On the confession of sins

7. First sermon preached in Vinegia on Passion Sunday 1539

by Bernardino Ochino da Siena

Translated by Patrick Colbourne OFM Cap

Translator’s note:This translation is based on the introduction, text and footnotes which were published by P. Costanzo Cargnoni O.F.M. Cap. in I Frati Cappuccini: Documenti e testimonianze dell primo secolo, Edizioni Frate Indovino, Perugia, vol III/1, pp.2179-2191. The only additions to the notes made by the translator are references to Francis of Assisi: The Early Documents, edited by Regis Armstrong, O.F.M. Cap., J. A. Wayne Hellmann, O.F.M. and William J. Short O.F.M. Conv., New York City Press, New York, London, Manila, for an English version of quotations from the Writings or Biographies of St Francis.

Introduction by Costanzo Cargnoni OFM Cap

In this sermon, which was delivered in Venezia during Lent in 1539, Ochino speaks in a strongly reformistic tone about how to prepare to go to Confession, or, more precisely, how the method of teaching this is important. He says that it is better to look into one’s conscience than to be reading manuals in order to promote genuine sorrow that is motivated by love for the naked Christ on the cross rather than from self-love that leaves Christ hidden and covered with a veil. The soul should look at its image as reflected “in the vivid mirror of Christ nailed to the cross” and then it will come to recognise its sins and particularly the gifts that God is offering. The soul should make a firm resolution to repair the evil that it has done and to make up for the damage it has done. The act of contrition should not remain just about one’s own sins but include the sins of the entire world in order to create a feeling of human solidarity. This is the best preparation for the Feast of Easter and for “a new life” in Christ.

7. The First Sermon Preached in Vinegia on Passion Sunday 1539

5676 In his Epistles Paul the Apostle makes mention of two men: one who is carnal and the other spiritual, one who belongs on the earth and the other in heaven, one preoccupied with the things of nature and the other with the things of heaven, they are completely opposed, one to the other. Paul says of the carnal man: Homo animal non percipit ea quae Dei sunt.[1] Oh a person who is concerned about carnal things is just like a beast, he does not recognise the things that pertain to God. A spiritual person does not value or find happiness in earthly things but in the things of heaven that pertain to God. He abhors and hates earthly things unless they are the means of promoting God’s honour and glory.

Therefore two such persons are continually opposed to each other because one is soaring to the heights while the other is occupied with lowly things so that there is great conflict between the body and the spirit that amounts to an ongoing fight and battle; that is why St Paul says: Sentio aliam legem in membris meis repugnantem legi mentis meae et captivanten me in lege peccati.[2] When my spirit wants to become inflamed and transform itself into God by means of love, my body, which is made of matter, always objects, wanting to remain on the earth with its emotions and desires.

The spirit beholds the naked Christ[3] and so puts no value on wealth. It sees the scourging and so does not hanker after worldly pleasure. It sees the insults and mockery and so does not care about being esteemed, or about worldly honours or human glory. It contemplates the humble Christ and so does not care about being lifted up by its own strength, but only hopes that in everything and through everything it will give praise to God. However, false Christians look upon Christ according to their own way of thinking as being wealthy and pompous and do not want to think of him as he was on the cross. Therefore, I have to show you what you have to shun and what you have to learn if you want to love Christ and be ardent and inflamed. Let us pause for a short while.

5677 Now please pay a little attention. We want to improve the carnal man and so in the first place we have to recognise our sinfulness, since initium peonitentiae cognitio peccati. If you do not do this, you will have no sorrow or perform penance. In the same way if you did not know that you have fallen out of favour with your master how would you try to regain his favour and adopt the means needed to win back what you had lost? Those who go to Confession and Communion just out of habit will never recognise their sinfulness. In order to remain Christians, they will do what other people are doing without any spirit or experience of God or without being sorry, out of love for God, for the evil that they have done.

There will be some who, simply in order to list their sins systematically in their memory without any emotion, will purchase a confessional manual.[4] They will study it very well, reading it over many times to remember the sins that they have committed. To put it more clearly, there are some who study it carefully so that when they go into the confessor they hope to show what good Christians they are and how they know how to tell their sins in the proper order with humble words so that he will think that they are saints.

When a nun began her humble and full confession this is what she said: “Father Confessor, I accuse myself of being the proudest, most negligent and the worst person in the monastery etc.” When he heard such humble words the confessor who was a prudent and perceptive man, being aware of her inner disposition, said to her: “My daughter, I do indeed know now (because I understand what you are saying) that you are the proudest, most negligent and most wicked person in the monastery and are definitely unworthy of the habit that you are wearing.” The nun responded as if she were being attacked by a savage dog and said: “Oh Father, you believed too quickly. Know that I am not like that even though I said what I said in confession”. This is heinous because you ought to say no more or no less than what is the truth.

