By: Glenn Dallaire
A facet of Mystical knowledge is a supernatural gift of God whereby a Saint is able to read into the heart and conscience of an individual to then be able to guide and direct the person towards a greater union with God. Over the centuries, this gift of reading into souls has often been given to Priests that they may better guide penitents in the Sacrament of Confession. Some of the Priests famous for the gift of reading souls are St Padre Pio (d. 1968), St Anthony of Padua (d. 1231), St John Bosco (d. 1888), St Philip Neri (d.1595), St Francis of Paola (d. 1507), St Joseph of Cupertino (d. 1663) and St Paul of the Cross (d. 1775) to name just a few.
There have also been many mystics who have received this gift of reading into hearts, such as St Gerard Majella (d. 1755), St Catherine of Siena (d. 1380), St Lydwine of Schiedam (d. 1433), St Hedwig (d. 1243) and in modern times the mystics Blessed Alexandrina da Costa (d. 1955) and Servant of God Marthe Robin (d. 1981), and the American mystic Marie-Rose Ferron (d. 1936) to name just a few.
Perhaps one of the greatest and most documented examples of the gift of reading into souls can be found in the extraordinary life of St. John Vianney (1786-1859), affectionately known across the world as “The Cure of Ars”. St John Vianney was a most zealous priest who spent his whole life for the conversion of sinners. Sainte Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney as he is known in France was a country priest in the small town of Ars, France. He spent literally 16-18 hours a day in the confessional, and people from all over France and abroad made pilgrimages to Ars to visit the “Holy Cure”, and to go to him in Confession. For God, who was pleased with the love and devotion of this holy priest gave him the gift of reading hearts, so as to be able to lead sinners closer to God, and St John Vianney certainly possessed this gift in a most extraordinary way.
The gift of reading hearts in the life of St John Vianney
[Primary source: “The Cure D’ Ars” by Abbe Franicis Trochu, The Newman Press, 1953]
Because of his gift of reading souls, people came from all over France to go to Confession to the holy Cure of Ars, and although he spent from 16-18 hours a day in the Confessional, there were always long lines of people waiting to seek advice and counsel from him, for he truly was a “alter Christus”, that is, another Christ. He are some true stories about his amazing gift of seeing into the heart of men.
A woman who was the mother of sixteen children had succeeded in getting a place in line in the middle of the nave, because with so many children to care for, she could not afford to be away from home for too long. Suddenly the saint appeared outside his confessional, and, pointing his finger towards her, he said: "You, madame, you are in a hurry- Come at once!"
In 1833, or thereabouts, Marguerite Humbert, of Ecully, now Madame Fayolle, paid a visit-the first in fifteen years -to her cousin, Jean-Marie Vianney. He had asked the daughters of the Providence to treat her well, because she had taken good care of him during the time of his studies. "Now, before leaving," Marguerite tells us, "I returned to the church, and I asked myself whether I should go to confession to my cousin. At that very moment someone came to tell me that he was waiting for me. I was greatly surprised because he could not see me where I was. . . . I left Ars full of a great interior joy"
One day the servant of God was hearing confessions in the sacristy. M. Oriol records: "All of a sudden he appeared on the threshold, and, addressing me, he said: 'My friend, ask that lady who is towards the back of the church to come to me.' And he told me how I should know her. Now, I could not find the lady at the place to which he had directed me, so I returned and told him.
He replied, 'Go quickly; she is in front of such a house.' I ran and overtook the lady, who was going away, grievously disappointed, for she could wait no longer.'"
A poor woman, whose timidity had evidently caused her to miss her turn for confession two or three times in succession, had been at Ars eight days without succeeding in seeing the holy Cure. Finally the saint himself summoned her; more than that, he went to fetch her, and led her through the crowd to the chapel of St John the Baptist. Quite happy now, she held on to his cassock and slipped through the passage he opened for her.
The saint knew from personal experience that grace has its moments, and that it may go by without coming back. Hence, on occasion, he literally caught souls "on the wing."
In the year 1853, a cheery band of young men set out from Lyons to go on pilgrimage to Ars. They were good Christians ; all except one, an old man who had joined the group, "solely to please the young people." They reached the village at about three o'clock in the afternoon. "Go to church, if you like," said the unbeliever on leaving the carriage; "as for me, I shall order dinner." He walked a few yards, then stopped. "No, on second thoughts, I will go with you," he said, "for you should not be that long!"
