A sermon of St. Jean-Marie Vianney for the 4th Sunday of Advent.
“Facite ergo dignos fructus poenitentiae.”
“Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of penance.” -St. Luke iii. 8.
This, my brethren, was the sermon which the holy Precursor of the Redeemer preached to all those who sought him in the wilderness, to learn what they should do to attain eternal life. Bring forth, said he, real fruits of penance, that your sins may be forgiven you, that is to say, whoever has sinned, has no other remedy but penance, even for those who obtained forgiveness in the sacrament of penance, there is still a punishment due, which must be atoned for, either in this world, by suffering, and all the other tribulations of this life, or in the flames of purgatory. This, my brethren, is the difference between the Sacrament of Baptism, and that of Penance; in the Sacrament of Baptism, God forgives us without requiring anything from us; on the other hand in the Sacrament of Penance, God remits our sins, and gives us grace on the condition that we undergo a temporary punishment either in this life, or in the flames of purgatory; so that man shall be punished for his contempt and abuse of grace. When God wills that we should do penance, so that our sins may be forgiven us, He demands it only to preserve us from relapsing into sin, so that by remembering what we have had to endure for our sins which we have confessed, we shall not dare to return to them again. God desires that we unite our works of salvation with His, and that we contemplate how much He has suffered to make our works meritorious. Ah, my brethren, let us not deceive ourselves; without the Passion of Jesus Christ, all that we might have done would have been valueless to atone for the least of our sins. I will now show you, my brethren: first, that we are not exempt from the obligation of doing penance even when our sins are forgiven; and secondly, by what means we can satisfy divine justice; or to make my words clearer, I will show you in what satisfaction consists, which is the fourth condition which we must fulfil, to receive the Sacrament of Penance worthily.
You all know, my brethren, that the Sacrament of Penance is a Sacrament, which our Lord Jesus Christ instituted for the forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism. The distinguishing marks of this Sacrament, consist in this: that the Saviour of the world shows us the greatness of His mercy, for there is no sin which this Sacrament does not remit, no matter how numerous or how fearful they may be; so that every sinner is sure of forgiveness, and of being reinstated in the friendship of God, if he, on his part, makes the necessary preparation which this Sacrament demands. The first obligation is that we must know our sins, the number of them, and the circumstances which either aggravate them or change their nature; so as to attain this knowledge, we must pray to the Holy Ghost. He who in making his examination of conscience does not pray for enlightenment to the Holy Ghost, runs the chance of making a sacrilegious confession. The second condition is to declare your sins distinctly as the catechism says, without exaggeration and without excuse, that is to say, as we know them ourselves; this accusation will only result as it should do, if we have beseeched God to give us the necessary grace; without which it is impossible for you to accuse yourself as you ought to, so as to obtain the forgiveness of your sins. You must then beg of God for this grace, and examine yourself before Him as often as you go to confession. The third condition, which this Sacrament demands, to obtain the forgiveness of your sins, is repentance, that is to say, sorrow for past sins, joined with a sincere intention of not committing them again, and a firm determination, to avoid everything, which might cause us to fall into the same sins again. This repentance comes from heaven, and is only produced by prayers and tears. Want of repentance has damned many men.
Many weep over their sins, but at heart they are not really contrite: We tell our sins as if we were relating an indifferent story, because we have not contrition, and we do not change our lives. We have the same sins, and the same faults, once a year, every six months, every month or three weeks, or probably every week, we are always going the same way; there is no change in our manner of living. Whence come all the evils, which cast so many souls into hell, if not from want of contrition? And how can we expect to obtain contrition if we do not pray to God for it, or in praying for it, to almost wish that we might not get it. If you do not notice any alteration in your way of living, that is to say, if after so many confessions and communions you are not better; then turn over a new leaf, so that you may not discover your misfortune when it is too late.
When by the grace of the Holy Ghost we have recognized our sins, and have properly confessed and repented of them, there still remains (so that these three things should have the desired result), a fourth requisite to be complied with, namely: that we make satisfaction to God and our neighbour. We must make satisfaction to God, for the offences we have committed against Him by sinning, and to our neighbour, for any injury we may have done him in soul or body.
In the first place, I want to impress upon you that God from the beginning of the world, when He forgave sin, still, an account of His justice, demanded a temporal satisfaction. His mercy forgives us; but His justice must be appeased by a penance which equals the sin committed; after having been forgiven, we must punish ourselves, by chastising our bodies which have sinned.
