JESUS LIVING IN MARY:
HANDBOOK OF THE SPIRITUALITY OF ST. LOUIS DE MONTFORT
PENANCE

Summary
I.	The Penitence Canticle.
II.	The Sacrament of Penance in the Parish Missions of the Seventeenth 
	Century. 
III.	Montfort’s Experience. 
IV.	Montfort as Confessor and Missionary: 
	1.	The use and value of the Sacrament of Penance; 
	2.	"The Procedure of the Sacrament of Penance."

After briefly reviewing Saint Louis de Montfort’s hymn on penitence, 
this article, while touching on some of his penances will focus on 
penance—the Sacrament of Reconciliation in his life and preaching. First 
we will consider Montfort’s understanding of the virtue of penitence: 
the penitent sinner’s turning away from sin and back to God. Included 
here are the acts of atonement required of a true penitent (for the 
rejection of God’s personal love)—contrition, confession, and 
satisfaction for sin.

 

I. THE PENITENCE CANTICLE 
Saint Louis Marie has written an entire treatise on penitence in Hymn 
13, "The Necessity of Penitence." The study comprises ninety verses and 
is clearly divided according to the brief outline at the margin of each 
stanza. Following a brief definition, Montfort discusses five points: 
the necessity of penitence, the need for not postponing penitence, the 
usefulness of penitence, its qualities, and, finally, the means of 
accomplishing penitence.
From the very start, Montfort insists that penitence, which "destroys 
all sin" and is "the plank which saves a sinner from his evident loss" 
(H 13:2, 3), is "more pleasing than one thinks" (H 13:1). The saint 
understands penitence as conversion of sinners to God (v. 4), but since 
this is accomplished by painful wrenching from all that is not God—by 
mortification—Montfort speaks of Jesus Christ himself as the example of 
penitence (v. 6), inasmuch as Jesus practiced mortification, resisting 
all temptation (cf. Heb 4:15). Fourteen reasons are brought forward for 
the practice of penitence, and the example of the saints is a strong 
one: "Look at the saints, if you please: Although often very innocent, 
They have all been penitent / During their entire life" (v. 11). This 
practice of turning to God constantly in spite of the allurements of a 
sinful world—no matter the cost involved —is necessary especially "when 
one has lost innocence, for one can no longer recover it / one can no 
longer repair it / except by penitence" (v. 14).
Montfort the missionary devotes the greatest attention to the 
necessity of not postponing departing from sin and turning to God. 
Seventeen reasons are brought forward for seizing "this day" to turn to 
the Lord. An especially beautiful verse is addressed to young people who 
think that conversion can wait until some future time: "Give to God your 
youth / Consecrate to Him your first desires" (v. 21). "God gives you 
today his grace / Designed to convert you: / Tomorrow you will not be 
able to use it / For it flies and passes" (v. 25). There is a burning 
urgency in Montfort’s preaching: "From this moment then, without waiting 
/ No longer war against the Most High! / Do penance for it is necessary" 
(v. 37). Montfort’s third point, the usefulness of penitence, stresses 
in its sixteen reasons the joy that conversion of heart brings to "God 
the Father, this very Good Father [who] / Always receives a penitent / 
Embraces him like his own Child" (v. 40), and "what joy to the Faithful 
Shepherd [Jesus Christ]" (v. 41), to the Holy Spirit (v. 42), to our 
guardian angel (v. 43) and to all of heaven (v. 44). Montfort strongly 
insists, however, that conversion should not be faked or "simulated," 
for then the so-called penance only damns (vv. 53-56). The qualities of 
penance are primarily that it be interior and from the heart, entire, 
humble, and loving: "When penitence is produced / By Love of God alone / 
Not by fear of punishment / Then its merit is so great" (v. 62). The 
practical director of souls concludes his treatise with a few directives 
on the means to do penance; the first one is: "Choose a good confessor, 
/ A firm and wise director, / for he is necessary for you" (v. 67). 
Montfort lists the attitudes that one must have with the spiritual 
director: candor, openness of heart, obedience. Other means to an 
ongoing conversion are frequent recourse to the Sacrament of Penance; 
corporal penances done with discretion, for "they have very marvelous 
effects" (v. 71); prayer; the intercession of Our Lady; and almsgiving. 
The hymn concludes with a fifteen-verse prayer and an act of contrition, 
including a petition to Mary: "Pray for me, Virgin Mary, Certain Refuge 
of Sinners / Say but a word in my favor / And my soul is healed" (v. 
88).