5678 I do not want to condemn confessors or fail to appreciate what they are doing just because they are often the cause of teaching you something that you did not know. You take up a book and when you have studied it and gone through it, read it and read it again; it will enlighten you and instruct you in what is good or bad and become the first thing that forms your conscience. It should teach you to do what the angelic lady did when she lost the silver coin. She swept out the entire house until she found it.[5] Thus when you carefully go through your conscience you will discover all that has stained it and of which you have to accuse yourself very humbly, realising and being convinced that this is a gift from God and not due to your own strength. Within yourself you will find nothing but misery and defects. Do not be like those who are proud who, if they possess some strength or integrity delight in it, rejoice in it and attribute it to themselves and their own strength. This is displeasing to God and God resists those who are proud, humilibus autem dat gratiam.[6]

All good comes from God and thus if we are unfaithful the result will be like what God showed through Moses during the Exodus. When Moses placed his hand that was white and beautiful on to his chest [inside his clothing] and took it out, it had become entirely leprous.[7] This was meant to demonstrate that while the good that we do can remain good it can be spoiled by our wickedness.

Someone else might say: “I know that my deeds and actions are proper and that I do not want to do anything that is against God’s will.” Once again Moses is an example of this when while he was holding a very dry rod in his hand and throwing it on the ground it turned into a serpent.[8] Thus you should consider whether at a certain point your actions become serpents through pride and the sins of others.

Thirdly, God then led Moses to the river that was clear and limpid and had him stretch out over the water and it turned into blood.[9] Thus you think that your possessions were acquired honestly without any injustice. However, if you think carefully about where the goods came from, as well as all the other things in your house you will find that most of them came from the blood of the poor and belong to others and are not yours. You need to make restitution.

5679 There could be someone else who, when going to confession, will confess sins of pomp and vanity and lust with a loud voice showing that he thrives on them, while confessing internal sins in a whisper that the confessor can hardly hear. However, you should not do this, if the confession is to be a good one made by a sincere Christian, you ought to examine your conscience well[10] with deep humility.

Because we are in such darkness and confusion we are unable to clearly recognise our wretchedness. For those who want to recognise their sins there is nothing better than the saying: opposita, iuxta se posita magis elucescunt.[11] This is the best way to self-knowledge. It involves looking into the vivid mirror image of Christ nailed to the cross for love of you with pure faith and ardent charity. Looking at that image you will be forced by its enlightenment to recognise your faults, your laxity, your greed. His meekness will show up your arrogance, his infinite number of gifts your ingratitude and, finally, you will see all that is virtuous and generous shine in the loving Christ. On the other hand, you will see all the wickedness and sins that are in you. Then you will be forced to sincerely admit your defects and accuse yourself of them.[12]

You need to take a set of scales and place the continual blessings that you have received from God on one side and your ingratitude on the other, one side his great mercy in forgiving you so very many sins and your inflexibility is on the other, on one side his eagerness to give you grace and on the other your obstinance in continuing to sin. This is the kind of scales that will lead you to heaven. False Christians, however, do not see their image reflected in Christ on the cross because they want him to be formed according to their own liking, wealthy, proud, pompous etc. Let us pause for a moment.[13]

5680 When you are tempted to hurt a stranger, you will be concerned. However, when you realise that you have hurt your child, O dear! The feeling will pierce your heart. If your husband experienced ten wounds you would feel that it was you who had been wounded. There are some who when they go to confession feel sorrow for their sins not out of love for God, not because they have offended Christ, but who are thinking about themselves. “Oh, I committed the sin and God has sent me some punishment” and so they feel sad and cry. O my child, this is not contrition but self-love!

Let us go even further. There is someone who had committed a disgraceful sin and lost his good name and his reputation with good people. He is sad and embarrassed. He feels bitter that there is little he can do to make amends for that sin. Oh this is not good contrition or perfect sorrow but human sorrow!

One person may feel sorry out of fear of going to hell, or another person because it means the loss of paradise or another person because he was not punished in this life. These are not motives for contrition, but self-love. You need to be sorry for offending Christ who loved you so much that he shed his blood for you and would have done a thousand times over in order to redeem you and to wash away your sin while you have no recollection of this. What could be guiltier than this?

You have offended so frequently and continue to offend by being so proud, committing rape, sacrilege and incest, adultery and acts of sodomy, frequenting wine shops and gambling and committing so many enormous sins, that the stench rises up to heaven and I do not know how it is possible that poor Italy was not destroyed, since it ought to have felt sorry for Christ, for having offended the great generosity and love that he showed, while you were being so ungrateful with regard to the favours received, even while gazing on the mirror of the living Christ, as I have said. By gazing on this with the eye of the spirit you should have seen the results of ambition and should have said with Paul: Omnia arbitratus sum ut stercora, ut Christum lucrifaciam.[14]

5681 If you saw clearly you would say with Solomon: Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas.[15] You would not be proud of what you do because you would know that if it were not for God’s grace all kinds of evil would assail us. Therefore, you ought to say with the Prophet David: Omnes declinaverunt, simul inutiles facti sunt.[16] You would not rely on your own strength but say with Isaiah that all our righteousness is tamquam pannis menstruarum,[17] completely soiled, filthy and dirty.

