Parish Resource - Fr. Alfred McBride

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SaintsWho Were Model Confessors

by Fr. Alfred McBride, OPraem

This paper chooses the lives of St. John Vianney, St. Padre Pio, and St. Leopold Mandic to illustrate model confessors. The story of each saint is followed by a reflection. The emphasis is catechetical.

St. John Vianney, Parish Priest

Who was this country pastor who became a shining light in the midst of a French Church plunged into darkness by the reign of terror and revolution? He was born near Lyons, France, in 1786. When he was five years old, the reign of terror in Paris was exiling or murdering Catholic priests and religious. He received his First Communion just before the soldiers of the French Revolution arrived and closed his parish church. His family held onto their Catholic faith and trained him to do so. He felt a call to the priesthood. While he was not an outstanding student, he was ordained a priest in 1815 at age twenty-nine.

He was assigned to the parish of Ars, where he remained for forty-two years, because the people repeatedly opposed his transfer. He did want a change but turned down promotions to more prosperous parishes. The Opening Prayer for the Mass on his feast states, "Almighty and merciful God, / who made the Priest Saint John Vianney / wonderful in his pastoral zeal" (The Roman Missal, Third Typical Edition [Washington DC: USCCB, 2011], 914). He cared for his parish by his preaching, prayer, life of simplicity, and constant generosity to the poor.

In his 1986 "Letter to Priests," Pope John Paul II devoted a lengthy reflection to the extraordinary ministry of the Curé of Ars. He cited the saint's remarkable influence:

"When Fr. Vianney arrived at his parish, there were only 230 souls. One recalls that in that village there was a great deal of indifference and very little religious practice, especially with the men. The bishop warned him, "There is not much love of God in that parish, you will put some there." But quite soon, far beyond his own village, the Curé became the pastor of a multitude coming from the entire region, from different parts of France and from other countries. It is said that 80,000 came in the year 1858. People sometimes waited for days to see him to go to confession to him.

What attracted them to him, was not merely curiosity nor even a reputation justified by miracles and extraordinary cures which the saint wished to hide. It was much more the realization of meeting a saint, amazing for his penance, so close to God in prayer, remarkable for his peace and above all so intuitive in responding to souls and freeing them from their burdens especially in the confessional. . . . He taxed his ingenuity to devise initiatives adapted to his time and parishioners. However, all these priestly activities were centered on the Eucharist, catechesis and the Sacrament of Reconciliation." (Letters to My Brother Priests, 1979-1999 [Chicago: Midwest Theological Forum, 2006], pp. 117-118)

Arguably the finest biography of St. John Vianney is The Secret of the Curé of Ars, written by Henri Gheon. Confessors may find a fascinating approach to their calling in Gheon's Chapter 8, "A Rumor of Faith." Mainly profound and often humorous, the author brings to life as much as possible how the Curé navigated his ministry of mercy in the confessional. Lighthearted but deadly serious, Vianney found a way to link the mystery of human conscience, the graces of God's forgiveness, and the variety of people who flocked to the Curé's village church.

Gheon emphasizes the fact that Vianney performed many miracles, especially through the intercession of St. Philomena, but that was not his priority. He believed that his true mission was the spiritual state of his work. He wanted to win souls. He generally gave mild penances to those who came to confession and proceeded to assume a penance for the penitent. Foremost in his mind was the Cross and the love of the Cross: "The cross is a ladder to heaven."


Pope Benedict XVI writes:

We priests should feel that the following words, which [the Curé of Ars] put on the lips of Christ, are meant for each of us personally: "I will charge my ministers to proclaim to sinners that I am ever ready to welcome them, that my mercy is infinite." From St. John Mary Vianney we can learn to put our unfailing trust in the sacrament of Penance, to set it once more at the center of our pastoral concerns. . . . [He] dealt with different penitents in different ways. . . . To a priestly confrere he explained: "I will tell you my recipe: I give sinners a small penance and the rest I do in their place." (Letter Proclaiming a Year for Priests,

St. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, Capuchin Mystic, Confessor, and Spiritual Director

Padre Pio is usually associated with San Giovanni Rotondo, the small town in the Gargano Mountains in southern Italy. As a Capuchin friar with the stigmata, St. Pio lived there for fifty years. On May 25, 1887, he was born in Pietrelcina, a village in another province. His real name was Francesco Forgione, but once he entered the Capuchin Friary, he became Padre Pio. One of eight children, he grew up as a lively boy on a small farm. His family raised him with a strong Catholic identity. At age sixteen, he became a Capuchin friar.