 

II. THE SACRAMENT OF PENANCE IN THE PARISH MISSIONS 
       OF THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY
The Sacrament of Penance had been carefully formulated by the Council of 
Trent. In its first version, that of Bologna in 1547, as in its 
definitive redaction in the fourteenth session of the Council in 1551, 
the decree on penitence had coherently clarified the Catholic conception 
of the faith in contrast to Protestant doctrine. Against the Lutheran 
denial of the sacramental nature of Penance, the Council of Trent had 
reiterated the divine institution of this Sacrament, its necessity for 
salvation, and the forms of sacramental confession (cf. DS 1701-1715). 
In doing so, the Council had only reconfirmed the centuries-old 
liturgical and spiritual tradition of the Catholic Church.1 The 
Tridentine doctrine, drawn from the Catechismus ex decreto Concilii 
Tridentini ad parochos (Catechism of the Council of Trent) of 1566, became 
one of the pillars of the Christian religious and sacerdotal education of 
the post-Tridentine Catholic reform.2
In seventeenth-century France, a renewed parish catechesis was already 
found in some places around 1600. With the help of a wonderful range of 
catechisms, it was firmly established at the end of the century.3 The 
Sacrament of Penance assumed a quite special role in the preparation for 
first Communion, as in the reception of the other Sacraments, and also 
in preparation for the seasonal confessions of Christmas, Lent, Easter, 
Assumption, and All Saints day.4 French catechisms abounded in this 
period. Among the best known are those of Cambrai, Lyons, and Reims and 
those prepared by Bossuet and Tressan.5
The catechesis and the practice of the Sacrament of Penance also had 
an important place in the parish missions that flourished in Europe in 
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and were intended to revitalize 
the religious practice of the people in town and country. During these 
missions, great emphasis was laid on conversion; there were, for 
example, "sermons referring to the most dramatic moments of the 
Christian life, i.e., the Passion and death of Jesus Christ, the Last 
Things, sin and repentance; processions; the Way of the Cross; auto-da-
fés of books or objects inciting sin; general confession; general 
Communion; the solemn promise of radical reform and perseverance; the 
institution of confraternities; the founding of schools and pious works; 
and the introduction of retreats and of the life of devotion and 
meditation."6
In reality, the missions had two fundamental aims: first, the 
preaching of Catholic doctrine and the re-conversion of Catholics who 
had been won over by heresy or who were threatened by it, and second, 
the practice of the Sacrament of Penance.
Among the great missionaries and French catechists of the seventeenth 
century are Michel Le Nobletz (1577-1652), the Jesuits Julien Maunoir 
(1606-1683) and St. Jean-François Régis (1597-1640), and all the 
teachers of spirituality and founders of the "golden century" in France, 
like J.J. Olier and the Sulpicians, Vincent de Paul and the priests of 
the Mission, François Bourgoing and the Oratorians, John Eudes and the 
priests of the Congregation of Jesus and Mary, and Montfort and his 
followers. "In the missions there appear without fail the children’s 
catechism (which generally takes place in the early afternoon) and the 
‘full catechism’ for adults (towards sunset, or else morning and 
evening). Often there is also a catechesis specifically for boys 
undergoing preparation for their first Communion, which is solemnly 
celebrated as the conclusion of the mission."7

 