Look at Adam, who was assured by God Himself of the forgiveness of his sins, and who, notwithstanding, did penance for nine hundred years, and penance that would make one shudder. Consider David, to whom the Lord announced the forgiveness of his sins through the prophet Nathan, and who undertook such a severe penance that his feet would not support him anymore; his sorrow for his sin was so profound that his palace resounded with lamentations and sobs. He said of himself, that he would descend into the grave weeping, that his contrition would not leave him until the end of his life; so copious were his tears that he said of himself, I will moisten my bread with my tears, and I will water my couch with my tears. Look at St. Peter; for one sin, which he committed, and which the Lord forgave him, he wept such plentiful tears during his whole life that his cheeks were hollowed out. What did St. Magdalene do after the death of the Redeemer? She buried herself in a wilderness, and wept and did penance for the rest of her life. And yet God had certainly forgiven her, for He said to the Pharisees, that many sins were forgiven her, because she had shown such an heroic act of charity.
But why do we go back so far, my brethren! Look at the penances which were imposed in the early ages of the church. If anyone called on the name of God in haste – alas, how often is that not the case, even with children, who hardly know their prayers – they were made to fast for seven days on bread and water. He who worked on Sunday, even for a short time, had to do penance for three days. If anyone omitted to fast for one day during Lent, he had to fast for seven days. If anyone spoke slightingly of their bishop or pastor, or turned their instructions into ridicule, he had to do penance for forty days, and so on. Why all this? In order to appease the justice of God? All to satisfy the divine justice for our sins? How can we do this? You will find that there is nothing easier. The first is the penance imposed by our confessor, which constitutes a part of the Sacrament of Penance. The second is prayer; the third is fasting; the fourth is almsgiving, and the fifth is indulgences. These are the easiest, the most complete, and the most practical penitential works. Therefore, the penance, which the confessor gives us, before he absolves us, we must accept cheerfully and gratefully, and perform it as soon as we can, otherwise our confession or the sacrament is incomplete. If we think we might be unable to do it we ought to give the priest our reasons humbly; if he is satisfied with them, he will change it. But there are penances which the priest cannot change, and he dare not. Penances, which have for their aim the sinner’s improvement; for example, forbidding the drunkard the saloon, the young girl the dance, or a young man going around with a person who is the occasion of sin for him; a restitution made for an injustice committed, or for someone who for a length of time has lived a negligent life, to go frequently to confession. It must be clear to us that the priest cannot and must not change such penances. But when we have reasons for asking for our penance to be changed, at least we ought, unless it is quite impossible to do so, to ask the same priest, because another confessor would not know the reason why the penance was imposed. You find your penances tiresome or hard, my brethren, but without cause. Compare them with the pains of hell, which you have deserved by your sins. O how joyfully would a poor lost soul perform the penance imposed upon you, and a much severer one until the end of the world, if at this price he could come to the end of his punishment.
Now, my brethren, if we accept our penance with joy and with the firm intention of doing the same as well as possible, we liberate ourselves from hell, just as if God released the lost soul which we just mentioned. I say that we must perform the penance imposed upon us by our confessor. To neglect this would be a sin. Tell me, my brethren, would it not be presumptuous to neglect to do our penance, and to expect the forgiveness of our sins? That is against sound reason; that would be to expect payment where no work was done. What, my brethren, are we to think of those who do not perform their penance? For my part I think this: If they have not received absolution they are of the number of those who do not want to be converted, for they shun the means which, in this case, we must employ; when they come again to confession, the priest will have to withhold absolution. If the penitent has received absolution, and has neglected to perform his penance, he commits thereby a grievous sin, if he had mortal sins to confess. But I am speaking only of those who neglected their penance altogether, or left undone a considerable part of it, and not of those who, perhaps, forgot it, or were not able to do it at the appointed time. Further, I wish to state, that one must say their penance entirely, at the time appointed, and with devotion. I say: entirely. Nothing at all must be omitted of what has been given us to do; on the contrary, we ought to add more to the penance imposed on us by the priest. St. Cyprian says, the penance must equal the fault; because the remedy must not be less than the evil. But, tell me, dear brethren, what kind of penances are laid upon you? Ah, a few Our Fathers, one or two Litanies, some almsgiving, slight mortifications. Tell me, does all this bear any comparison with our sins, which deserve torments that never end?
