Fr. Alphonsus Maria, C.SS.R., is a traditional Redemptorist priest affiliated with the Society of Saint Pius X. Since 2000 he has preached retreats and more than 150 Parish Missions across the English-speaking world.
From February 16-18, 2018, Father gave a mission to the chapel of St. Michael’s in Roswell, GA, just north of Atlanta. The chapel was grateful to have such a providential beginning to their Lent, and they were glad to have Father back to give a second Mission in six years. Father also kindly granted an interview about Redemptorist missions.
SSPX: Father, what is the significance of the Parish Missions preached by the Redemptorists?
Fr. Alphonsus: Our founder, St. Alphonsus de Liguori, says that Parish Missions are “a time of the extraordinary Mercy of God.” It’s an opportunity for the faithful to listen to the Eternal Truths of death, judgment, heaven and hell, and to make a general confession of their life.
Parish Missions are meant, first and foremost, to reach those who have been making bad confessions. But they also inspire the tepid and lukewarm to take their salvation more seriously. And even pious souls can derive strength to renew their good resolutions to serve God better.
The Redemptorist Parish Missions are the continuation of the work that Jesus Himself did on earth: He entrusted the apostolates of parishes and schools to His Apostles and their successors, but He kept for Himself the work of preaching the Gospel to the poor and healing the contrite of heart. He went from town to town, preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom, and forgiving repentant sinners who came to Him. This is the work of the Redemptorist Parish Missions.
SSPX: How did the Redemptorists take on this apostolate?
Fr: In 1731, God gave a series of revelations to the first Redemptoristine nun, Blessed Maria Celeste Crostarosa. God asked for a religious congregation of men that would be dedicated to renewing the life and work of His Son: preaching the Gospel to the poor.
The following year, St. Alphonsus, guided by his superiors, founded the Redemptorists to take on what he called “the extraordinary apostolate of the Church”: his priests would go through the mountain villages of southern Italy, preaching Parish Missions to the faithful, and the Ignatian Exercises to the local clergy and religious.
SSPX: Who are the poor that you preach to?
Fr: In this context, the poor are those who don’t have ready access to all the spiritual benefits of the Church.
When the Redemptorists came to the United States in 1832, they went to help the European immigrants who didn’t understand the English sermons spoken in their local parishes. As the children of those immigrants learned English, the Redemptorists then went on to help other minorities.
Nowadays, since the upheaval in the Catholic Church due to Vatican II and the Novus Ordo, basically everyone is a poor abandoned soul, due to the neglect of pastors who have too often been wolves in sheep’s clothing. As a result, the Redemptorists now go to whoever is willing to listen to the Eternal Truths.
And while we’re willing to go to big parishes, we do have a preference for smaller parishes which are less likely to have as many spiritual benefits.
SSPX: How does a Parish Mission compare to a retreat?
Fr: It’s been said that a Parish Mission is “a retreat that is brought to a parish.” The main difference is that during a Mission you don’t have the strict silence that you have on a retreat. Yet despite that, as St. Alphonsus says, God gives truly extraordinary graces during Missions – graces that He does not give at other times.
We can make a comparison with portrait painting: a Parish Mission is like the wide, broad strokes that an artist uses to apply the undercoat to prime the canvas; and an enclosed retreat is like the delicate, painstaking detail work that perfects the portrait. Both are necessary to create a masterpiece; and likewise, both Missions and retreats have their own place in the spiritual life.
I’ve been told by priests at SSPX retreat houses that they frequently get retreatants who have first attended a Redemptorist Mission. Some people are scared of the idea of a retreat – but after they’ve attended a Mission, they realize it’s not something to be afraid of.
SSPX: What is the relationship of preaching to the sacrament of penance in a Redemptorist Parish Mission?
Fr: A Parish Mission is divided into two parts. The first part is about conversion, so the sermons are meant to incite motives for confessing our sins: the importance of salvation, the inevitability of death, the punishments of hell, the coming judgment at the end of the world.
These are traditionally referred to as “the Great Sermons,” and the delivery is in the particular “Mission style” of preaching. This unique style of preaching – rather dramatic, with vivid stories – was used by the great Mission preachers: St. Vincent Ferrer, St. Leonard of Port Maurice, St. Louis de Montfort, St. Paul of the Cross – and the Apostle St. Paul’s epistles give us a hint that he probably preached in this way too. St. Alphonsus says that the dramatic “Great Sermons” are meant to move both the emotions and the will.
And once the emotions incline the will to embrace God’s truth, then the intellect will be more receptive to the more important instructions on the Commandments: what is a sin, what we have to avoid to save our souls, and what we have to confess.
The second part of the Parish Mission is about perseverance in God’s grace and friendship. This includes sermons on the Mercy and Love of God, the importance of avoiding the occasions of sin, how to pray, how to make good resolutions, and finally, devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
So the first half of the Mission prepares the faithful for making a good general confession, and then the second half is meant to reap the fruit of those confessions.
The general confession is the centerpiece of the Parish Mission, and it’s here that the real fruitfulness of the Missions is evident. People can confess to a priest who doesn’t recognize their voice, and they’re able to set things right with God, and hopefully get back on a path where they’ll be able to persevere in God’s grace and friendship in their daily lives, with the support of their pastor and their parish.