III. MONTFORT’S EXPERIENCE
The great masters of Christian priestly spirituality had already used 
the Sacrament of Penance as an effective Sacrament of conversion and 
holiness prior to the Council of Trent, and afterwards they did so even 
more. Montfort’s spiritual and priestly experience is also to be 
understood against this background, i.e., an intense sacramental life 
aimed at the maturing and strengthening of virtuous habits through the 
Sacrament of Penance.
In the course of his classical education at the College of the Jesuits 
at Rennes (1685-1693), the young Montfort was able to experience his 
first period of spiritual maturing in an attitude of simplicity and 
enthusiasm. This was to flower into a vocation to the priesthood and the 
missionary life. The confessor of the College at the time was Father 
Philippe Descartes, a Jesuit and nephew of the famous philosopher. He 
therefore heard the confessions of the young Montfort. We know how 
important spiritual direction and the Sacrament of Penance were at the 
time in the pedagogical and spiritual tradition of the Jesuits, along 
with appropriate reading, common prayers, retreats, and good companions. 
In 1688, the young Louis was admitted to the Marian sodality. Among the 
most important obligations of this group was commitment to an intense 
spiritual life, sustained by purity and frequent practice of the 
Sacraments. In addition to the influence of living in this atmosphere, 
Montfort’s spiritual formation was also enriched by his own 
extraordinary virtues, which found their truest expression in the 
unimpaired generosity of this young man.
Beyond his Marian fervor, characterized by a deep spirit of prayer and 
an irresistible charitable urge to help the poor and the unfortunate, 
Montfort was endowed with a firm desire to undertake rituals of 
penitence: "Scourges, iron chains, and other similar instruments of 
mortification were used by him."8
In 1692, when Montfort arrived in Paris on foot and with no material 
means, he could not enter either of the residences of the Seminary of 
Saint Sulpice. When he was admitted to "the little seminary" in 1695, he 
provided tangible proof of a great spirit of penance. Continual 
mortification, deliberate and accepted, was a characteristic of his 
spiritual temperament, which inclined him to a great deal of work, 
little sleep and food, and sharing the little he had with the poor. The 
lesson of death—in Paris he had to watch over the dead in order to make 
a living. In Paris, people were dying all around him. Montfort learned 
even more about the ephemeral nature of the body and its pleasures, and 
also the physical disorder brought about by sin. One of Montfort’s 
biographers asserts unequivocally: "He lived in a state of penitence 
because, precisely on account of his innocence, he understood the 
unbearable seriousness of sin. He mortified himself so much that his 
spiritual masters told him to show more restraint."9
In Paris, his first spiritual director was Father de la Barmondière, 
former parish priest of Saint-Sulpice, a man who lived austerely and 
possessed great virtue. It was to him that Montfort made his general 
confession covering his whole life, which, remarked M. Blain, "only 
served to expose the innocence of his soul and the great gifts with 
which God had enriched him."10 In Paris, he received Communion four 
times each week.11 Subsequently, his spiritual director at the smaller 
Saint Sulpice was Father Brenier; there followed six months of 
misunderstandings, humiliations, and inexpressible mortifications for 
Montfort, who bore everything with humility and patience. Another of his 
spiritual directors, who was scarcely more understanding than Brenier, 
was the Sulpician Father Leschassier.
The heroic exercise of the virtue of penitence, accompanied by the 
frequent practice of the Sacrament of Penance, was a constant 
characteristic of Montfort’s life.

 