Yes, my brethren, we must punish and chastise that which has been the cause of our sin. This is the right means to employ to spare ourselves the punishments and chastisements of the next life. It costs us certainly a great deal to overcome ourselves; but we cannot escape from this, as long as we live, and God is satisfied with so little. If we wait until after death, then, my brethren, it will be too late, then all is over; nothing will remain to us but sorrow for not having done this. If we feel averse to do penance, let us, my brethren, raise our eyes to our amiable Redeemer. Let us contemplate what He has done, what He has endured to satisfy His heavenly Father for our sins. Let us take courage by the example of so many glorious martyrs, who delivered up their bodies joyfully to the torturers. Let us inspire ourselves, my brethren, with the thought of the devouring flames of hell, which the poor souls have to endure on account of their sins, which were, perhaps, less than ours. If it does cost you an effort to overcome yourself, you will, my brethren, receive the eternal reward which your penitential works have deserved.
We can make satisfaction to the justice of God by prayer, and also by offering up all our actions, by lifting up our heart to God from time to time during the day, and saying: My God, Thou knowest that I work for Thee; Thou hast condemned me to this, to make satisfaction to Thy justice for my sins. My God, have mercy on me, for I am a poor sinner who has so often revolted against Thee, my Redeemer and my God. I desire ardently, that all my thoughts, all my desires, all my actions shall have for their single object to please Thee. It is also pleasing to God, when we think of our last end, particularly of death, judgment, and hell, which is reserved as a dwelling place for sinners.
Thirdly, I say we can satisfy the justice of God by fasting. Now by the word fasting is meant everything that is calculated to mortify the body or the soul; for instance, for the love of God to bear patiently contradictions, insults, contempt, wrongs, when we know that we have not deserved them; to give up a visit, for instance, a journey to see our parents, our friends, at home, and many other things of a like nature which would give us pleasure; kneeling longer than usual, so that our body which has sinned shall suffer for it.
I have said that we can satisfy the divine justice by giving alms. There are several kinds of almsgiving: some which have reference to the body; for instance, to give food to those who are starving; to clothe those who want clothing; to visit the sick, give them money, make their bed, keep them company, give them their medicine at the proper time; all that has reference to the body. But the almsgiving which regards the soul is of much greater value. But, you will ask, how can we give spiritual alms? That happens, when you undertake to console someone who is in trouble, or who has just suffered a loss; you console them by your words full of kindness and charity, whilst you remind them of the great reward which God has promised to those who suffer for love of Him; and you call to their mind that the sufferings of this world last only a short time, whilst the reward is an everlasting one. We give spiritual alms when we instruct the ignorant, that is to say, those poor persons who would go astray if no one took pity on them. Alas, how many poor persons there are of this description, who do not know what is necessary for salvation; who do not know the fundamental principles of our holy religion; who, in spite of their sufferings and other good works, will be lost.
Mothers and fathers, teachers and housewives, in what does your duty consist? Do you know them even superficially? I hardly think so. If you know them ever so little, you would be careful to see that your children knew what was necessary for their religion, so as to escape eternal damnation. How you would use every means at your disposal to teach them all that your duties as parents oblige you! My God, how many children are lost on account of this ignorance! Through the ignorance of their parents, who, perhaps, because they themselves are not in a condition to instruct them, do not confide their children to those who are able to do so, but let them live on in this way, and thereby lose their souls for all eternity.
Masters and mistresses, what kind of alms do you give to your employees, who, for one reason or another, know nothing of their religion? My God, how many souls go to ruin for whom employers will be responsible at the last day! "I pay him his wages," you say, "it is his affair to see that he is properly instructed; I only employ him to work for me, he does not even earn what I give him." You are mistaken; God has not only confided this poor child to you, to help you in your work, but also that you may help him to save his soul. What! an employer, a housewife, can live on peacefully, whilst they see that their servants are in a condition whereby they may lose their souls? My God! the loss of a soul touches your heart so little? Alas, how often housewives witness that their servants do not say any prayers, either morning or evening, and yet you say nothing to them. But that is not necessary; so long as they do your work you are satisfied. O my God, what blindness! who can comprehend it? I say: that a master or mistress shall look after the spiritual welfare of their servants with as much care as they do after their children’s. God will ask an accounting at your hands, the same as in respect of your children. You take the place of their father and mother. God will call you to account for them.
Fathers and mothers, masters and housekeepers, do not forget this spiritual almsgiving which you owe to your children, to your servants. Besides this, you owe them the alms of your good example, which shall serve them as a guide on the way to heaven.
These are, my brethren, as I think, the most appropriate means to satisfy the divine justice for our confessed and neglected sins. You can satisfy the justice of God by bearing with patience all the wearinesses which you are obliged to bear; for example, sicknesses, weaknesses, troubles, poverty, fatigues of work, cold, heat, accidents which happen to us, as well as death. Behold in all this the goodness of God, who has lent us the grace to make all our actions meritorious and powerful to save us from the punishments of the next life.