So the whole band filed into the church. Now at that very moment Fr. John Vianney, the Cure of Ars, came out of the sacristy and entered the chancel. He knelt down, stood up and turned round; his eyes were looking for someone in the direction of the holy water basin, and finally he signalled to someone to come up. "It is you he wants," the youths told the astonished unbeliever. So he walked up, obviously feeling very embarrassed, we are told by the nun to whom we owe this story. "As for us, we were chuckling inwardly, for we understood that the bird had been caught. The Cure shook his hand, saying: 'It is a long time since you were at confession?' 'My good Cure, it is something like thirty years, I believe.' 'Thirty years, my friend? Just think. . . . It is thirty-three years; you were then at such a place..."
'You are right, M. le Cure.'
‘Ah, well, so we are going to confession now, are we not?'
The old man confessed afterwards that he was so taken aback by the invitation that he dared not say no; but he added: 'I at once experienced a sensation of indefinable comfort.' The confession took twenty minutes, and made a new man of him."
As for Rochette, he had but one concern: namely, to obtain the cure of his boy. He paid, indeed, a few visits to the church, but he kept in the neighbourhood of the holy water font. There he was when the saint, coming from behind the altar where he was hearing the confessions of priests, began to call him. He refused to budge. At that moment his wife and his son were close to the altar rails. "Is he really that much an unbeliever?" Father Vianney asked the wife. At last, at the third summons, the man decided to walk up the nave. "After all," he thought, "the Cure d' Ars will not eat me!" He went with Father Vianney behind the altar. There was no time to lose. "This is for both of us, Rochette," said the Cure, and, pointing to the confessional: "Go into there," he said.
"Oh!" the other replied, "I don't feel like it." "Well, begin here then." replied Father Vianney
Incapable of offering resistance to so sudden an attack, Rochette had fallen on his knees.
"My father," he stammered, "it is some time…ten years...."
"Make it a little more." "Twelve years then. . . ." "Still yet a little more." replied the holy Cure.
"Yes, since the great jubilee of 1826."
"Ah! there we are! One finds it with a little bit of seeking."
Rochette then made his confession like a child. The following day saw him kneeling by the side of his wife at the altar rails. Their boy, the faithful chronicler adds, left in the church of Ars his two crutches, for which he had no further use!
Moreover, except in special cases such as a general confession, he sought to make most confessions rather quickly so as to be able to confess as many persons as possible, and he required a like conduct from the penitent. "Five minutes sufficed to pour out my soul into his," said Pere Combalot on leaving the confessional of the Cure d' Ars. He did not mince matters in dealing with sinners; his sublime faith raised him far above the fear of men, and, putting all his trust in God alone, he knew, when necessary, how to say to men, irrespective of their position: “It is not lawful for you to do that!" Who can tell the number of souls whom the lancet of his word freed from the hidden virus that poisoned their life? He knew the spot which it was necessary to touch, and he rarely missed his aim.
"Ah! if God were not so good," he sighed; "but He is so good!" or again "Save your poor soul! What a pity to lose a soul that has cost our Lord so much! What harm then has he done to you that you treat him thus?"
"Alas!" the holy confessor said to M. Valpinson, a merchant of La Ferte-Mace, "you have a vice that will be your damnation -namely, pride." The penitent owned to it and began to reflect. That simple word changed his soul, and his life became that of a meek and humble Christian. He could never recall his memories of Ars without shedding tears.
In order to move big sinners, Father Vianney, without other exhortation, contented himself with uttering one phrase, simple but terrible on the lips of one who read the future:
"My friend, you are damned!" It was short, but it was eloquent. Obviously the saint intended to speak conditionally, and his meaning was: "Unless you avoid such an occasion, if you persist in such a habit, if you do not follow such and such advice, you will be damned." "What, I damned! I am to be cursed by God forever!" Francois Bourdin, of Villebois, kept repeating to himself on coming out of the confessional.
In 1856, in consequence of bad business transactions, this man, though still young-he was thirty-five years old-had gone, full of despair, to live with his father-in-law at Ambutrix. A mission happened to be taking place at the time, but, notwithstanding the entreaties of his family, he refused to attend it. His faith, nevertheless, was far from extinct, but the despairing thoughts that haunted him turned him away from God. In the end he was touched by grace: "I want to go to confession," he announced, "but to the holy confessor, the Cure d' Ars." But the holy Cure of Ars saw into the mans soul, and by way of encouragement, after the avowal of his sins and miseries, all he heard from the Cure was the terrifying answer: "My boy, you are damned!" But the threat became a flash of light. The man was instantly converted, and to the end of his life remained a fervent Christian.
As a rule the direction of pious souls did not demand many more words. But here also his utterances were fiery darts that buried themselves in the heart for all time. "Love your priests very much!" was all he said to Mgr. de Langalerie, his own Bishop, when he knelt at his feet."