And as a Redemptorist, that is the most consoling part of our apostolate: seeing a soul return to God’s grace and friendship. Jesus says that the angels rejoice over one sinner who does penance; think of the joy it brings to the heart of God!
SSPX: Of all the sermons during a Parish Mission, are there any that are more important than others?
Fr: It’s true that all the sermons work together to form a cohesive teaching of the truths of our Faith.
But St. Alphonsus says that, even if the number of sermons has to be shortened because of time constraints, there are two that must never be omitted: the sermon on prayer, and the sermon on devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
St. Alphonsus is called “the Doctor of Prayer”: in his writings, he’s constantly insisting on prayer as “the great means of salvation.” One of his repeated sayings is that “whoever prays will certainly be saved; whoever does not pray will certainly be damned.”
And since Jesus loves His Mother so much, He wants us to love her too. That’s why St. Alphonsus says that “devotion to Mary is a sign of salvation.”
He also helped popularize the devotion of the Three Hail Marys, started by the great 17th century Capuchin preacher of Parish Missions, St. Leonard of Port Maurice.
SSPX: Who should attend a Parish Mission? And how can someone prepare for it?
Fr: Anyone can come – and I’ve noticed over the years that the ones who get the most out of a Parish Mission are teenagers and young adults.
The only caveat is for persons who are scrupulous – St. Alphonsus says that scrupulous souls must not make a general confession without their confessor’s permission, since a general confession could actually cause them spiritual trauma.
Otherwise, the best way to prepare to attend a Parish Mission is by prayer – asking the Holy Ghost for the light to know our sins and the strength to make the right resolutions for the future – and by a good examination of conscience in preparation for the general confession.
SSPX: What is a general confession, and who needs to make one?
Fr: A general confession is a confession of all the mortal sins of one’s past life – which of course includes those that have already been confessed.
Some persons must make a general confession: those who have been making bad confessions – either because they’ve been hiding mortal sins that they’re too embarrassed to confess, or because they’re not truly sorry for their sins or don’t have a firm purpose of amendment, or – more common nowadays – because they’re unwilling to give up the unnecessary occasions of mortal sin, or to make the necessary occasions of sin as remote as possible.
By making a general confession of their life – at least from the point where they started making bad confessions – these souls can return to God’s grace and friendship.
The majority of people habitually make good confessions, of course; but while it may not be necessary for them to make a general confession, it can still be very useful: St. Thomas Aquinas says that by confessing our past sins again and telling Jesus once more that we’re sorry for having offended Him, we pull out the very roots of those sins – and that makes it harder for the devil to tempt us to those sins, and it makes it less likely that we’ll fall back into them again.
SSPX: Since you began giving retreats and missions 18 years ago, are there different challenges or problems today than when you began your apostolate?
Fr: It seems to me that the problem of the occasions of sin has got worse over the years. Nowadays everyone – even children – have almost unlimited access to the new technology. And while there’s a lot of good things on the Internet, it’s so easy to abuse – far easier than ever before.
And of course most people – though not children! – need the Internet for their work, and it can be a real challenge to dispose people to be willing to make a necessary occasion of sin as remote as possible.
Fallen human nature wants to say, “I’ll go back into the occasion of sin – I’ll just be more careful next time.” But that’s not enough. We have to take practical steps to make sure we don’t offend God by the same sins again. Otherwise we risk making sacrilegious confessions – because while God is willing to forgive us, we’re not willing to do what’s necessary to receive His forgiveness.
And if someone has children at home, the Internet absolutely must be made safe – no if’s, and’s or but’s. It’s not enough to have passwords, or to have the computer in a public place. It happens that five-year-old Johnny picks up daddy’s phone, and with one click, innocence is gone forever. It happens.
In terms of the new technology, Internet blockers are not optional, they’re necessary – especially if someone has children at home. The innocence of the children is more than worth it.
SSPX: Have there been any influences that have affected your apostolate?
Fr: I was privileged to have grown up around Fr. George Kathrein, an old Redemptorist born in 1898 – I knew him when he was in his 70’s. He never said the Novus Ordo, and he helped the SSPX in California until his death a year after the consecrations, in 1989. Fr. Kathrein was a true Redemptorist, and his goodness and love for souls shone through everything he did.
We were also privileged to have had Fr. A.J. Cummins live in our community for the last five years of his life. Fr. Cummins was an Australian Redemptorist, born in 1915, and he started many of the Mass centers that the SSPX now has across Australasia – all the way from Singapore to New Zealand. Our brothers have all said what a blessing it was to have lived with a genuine, true Redemptorist – these old religious were a source of edification and inspiration for us.
SSPX: Are there other traditional Redemptorists? What about your future?
Fr: We have one other priest, Fr. Nicholas Mary, and four lay brothers who help the SSPX in the British District.
Our future is in God’s hands. If He’s so powerful that He can raise up children of Abraham from the stones, then He can certainly do the same for the Redemptorists – in His own way and in His own time, if He wills it.
For now, we live our Redemptorist life by doing whatever we can to help the most abandoned souls – that’s the vocation that God has called us to.
Fr. Alphonsus made his religious profession in 1994 before beginning his studies in Thomistic philosophy at the SSPX seminary of Holy Cross in Goulburn, Australia, and then dogmatic and moral theology at the traditional Dominicans in Avrille, France. Father was ordained by Bishop Fellay in the year 2000, and has been preaching retreats and missions ever since.