IV. MONTFORT AS CONFESSOR AND MISSIONARY
The Sacrament of Penance and the virtue of penitence were not only a 
living experience of personal sanctification but also the principal aim 
of Montfort’s apostolate to the people, especially those who were poor, 
ill, indigent, rejected, and marginalized. 
1. The use and value of the Sacrament of Penance 
In a letter of July 4, 1702, to Fr. Leschassier, Montfort stated that 
the two principal occupations of his apostolate at Poitiers were 
teaching catechism to the people and the administration of the Sacrament 
of Penance: "In the meantime, for about two months, I gave instructions 
to the beggars that I encountered in the town and lived entirely at his 
Lordship’s expense. First, I taught them in the church of St. Nicholas 
and then, as their numbers increased, I gathered them every day in the 
market hall and heard the confessions of many of them in the church of 
Saint Porchaire. . . . Since I arrived here it has been like preaching a 
mission every day. From morning till night I am hearing confessions and 
giving advice to a constant stream of people" (L 11).
In fact, Montfort is aware that conversion and penitence are a central 
Christian reality (FC 9; LEW 138) and that confession, Communion, 
prayer, and the renunciation of sin are important means of salvation for 
everyone (TD 126; LEW 80-81). Indeed, it was in the course of spiritual 
direction and within the context of the Sacrament of Penance that Marie 
Louise Trichet met Montfort at Poitiers in 1701; she was seventeen at 
the time and would later become cofoundress of the Daughters of Wisdom.
Montfort also essentially codified his spiritual and apostolic 
experience in the Constitutions of his Congregations. In RM, for 
example, priests returning from mission are invited either to apply 
themselves to prayer and penance (RM 33) or to "study in order to 
perfect themselves more and more in the art of preaching and hearing 
confessions" (RM 35). Then he emphasizes the aim of their missionary 
work: the renewal of the spirit of Christianity among Christians, by the 
ministry of the Word of God (RM 60), the administration of the Sacrament 
of Penance (RM 58), and the renewal of the baptismal vows (RM 56).
According to the timetable of missions, missionaries might spend most 
of their time in the ministry of confessions (around four hours in the 
morning and almost as much in the afternoon): "They will take their 
places in the confessional as soon as they can before or after the 
sermon and remain there until 11 a.m. precisely" (RM 69); "Recreation 
ends at one o’clock sharp and then they say Vespers and Compline 
together. After Vespers, they return to the confessional, unless the 
Director gives them other work to do, and they remain there until about 
five o’clock, depending on the season of the year" (RM 74).
The missionaries were to take special care in teaching catechism to 
the children, especially when they were being prepared for their first 
Communion, by an adequate confession (RM 90). Montfort is aware of the 
fact that catechesis and the ministry of confession are tiring 
commitments. Because of this, he exhorts his missionaries willingly to 
experience the effects of poverty, for instance, "the labor it entails 
in the pulpit or the confessional by which you earn your bread by the 
sweat of your brow" (LCM 10).
The Sacrament of Penance is also an essential aspect of the religious 
life of women. In RW, on the subject of the frequency of the Sacraments, 
it is established that nuns must "go to confession regularly every week 
to the confessor chosen by the community" (RW 145). The Sisters are 
exhorted to guard against scruples (RW 159) and to be concerned with 
attaining perfect contrition: "strive more to rouse yourself to 
contrition than to recall all your sins" (RW 160). To the man who was 
converted during a parish mission, Montfort counsels daily Mass (H 
139:18) and the practice of the Sacraments (i.e., confession and Holy 
Communion) ordinarily once a month (H 139:22). Monthly or frequent 
Communion in Montfort’s time was a practice strongly condemned by the 
rigorism of the Jansenists. In his rhymed treatise on penitence, 
Montfort teaches: "Approach the sacrament of confession often / But with 
determination to amend one’s life / For to do otherwise / Is to damn 
oneself without ceasing" (H 13:70).
Montfort exhorts his missionaries to be very restrained both in their 
preaching and in hearing confessions. For instance, as preachers, they 
must avoid criticizing other preachers, losing their temper, referring 
directly or indirectly to an individual in the audience, indulging in a 
barrage of affected or exaggerated condemnations of rich or important 
people, and "censuring and criticizing priests and giving detailed 
accounts of their sins" (RM 63).
While he was very severe towards himself, Montfort was very merciful 
to sinners. Grandet describes him in the confessional in the following 
terms: "Father de Montfort was gentle even in the tribunal of penitence: 
he always avoided these two grievous excesses which used to cause and 
today still cause such great evil in the Church: excessive rigor and 
excess moral laxity. From the pulpit he thundered out against all vices, 
but he was at once firm and gentle in confession; he had a singular gift 
for touching hearts, in the confessional as well as the pulpit. But he 
was so horrified by over-severe morality that he believed that strict 
confessors did a hundred times more damage in the Church than those who 
were lax. . . . Meanwhile, although M. de Montfort had the reputation of 
being extremely severe, great sinners more often went to him for 
confession than to any other missionary."12
Following the example of Jesus the Good Shepherd, Montfort preferred 
to approach the most hardened sinners, the worst, the most obdurate, to 
incite them to conversion. And for these sinners he sacrificed the whole 
of his life.
A.	Amato

 