Or again "I have been somewhat careless when doing such-and-such a thing," Frere Athanase told him in confession, "but mainly, my intentions are good." "Oh, my friend, good intentions! Hell is paved with them." That was all he said.
Frere Amedee, the future Superior-General of the Brothers of the Holy Family, had just concluded his confession: "Oh! love, love the good God very much!" exclaimed Father Vianney, at the same time folding his hands; and he gave him absolution without adding another word.
"He twice heard my confession," says the Abbe Monnin. "Every one of my accusations provoked on his part this exclamation of faith, commiseration, and horror for the smallest sin: 'What a pity!' I was particularly struck by the accent of tenderness with which he uttered the words. His simple “What a pity” in all its beauty showed what damage sin had done to the soul. And it was the sincere holiness of the Cure d’ Ars that imparted to his words their power and efficacy."
The gift of reading souls in the life of St Padre Pio
St Padre Pio (May 25, 1887-Sept 23, 1968) was one of the greatest mystics of the 20th century. He bore the stigmata (the wounds of Christ) for 50 years and was known not only for his deep holiness, but also the extraordinary mystical gifts with which he was given by God. One of these mystical gifts was the ability to read souls, especially during Confession. Because of his popularity as an extraordinary Confessor, he often spent up to 18 hours a day in the Confessional, and in fact it eventually became necessary to implement a "ticket-booking" system, whereby those interested in going to confession to Padre Pio had to have their name entered in a log book, and were then given a ticket. Depending on the season of the year the wait for confession to Padre Pio was between 3 days in the winter months, to well over a week in the summer months.
This writer has before him perhaps 4 dozen accounts of St Padre Pio's incredible gift of reading hearts, but since this article is already becoming lengthy, I will list only a few examples. Those interested in reading more can simply pick up one of the many biographies on Padre Pio.
We begin with the true story of a young man from a town in the North of Italy who was going through a bad period of religious crisis. He happened to go to a conference given by a priest from Padre Pio's monastery named Fr. Mariano Paladino. The young man felt inspired to confide in him and told him some of his doubts and spiritual struggles.
The priest, after listening to him made him a proposal: "Why not come down to San Giovanni Rotondo to talk to Padre Pio?". He accepted and soon after arriving in San Giovanni Rotundo he decided to go to Confession. He entered the Confessional and before he even opened his mouth Padre Pio said to him: "Answer yes or no to the questions I ask".
Then the Padre began an almost unbelievable examination of conscience: "Have you done.....", asked the Holy Confessor naming a particular sin. From the very beginning of this "litany", if the youth wanted to say something that was not either an approval or disapproval, the Padre repeated: "Please reply only yes or no" and he continued the examination. The Padre gave a precise list of sins to which the youth unfortunately had to answer only "yes" to each question. His head was swirling wondering how Padre Pio could possibly know all of these intimate things and faults about him. At the end of the examination of his conscience (or better to say, his "revelation" of conscience), the Padre said: "My son, with all these bad sins I cannot now give you absolution" and then he sent him away. The penitent went away very saddened for his sins, and full of repentance he cried for three days, but during this time the Padre did not abandon him, as we shall see next.
The next day after holy Mass the Saint passed by him, and suddenly the young man smelled a wave of perfume, like a bouquet of flowers. He couldn't understand why, but noticing that Padre Pio had just shaved his tonsure, he thought to himself: "Surely this friar must have just been to the barbers and in doing so they must have covered him in aftershave!" It was later that it was revealed to him that the beautiful floral fragarance which he percieved at that precise moment was actually that which eminated from Padre Pio's wounds of the stigmata.
The young man then understood that the Padre was near him in this difficult moment of his life. He went home feeling calmer and more at peace. After a period of reflection he went back again to San Giovanni Rotondo. Once again he confessed to the Padre and to the surprise of many he suddenly made a radical choice: to embrace the religious life and become a priest. (This story was revealed by the man--now a priest--in December of 1999, and out of humility he requested to remain anonymous)
There was a poor young woman who volunteered to sort through items that were donated to charity. One day, among other things, there was a nice piece of cloth that was donated, and since she was quite poor, she decided to take it to make herself a dress.
The young woman was stunned and wondered how in the world he could have known this. She replied: "But father, it was from the things that were donated for the poor, and I am poor!"
"One day my mother had to go from Biella to her hometown Gioia del Colle, so she decided to pay a visit to San Giovanni Rotondo to speak to the holy Padre. Soon after her arrival she went to confession and she confessed to him that she had missed Mass the Sunday before, and at the same time seeking to justify herself she gave the excuse "....because it was raining very heavily".
-St John Vianney, pray for us!
-St Padre Pio, pray for us!