitent and spiritual Father which the devil changes into carnal friendship. In matters of greater moment that may occur, it is sufficient to take counsel with a spiritual Father, when the latter is the proper person to give it."So, neither virtues nor supernatural favours, and much less, sins, are the subject of ordinary spiritual direction.
Direction, according to this immortal writer, Fr. Granada, is: to take counsel with a spiritual Father when there arises a matter of greater moment, and when the Father is a person qualified to deal with it.
By what right - not to say, by what supreme injustice! - do I constrain anyone to live tied down to my sole direction, under pain of my displeasure and all the lightnings of my anger if I come to suspect the penitent of daring to stray from my confessional in order to confide his or her troubles and doubts to another?
If cloistered nuns are free, according to Canon Law, to call on three or four different confessors, who has authorised me to exercise a tyrannical monopoly over souls that enjoy absolute freedom, as children of God, to make their confession with a different confessor each time, so long as the confessor has the requisite faculties and the penitents approach with a right intention and the proper dispositions? Don't I make my own confession to whomsoever I please? Haven't I changed confessors whenever I wanted to? What would I answer if I were asked the impertinent question: "Who is your spiritual director?"
1. Never to enjoin upon any penitent the declaration of his conscience outside confession, and, in confession, not to go beyond the limits required for the forgiveness of sin; and to explain to him the ruling of the Church on this point.
2. Often to remind penitents, men and women, that they are absolutely free to make their confession with another, if they please; and to tell them not to mind in the least whether I am offended thereby or no. Moreover, as a general rule, let them be ready to quit any confessor who shows particular inclination to have them go to him.
3. In my dealings with women penitents, to adjust my conduct to the following standards and orders given by the supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, 30th July, 1920:
i-Not to speak to them in terms of speech that can imply over-familiarity and intimacy;_________________________
ii-Not to visit them or receive visits from them;
iii-Not to indulge in long-winded conversations with them in the sacristy, guesthouse, and parlour, under the pretext of spiritual direction;
iv-Not to maintain written correspondence with them without real need.
Adapted from The Priest at Prayer
by Fr. Eugenio Escribano, C.M. (© 1954)
Translated by B.T. Buckley, C.M.
Please pray for our priests and pray for vocations to the priesthood!