2. "The Procedure of the Sacrament of Penance" 
Montfort alludes to a "Méthode Uniforme que les Missionnaires Doivent 
Garder dans l’Administration du Sacrement de Pénitence pour Renouveler 
l’Esprit du Christianisme (Uniform Procedure to be Followed by 
Missionaries in Administering the Sacrament of Penance in order to Bring 
about a Renewal of the Christian Spirit" (RMW 59). Perhaps an outline of 
this work can be found in Montfort’s book of Sermons under the title 
"Méthode du Sacrement de Pénitence (Procedure for the Sacrament of 
Penance)" (LS 156); this could refer to the Méthode uniforme, given that 
no work of this title by Montfort has survived.
We can deduce the content of the Procedure from two works by St. John 
Eudes: Avertissements aux confesseurs missionnaires (Advice to 
Missionary Confessors) (1644) and Le Bon Confesseur (The Good Confessor) 
(1667),13 in which the earlier work was taken up and expanded. These 
works were themselves inspired by Avertissements aux Confesseurs (Advice 
to Confessors) by St. Francis de Sales and Instruzioni dei confessori 
(Instructions for Confessors) by St. Charles Borromeo.14 These manuals 
were written as the result of the new requirements of penitential 
practice and theology sanctioned by the Council of Trent (session 14, 
1551), which brought about a deepening but also a certain hardening in 
the sacramental celebration of confession. The very title of the 
confessor’s manual referred to above establishes a connection between 
the "procedure" in question and the pastoral aim of mission as Montfort 
defines it in RM 56.
The second part of the sentence that sets out the meaning of "renewing 
the spirit of Christianity" is interesting: ". . . they are not to give 
absolution or communion to any penitent who has not first renewed his 
baptismal promises" (RM 56). In fact, the Procedure prescribes the 
renewal of the promises of Baptism after contrition and before 
absolution.15
Montfort institutes a close relationship of subordination between the 
aim of mission ("renewing the spirit of Christianity") and the 
reconciliation obtained by the renewal of the promises of Baptism. This 
mediation has a preparatory function: the Sacrament of Reconciliation 
would be purely palliative if the Christian had not first radically 
renewed his awareness of the dignity that Baptism conferred on him, by 
agreeing to fulfill the commitments or the "promises/vows" of his 
Baptism. These themes will be developed accordingly in TD 120-131.
In choosing this method, Montfort adheres to a fundamental point 
introduced into pastoral life and catechesis by the Council of Trent (DS 
1671-72), which calls Penance "a more laborious kind of Baptism" and, in 
doing so, refers to Tradition, which had also defined Penance as a 
"second Baptism."
In line with the practice after the Council of Trent and the 
missionary tradition of his time, sacramental absolution of the penitent 
was not infrequently delayed in well defined cases.16 Montfort copied 
into LS a quotation from St. John Eudes that justifies this practice: 
"Experience shows the usefulness of refusing absolution. Almost none of 
those who immediately received absolution was converted, and the vain 
ghost of absolution casts or drags a great number of souls into Hell. A 
penitent who has received absolution no longer thinks about conversion 
or penitence. He is quick to sin because he will be quickly absolved."17
The delay of absolution was "at the center of great debates in the 
seventeenth century."18 It was a threat used by the confessor to break 
the sinner’s resistance and oblige him to change his life, given the 
danger of going to hell if he were not absolved. Until the middle of the 
seventeenth century, the dominant doctrine of manuals for confessors 
tended towards indulgence to the faithful. Montfort was to keep a sense 
of proportion, and he wrote that his missionaries "must not be either 
too strict or too lax imposing penances or granting absolution but must 
hold to the golden mean of wisdom and truth" (RM 59).
On the occasion of the mission to Vanneau, in the diocese of Saintes, 
which probably dates back to the spring of 1714, after the ordinary of 
the district refused the faculties of the diocese to all the members of 
the mission team, Montfort — as one of his collaborators testifies — 
said "that he had never been subjected to a clearer penance in his 
life." For after the general confession of sins, the plan was "the 
following day to begin to absolve the penitents to prepare them for 
general communion," and Montfort was deeply hurt because "he was obliged 
to leave in a state of sin" all the faithful who had already confessed 
their sins.19
Bénigne Pagé, somewhat by chance, attended Father de Montfort’s 
sermons. She was inspired to leave a worldly life to enter the cloister 
of the Poor Clares. Father Besnard tells us that at her conversion, 
Saint Louis de Montfort urged her to make a general confession. Besnard 
writes that "she used eight days [to prepare] for it."20
Montfort’s insistence that the promises of Baptism be renewed before 
sacramental absolution takes place was based on his conviction that this 
renewal is already a conversion ("metanoia"), considered not only as a 
preliminary phase but, rather, as a precondition of sacramental 
reconciliation.
Indeed, Montfort reiterates the links between Baptism and penitence in 
his pastoral practice, already defined as a method in the popular 
mission of his time. Penitence is a condition of baptism (Acts 2:38), 
i.e., incorporation into Christ and the Church through faith. Baptism is 
a radical, total conversion: the baptized die to sin and live in 
faithfulness to Christ; it is a regeneration in the Spirit of Christ.
P.L. Nava