Look at one of our neighbours. Look at somebody who practices all the virtues. If they are not accompanied by charity, they are worth nothing, as St Paul says: Si linguis hominum loquar et angelorum etc.[18] Charity is necessary and without it nothing is of value. If we had all the virtue possible, we would still sin. St John said: Si dixerimus quod peccatum non habemus, ipsi nos seducimus et veritas in nobis non est.[19] We are all full of sins and iniquity. Let us pause for a moment.

Someone might say: “I went to confess that I struck someone and killed him, but I cannot be sorry about doing it, however I hope at least to become sorry.” Oh, this is not enough. Are you not sorry for having done evil, for having offended God? You need to be sorry and to make restitution as soon as you have the opportunity for everything you have done to his children, for the hurt you have caused them. If this is impossible you are excused, and God will accept your good will.

The same thing applies to a person’s reputation, if you have taken it away and defamed him. You are obliged to retract this and restore his good name. You are also obliged to make restitution for all the sins that you have caused. You women have to do the same for all of the souls that you have stolen from God by your pomp and vanity, and you are obliged to restore the grace that you have caused them to lose at least by your good example and prayers, if you cannot do anything else.

5682 To go further, there are some who say: “I am sorry for my sins and have made up my mind not to commit them again.” The confessor says, “Do you believe that your will never return to those sins?” The person will say: “I will try to do what I can not to commit them again.” I believe that most of you will say: “I have doubts about returning to them once Easter is finished because I am weak.” Oh dear, this is not the way.

Tell me: If a Prince was here whose servant wanted to poison him and when this came to the attention of the Prince he said to the servant: “Do you believe that you will ever again think about poisoning me?” Then the servant replied: “I will try not to do it, because I do not want to offend you and falling out of your favour would not be to my advantage. However, I fear that as you have so many enemies at court and in the city that one day I might be contaminated either by money, gifts or something else to approach you again.” For certain when the Prince hears this, he would cast him away and banish him from his presence. However, if on the other hand, he admitted his error and said: “My Lord, I beg you to forgive my error which I regret. I promise you definitely and firmly that I would rather suffer all the torments in the world and forfeit a thousand lives before I would offend you like this ever again.” Because of this the Prince, when he had seen such good will and such a firm proposal, would forgive him and take him back into favour; immo the more he saw him fall the more he would forgive him and give him greater gifts.

I would do the same to someone who I saw had not made a firm resolution not to offend God. I would turn away from him. This is also what Christ does. He wants us to admit our sins and to make a solid and firm resolution not to sin again by being prepared to undergo a thousand deaths and a thousand torments so as not to offend Christ. Let us pause for a moment.

5683 There are some who when they enter into their own hell, go over and over their wretchedness in the abyss of their sins and filth. I sympathise with them. However, I do not want you to stay there forever and never come away from such brutishness. When you are going through these considerations, I want you to do what David said: Abissus abissum invocat.[20] Let the abyss of your sins search for and call out to the greater abyss, which is the abyss of God’s goodness, mercy, of his love and charity that is infinite and a larger abyss than the abyss of our sins that are finite and which is an abyss from on high. Now when you think about your misfortunes and about God’s mercy, the filth of iniquity and the amount of gifts he has prepared for you, and you have begun to meditate on one abyss and then on the other, pause to consider Christ’s generosity and love and the love that he had and has for us, and how many gifts he has given us in always forgiving our sins. Let us recognise that the abundance of what he wants us to have can forgive them more easily than our requests for forgiveness. I want you to dwell on his generosity, his sweetness, on his ardent charity, and to place your hope in those things without always thinking of your misfortune.[21]

Once you have thought of such things put them behind you like the People of Israel did when they left Egypt and did not look back to Egypt which symbolised darkness. As they kept their eyes fixed on Moses, who was their guide, so you too must put iniquity and darkness behind you and only look at Christ, the true Moses, who is your guide. Just as when that nation was walking through the desert it did not look back but looked at the pillar of fire that went on ahead of them. When they were bitten by serpents and wanted to be cured, they did not look at the serpents, but gazed upon and contemplated the bronze serpent that cured them from their infirmity.[22] You have to do the same. You should not only be sorry for all of your sins but should be sorry and sad about all the sins of the world because they bring dishonour on God. You should feel bitter about them all just as if they were yours in order to give glory to God. Let us pause for a moment.

