Author: St. Louis de Montfort




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.


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).


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


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.


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).

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