Beginning in August 1918, he developed the marks of the stigmata that reflected the five wounds of Jesus in his Passion. Because of this he has been called the "Second St. Francis," who also bore the stigmata. Pope John Paul II referred to this during the canonization of Padre Pio on June 16, 2002: "Is it not, precisely, the "glory of the Cross" that shines above all in Padre Pio? . . . Throughout his life, he always sought greater conformity with the Crucified. . . . In God's plan, the Cross constitutes the true instrument of salvation for the whole of humanity" (

The pope said that the effectiveness of Padre Pio was due to his long hours spent in prayer and the confessional. Padre Pio loved to say, "I am a poor Franciscan who prays. I am convinced that prayer is the best weapon we have, a key that opens the heart of God." Other examples of his impact are his founding of a hospital that he named "Home for the Relief of Suffering," and his founding of "Prayer Groups," a gift to the Church of voluntary daily prayer by his groups around the world.

St. Pio loved the ministry of Divine Mercy. He made himself available to thousands upon thousands through spiritual direction and celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation. At times, he could be a tough confessor who made people aware of the seriousness of their sins and the need for repentance. That did not deter penitents from returning to him for confession. Pope John Paul II said, "May his example encourage priests to carry out with joy and zeal this ministry which is so important today."


"Jesus said, 'Physician, heal yourself' (Lk 4:23). His words have a special meaning for priest confessors. Is not every confession a challenge to priests to forgive others personally in their daily life, to forgive till it hurts? Will our words of absolution be a weekly call to be ministers of mercy in every aspect of our priesthood? If we walked around our church and drove through our parish neighborhoods with hearts full of mercy, would we then be more inventive in finding ways to help more people to come to confession? When our souls are radiant with the peace of forgiving others, would not that be a source of creativity in attracting people to confession? The same challenge is true for parents, catechists and all parishioners. Padre Pio suffered pain from a lot of people in his lifetime. He learned how to forgive them. Then he was ready for the multitude of penitents lined up at his confessional" (Fr. Alfred McBride, A Priest Forever: Nine Signs of Renewal and Hope [Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2012], 74 [slightly adapted]).

St. Leopold Mandic, Capuchin Confessor and Spiritual Director

The last of twelve children, Leopold Mandic was born in Dalmatia on May 12, 1866. When he was sixteen, he traveled to Udine, Italy, where he entered the Seraphic school run by the Capuchin fathers. Two years later he became a Capuchin friar. He was ordained a priest on September 20, 1890. After serving in different ministries, he was assigned to the Capuchin community in Padua, where he served for almost forty years. He loved the apostolates of confessor and spiritual director, in which he excelled. For the rest of his life and in the spirit of the Curé of Ars and Padre Pio, he attracted a huge number of penitents and souls seeking holiness. Fr. Mandic understood that a central key for revitalizing the members of the Catholic Church was the ministry of mercy contained especially in the confessional.

Despite his ailments of chronic arthritis, abdominal pains, and a stammer in his speech, he soldiered on year after year. Though he was a little man of four feet, five inches, he was a spiritual giant who showed people that he lived on the power of God and an extraordinary faith. When people asked him how he handled his troubles, he enthusiastically told them, "Have faith! Everything will be all right. Faith, Faith!" His contagious witness of faith made his spiritual advice more credible and motivated the penitents and searchers for sanctity to radical personal conversion that touched their hearts for the rest of their lives.

He wanted to be a missionary to his homeland, where tensions between religions and ethnic rivalries between Christians and Muslims were sharp. He wanted to work among them as a mediator of peace and mutual understanding. It was not to be. His order realized his talents would be most valuable in Padua, a foresight that proved providentially wise. From his early years, he heard the Capuchin community urging him to give up his missionary desires. The order realized his exceptional gifts as a confessor and spiritual director would flourish in the Padua area. Whether with regrets or with a sense of humor, he said, "I am like a bird in a cage, but my heart is beyond the seas."

Millions of souls often thirst for God but somehow have lost the road to his presence and mercy. God has wisely raised up the three spiritual lighthouses of mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and its training in continual conversion through spiritual direction. The call for a New Evangelization will require a worldwide summons to all souls to be cleansed from sin and reinvigorated by grace. Instead of a lifeless passion for material success, a personal search for a cleansed soul and the fire of faith in Jesus will be a dream come true.


The invitation to practice spiritual direction should always be an important chapter in every pastoral plan. It should be a permanent invitation that always has sanctification and mission for its objective. The faithful can be formed in this through preaching, catechesis, confession, the liturgical-sacramental life—especially in the Eucharist,—Bible groups, and the witness of the minister who himself asks for counsel in due time and opportune circumstances. From some of these ministries or services, it is possible to pass to personal examination, or to a personal encounter, to spiritual reading, to spiritual exercises in a personalized form. (Priest, Minister of Divine Mercy, Congregation of Clergy 2011, p. 48, #115)

Copyright © 2014, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.

Excerpts from Pope Benedict XVI,Letter Proclaiming a Year for Priests, June 16, 2009,copyright © 2009, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV); John Paul II, Homily, June 16, 2002, copyright © 2002, LEV. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Excerpts from Pope St. John Paul II, Letters to My Brother Priests: Complete Collection of Holy Thursday Letters (1979-2005) (Woodridge, Illinois: Midwest Theological Forum, 2006), pp. 117-118. Used with permission of Midwest Theological Forum.