 

Notes:
(1) Cf. A. Amato, I pronunciamenti tridentini sulla necessità 
della confessione sacramentale (The Tridentine Pronouncements on the 
Necessity of Sacramental Confession), LAS, Rome 1974. (2) Cf. the 
critical edition of the catechism: Father Rodriguez, I. Adea, F. 
Domingo, R. Lazentti et M. Merino, eds., Cathechismus Romanus, Ed. 
Universidad de Navarra 1989. For the Sacrament of Penitence, cf. 286-
337. (3) E. Germain, Parler du salut? Aux origines d’une mentalité 
religieuse (Speaking of Salvation? At the Origins of a Religious 
Mentality), in La catéchèse du salut dans la France de la Restauration 
(The Catechesis of Salvation in the France of the Restoration), 
Beauchesne, Paris 1967, 291. (4) Cf. J. Delumeau, Le péché et la peur. 
La culpabilisation en Occident XIIIème-XVIIème siècle (Sin and Fear: 
Guilt in the Western World, from the Thirteenth to the Seventeenth 
Centuries), Fayard, Paris 1983, 300-301. (5) Cf. P. Braido, Lineamenti 
di storia della catechesi e dei catechismi. Dal "tempo delle riforme" 
all’età degli imperialismi (1450-1870), (Outline of the History of 
Catechesis and Catechisms: From "the time of the Reform" to the age of 
Imperialism (1450-1870), Elle DI CI, Leumann 1991, 162-164. (6) Ibid., 
178. (7) Ibid., 188. (9) G. De Luca, Luigi Maria Grignion de Montfort, 
Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, Rome 1985, 2, 121. (10) Blain, 
24. (11) Ibid., 31. (12) Grandet, 375-376. (13) LS 652-660. (14) On the 
genesis and content of the works just mentioned, cf. P. Milcent, Un 
artisan du renouveau chrétien au XVIIe, St. Jean Eudes (An Architect of 
the Christian Renewal of the Seventeenth Century: St. John Eudes), Cerf, 
Paris 1985, 423-433. (15) J.-J. Olier, who knew the life and works of 
St. Charles Borromeo well, wished to present the famous archbishop of 
Milan as the most authoritative adviser of confessors, which led to the 
many editions of his Instructions aux confesseurs. On February 1, 1657, 
the General Assembly of the Clergy of France recommended that it be 
distributed. The success of the work, in spite of certain 
interpretations, demonstrates the esteem that St. Charles Borromeo 
enjoyed. Cf. R. Darricau, La posterità spirituale di San Carlo Borromeo 
in Francia nei secoli XVII-XIX (The Spiritual Posterity of Saint Charles 
Borromeo in France in the Seventeenth to Nineteenth Centuries), in La 
Scuola Cattolica, 112 (1984), 751-752. (16) Cf. LS 655. (17) Cf. Ibid., 
657. (18) J. Delumeau, L’aveu et le pardon. Les difficultés de la 
confession aux XIIIe-XVIIIe siècles (Confession and Forgiveness: The 
Problems of Confession in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries), 
Fayard, Paris 1990, 87; cf. chap. 7, p. 79-90. (19) Cf. the account in 
Besnard II, 8. (20) Besnard I, 270.

 


Taken from: Jesus Living in Mary: Handbook of the Spirituality of St.
Louis de Montfort (Litchfield, CT: Montfort Publications, 1994).
Provided courtesy of the Montfort Fathers © All Rights Reserved.

 

Electronic Copyright © 1998 EWTN
All Rights Reserved
.
Provided Courtesy of:
Eternal Word Television Network
5817 Old Leeds Road
Irondale, AL 35210
www.ewtn.com