Fourthly, we have said, indulgences are a very effective means of making satisfaction to the justice of God; that is to say, to save us from the pains of purgatory. Indulgences are formed for us from the superabundant merits of Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin, and the Saints; they are an inexhaustible treasure, from which God gives us the authority to draw. So as to make my meaning clearer to you, listen: it is as if you owed a rich man, who wanted to be paid, twenty or thirty dollars; you, however, have nothing; at least it would take a very long time before you could pay your debt. And then the rich man would make you this offer: "You have nothing to pay your debts with; take from my cash box all you want to pay what you owe." God acts exactly in this way with us. We are not able to make satisfaction to His justice, He opens to us the treasure of indulgences, from which we can take as much as we need, therewith to satisfy the justice of God. There are partial indulgences which remit only a part of our punishment, and not all of it, for example, that which one obtains when one says the Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus, by which we gain an indulgence of three hundred days; or when we say the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for which there is an indulgence of three hundred days, and so on. We can gain indulgences by saying the Hail Mary, the Angelus, by making Acts of Faith, Hope and Charity, by visiting the sick, or teaching the ignorant. And then there are the plenary indulgences, which remit all the punishment due to sin; after we have confessed a great number of sins there may remain, in consequence of the same, although the sins are remitted, an almost endless number of years to go through in purgatory; if, then, we gain entirely a plenary indulgence, we shall be as free from purgatory as a child who dies right after Baptism, or as a martyr who has just given up his life for God.
Indulgences of this sort can be gained by being a member of the League of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, every first Friday of the month, and on the feasts of the Most Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Conception, besides many other occasions on the usual conditions of confession and communion. O how easy it is, my brethren, for a Christian, if he makes use of the graces which God offers him, to escape the pains of the next life. But I must add, that to partake of such blessings we must be in the state of grace, confess, and receive Holy Communion and say the prayers prescribed by the Holy Father in church; only for the way of the cross is confession and communion not necessary. But we must always be free from mortal sin, have a great horror of all our venial sins, and a firm determination not to commit them anymore. When you are in this disposition, you can gain them for yourself, or for the poor souls in purgatory. Nothing, my brethren, is easier than to make satisfaction to the divine justice of God, as we have so many means to attain this end, so that it will be the fault of our negligence if we have to go to purgatory.
After we have made satisfaction to God, we must make satisfaction to our neighbour for the wrong which we have done him, in soul and body. I say for the wrong that we have done to his body, that is to say to his person, by speaking of him in an abusive and contemptuous way, or by insulting him by our malicious actions. If we have had the misfortune to offend him by our abusive talk, we must ask his pardon, and become reconciled with him. If you have assailed the honour of your neighbour, for instance, by speaking ill of him you are obliged to speak of his good qualities, as you have spoken about his bad ones. If you have calumniated him, you must seek out all those persons in whose presence you have spoken falsely about him, and tell them that all you said about your neighbour was not true; that you are very sorry about it, and that you beg them not to believe it. If you have wronged him in regard to his soul, that is far more difficult to make good; however, you must do what you possibly can, or you will not obtain forgiveness from God.
You must examine your conscience carefully, whether you have not given your children or neighbours scandal. How many parents, masters, and housewives give scandal to their children and servants? How often are they not heard swearing, and perhaps even blaspheming? How often have you been seen working on Sundays? You must also examine, whether you have sung improper songs, or read bad books, or given bad advice; for example, by saying that somebody should take revenge, or abuse his neighbour. You must also examine whether you have not borrowed articles from your neighbour and neglected to return them; whether you have not forgotten to give an alms which was given to you for that purpose, or to make an offering for the repose of the souls of your parents. If you want to obtain the forgiveness of your sins you must not have in your possession anything belonging to your neighbour, which you must return and are able to do so; if you have injured his reputation, you must do everything which lies in your power to restore it again without blemish; you must be reconciled to your enemies, you must speak to them, as if they had only done you good their whole lives. You must only keep in your heart that charity which a good Christian must have for everybody. You must accept your penance with the firm intention of doing it as well as you possibly can, saying it with devotion and thanksgiving to God who is so good, and who is satisfied with so little; and striving to make the hardships of your state serve as a penance; we should gain all the indulgences that we can, so that after death we shall have had the happiness of having made satisfaction to God for our sins, and to our neighbour we shall have made satisfaction for the wrong we have done him, so that we may all appear with confidence before the judgment seat of God. May God grant us this blessing!