A contribution from the Alphonsian tradition for a theology of the priesthood


(from the Alphonsian Academy blog)

At one time, the priest was the student par excellence of moral theology. This discipline was created to teach confessors ‘cases of conscience’. Before the Second Vatican Council’s turning point, confession was the privileged ‘place’ for forming consciences, and the priest was the formator, and moral theology was the discipline that formed the formators. In the course of time, the discipline has taken on a precise physiognomy and an epistemological statute that seals it as a field of theology, founded on the Mystery of Christ and nourished by Sacred Scripture. It is called to illustrate the height of the vocation of the faithful in Christ and their obligation to bear fruit in charity for the life of the world (cf. Optatam totius, n. 16). Today theology students are lay men and women, priests, men and women religious who, united by their vocation to the study of theology, work together to bring the light of the Gospel to the contemporary world (cf. Gaudium et spes, n. 43). Although the horizon is much broader than in the past, moral theology is a discipline with an intrinsic vocational dimension. Therefore, a symposium on priesthood, celibacy and vocations also challenges moral theology. The Congregation for Bishops and the Centre for Research and Anthropology of Vocations have organised an initiative for reflection from 17 to 19 February: ‘For a fundamental theology of the priesthood’. Moral theology has much to say on the subject. 

St Alphonsus to the confessors

In particular, however, those who have followed the school of Alphonsus M. de Liguori are reminded of the many pages written by the saint on the subject of vocation, especially the exhortations addressed to confessors. He lived in the eighteenth century, a time when the priest was an expert in “cases of conscience” and confession was a “place” for forming consciences. This is why Alphonsus reminds confessors that the nets are cast by preaching, and by confession, the fish are pulled to the shore[1] . In confession, confessors must remove vice and sow virtue[2] . In the Practice of the confessor for the proper exercise of his ministry, he specifies the duties of the confessor: father, physician, doctor, judge[3] .

The confessor must be a father: he welcomes everyone; he is a man full of charity. He is a bit like the owner of the donkey that St Francis de Sales tells us about. This donkey had fallen into a precipice. Saint Francis de Sales says, what does the owner have to do? Doesn’t he go and beat him until his ribs break? No, he goes up to him, speaks to him gently, pulls him up and stands by him, so he doesn’t fall again. This is what the father confessor must do with the penitent. Better a few confessions well done than many badly done.

He is a doctor. From the symptoms, he must understand the illness, identify the cure and administer the medicine in the right doses. The confessor must understand the condition of the penitent, win his trust, build a dialogue with him and gradually help him to correct himself. Graduality and patience are the watchwords.

He is a doctor: in the sense that the confessor must always study. There are so many cases and circumstances in life, so the confessor must always update and compare with others.

He is a judge: absolution is a judgement, but one of mercy, and this suggests sensitive attention to the concrete situation of the penitent and his possibilities.

Confessors must faithfully realise the conduct of Jesus Christ, so that all may experience God’s merciful love.

A priest is a man who prays, suffers and offers.

Bernhard Häring, cultivating the Alphonsian intuition, puts himself from the angle of someone who took his first steps in the exercise of priestly ministry in a dark time in history: the Second World War. The sacrament of Holy Orders empowers through the Spirit some men to carry out the mission of proclaiming, particularly in the celebration of the Eucharist, the death of the Lord until he comes (cf. 1 Cor 11:26). The priest is a channel of peace, a sign of union with God and of unity between men. Every priest must pray, work and suffer so that the community of those called may remain bound to Christ. A humble and mature man, expert in discernment, vigilant, attentive to the needs of the people; united to Christ, he must inspire that love and welcome which he was, as he is also called to be an ambassador of reconciliation. The life of the priest is entirely dedicated to the proclamation of the kingdom of God, a witness of hope for eternal life[4] .

The loophole in the darkness

The Symposium comes at a difficult time in history for vocations in general, and for vocations to the priestly ministry in particular. On the one hand, few young men are responding to this vocation, and on the other hand, the spotlight is sometimes shone on terrible crimes involving priests, thus undermining the very credibility of the ministry[5] . This is not the place to investigate the causes or to judge facts and persons. A proverb says: ‘A falling tree makes more noise than a growing forest’. A falling tree is all the evil that surrounds us. It is terrible, it is true, and you cannot hide it. The growing forest is humble, it is hidden and silent, but it is oxygen for today and a promise for the future. Reflection on priesthood and vocations should challenge the whole People of God, including theologians. Can a welcoming community of believers and a “travelling companion” do anything more to promote the beauty of a life given in the priestly ministry? And here is the provocation that can arise from the Alphonsian thought briefly outlined above. 

The flip side of the coin

It is true that they are fathers, but no father is not a son. Priests are sons of the Church, therefore sons of all, and must be loved as such. A son should be loved not because he is perfect, but simply because he is. They are doctors, but what doctor is not also a patient on occasion? Perhaps if we looked at priests with eyes of concern, we could see when they are tired, sick, or need care? They are doctors; let us help them study. Sometimes we risk being a little greedy with the time and energy of priests, we absorb it all, and we pay little attention to the time they have to dedicate to prayer and study. They are judges, but many times they are judged and sometimes with little mercy. Let us remember that the mercy we expect for ourselves we must give to our neighbour, even to priests, to the extent that we measure it will be measured to us. We are all called to work together to realise the dream of Pope Francis: “A church that warms people’s hearts with closeness and proximity”[6] .

Prof. Filomena Sacco

[1] Alfonso M. de Liguori, Selva di materie predicabili e istruttive per dare gli esercizi a’ preti ed anche per uso di lezione privata a proprio profitto, in Opere Ascetiche, vol. III, Pier Giacinto Marietti, Turin 1880ch. IX, n. 31, 77.

[2] Alfonso M. de Liguori, Praxis Confessarii, in Theologia Moralis, vol. IVEd. Gaudè, Rome 1912, c. IX, n. 121, 596.

[3] Cf. Id, Pratica del confessore per ben esercitare il suo ministero, in Opere Complete, vol. IX, Marietti, Turin 1855c. I, n. 6, p. 7 ff; cf. S. Majorano, Il confessore, pastore ideale nelle opere di sant’Alfonso, in StMor 38/2 (2000), 321-346.

[4] Cf. B. Haring, Morals and Sacraments. Sacramental Spirituality, Edizioni Paoline, Bari 1976, 188. 

[5] https://www.vaticannews.va/it/vaticano/news/2022-02/simposio-sacerdozio-vaticano-congregazione-vescovi-papa.html

[6] Francis, The Name of God is Mercy, Piemme, Milan 2016.

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