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Christian Morality

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How Do You Develop Moral Certitude in a Person Who Has Had a Bad Past Moral Life?

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

First of all, they should come clean about their past. It’s remarkable how many people are concerned about their past because they are not sure that they have made a clean sweep or confession of anything. In teaching priests to hear confessions, in general, and a general confession in particular we advise them, for a person who has never made a general confession or doesn’t know how to start, to ask the person, “Now before you say anything more from your past life is there anything in your past life that you did not confess?” So that there may be a reason for being bothered about the past. They may not have made a full, clear complete confession. I, therefore, recommend that they make a general confession before their entrance into the novitiate. You have to trust that they have done so.

Even if they think they have made a complete coverage of their past life in their past confessions, there may be things about which they are insecure, worried or so on. They are given extraordinary grace when they enter the religious life which you should bank on and ask them to tell all if they want to … don’t require it. If they want to they may write it out then read it or have you read it. Sometimes it’s easier to read it in their presence silently, of course, and then give the pages back to them. Never require anything written for confession. That’s a good general rule, but it can be recommended or encouraged to do so. If they would find it hard to remember or spell it out that is some sordid features of their past life. So make a clean sweep and the sooner they do so the better though they should be given time when they enter the postulancy to get their bearings.


I think early in the spiritual life in the religious life the one who enters should make a full retreat. I cannot tell you how practically useful a good retreat is within a month or two of becoming a religious. You may want to wait a little longer not too much longer. A retreat is a time of special grace, of silence and help to set the person for life later on.

Thirdly, suppose the person is still evidently bothered by their past life. Well, get them to talk without seemingly to pry. People today are quite willing to talk about their past. Get them to reveal and try to find out what is bothering them, because either their fear or insecurity is rational or its not. In other words, do they believe their sins are so big they couldn’t be forgiven? Are they afraid that they have got themselves into such bad habits that they won’t be able to get out of them? Are they concerned that they will be exposed to temptations similar to the ones they had before and will fall? Are they so overwhelmed by the life they are entering that they just can’t picture themselves living the kind of life that my rule and religious state require? Those are rational fears. They add up. Cope with it. Try to answer them.

If you find out, in spite of all your efforts, [you are not able] to get them over their insecurity about their past suggest they consult someone whose judgment you trust who may help them. People in that second state may have deep unconscious sources of fear that you may not be able to ferret it out. People like that should not be allowed to take their first vows unless and until they have mastered that insecurity. I would suggest that early formation should not be spiritual therapy, otherwise, by the time they take their vows that’s where they should be beginning. They should be in the Novitiate all over again. All you have been coping with are their problems. So if nothing else you may have delayed their formation by two or three years coping with this hidden problem.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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