5684 It seems to me that this evening the little candle that I hold in my hand gives more light than the big lantern behind my back. Because of that I believe that the smallest merit you have personally won for your soul is more valuable than any amount of goods you could leave after your death. I say that because if you are in heaven you do not need anything; if you are in hell you cannot receive alms from your family. You will say “It will be worth something in Purgatory.” In Purgatory, yes, I agree.

However, if you were alive and in mortal sin the charitable acts you perform will restore the grace of God that you had lost which is the greatest gift and assistance that you could acquire. If you are still in the state of grace a charitable act will increase that grace. If I were asked right now, I would suggest that you give a substantial donation to those who are poor and those who are unfortunate in the city. This is the best alms. Make it worthwhile so that what you give may be widely distributed in a better way than you would do it yourself, since often you give to certain unfortunates who have plenty money, and do not need it, whereas those who are in charge of distributing something to the poor do not give it to those who do not need it.

I promised to preach to you about confession. However, I consider that this preparation is most necessary. Now I will say a few words and say the rest another day.

5685 I will not tell you something to prove to you whether confession is de iure divino, or not because I do not think that that is necessary. I am convinced that everyone in this church is prepared and wants to go to confession and obey the Church. I shall only say that St Augustine says that many years before the Lateran Council, going to confession was laid down as in the chapter headed Omnis etc., [23] where we are obliged, saltem semel in anno, to go to confession. In my opinion that it is de iure divino, indeed very divine, because if there was no confession how could a sinner pass judgement on his own behalf etc? Immo I will inform you of Plato’s opinion. He said that he believed that there was merit in each person having a cordial and intimate friend to whom and with whom he would share all his secrets. This was so that once that friend knew that his friend had some defect or failing, he could correct, reprove or praise him so that he would improve. Thus, confession is necessary. Let us pause for a moment.

Christ said to the Chief Priests:[24] Quis ex vobis arguet me de peccato? Si veritatem dico vobis, quare non creditis mihi? I tell you the truth, I preach the truth and you do not believe me. Do you know why? Qui ex Deo est, verba Dei audiet; propterea vos non auditis, quia ex Deo non estis. The reason that you do not listen to me is because you do not belong to God and God’s words do not go well with you. They replied: Nonne bene dicimus nos, quia samaritanus es et daemonium habes?

Note, Christ made no reply even though he admitted to being the authentic Samaritan who gathers and receives sinners. It was because of sinners that he came to earth and mounted the cross. However, to the one who said: daemonium habes, he replied: Ego daemonium non habeo, sed honorifico Patrem meum et vos inhonorastis me. That is to say, I have the devil as a load on my shoulder because as you know I do not seek my own glory. Est qui quaerat et iudicet. However, to tell you the truth those who observe my word will not experience eternal death, because when they die a natural death it will mean nothing to those who by means of faith and hope will gain a life that is more perfect and noble than this life. The Jews replied: “Now we know that you are possessed by the devil. Abraham is dead and the prophets are dead. Quem te ipum facis? Who do you claim to be? Are you saying that you are better than Abraham and the prophets?” Christ replied: “In spirit Abraham and the prophets desired to see my day, which they did see in spirit and they rejoiced.” The Jews replied: “You are not yet fifty years old, when did you see Abraham?” He replied: “Antequam Abraam fieret, ego sum: before Abraham existed I was with my Father for all eternity.” They then they took up stones to stone him. However, Christ abscondit se et exivit de templo.[25]


5686 Ladies, Christ was hidden, and I am going to tell something that is true. I thought about coming into the pulpit and reciting the Ave Maria.[26] In it says that Christ was covered, hidden and veiled.[27] I think that he did this deliberately in order not to see the abomination and filth of false Christians. Now, when there are fifteen days until the Passion of our Lord, we see no improvement in your ostentation, and pride or in your taverns where all the vice in the city takes place. This is why Christ is hiding. O what will happen during Carnevale![28] Therefore Christ abscondit se et exivit de templo.[29]

Go to Rome to the chancellery and the penitentiary and you will find the Christ abscondit se et exivit de templo.[30] Go to the Courts and palaces and you see that Christ abscondit se et exivit de templo. Go to ten or twelve houses of prostitutes in this city that are so evil that they have robbed and assassinated so many souls and taken God’s grace away and you will find that Christ abscondit se et exevit de et exivit de templo.

Go throughout poor Italy and you will find that thirty or forty years from now many innocent people will have died in war, leaving many poor widows and orphans, many destroyed cities and ruined castles, many souls on the brink of hell who do not even think about Christ and so I see that abscondit se et exivit de templo.

5687 However, you my city of Vinegia, where, not only me, but many preachers have preached in all sincerity not about philosophy and fables as in the past, but about the Word of God and the living and true Christ,[31] your salvation and the correction of sin and you are still the same as you were.

As for myself I wish to tell you once again that motivated with much charity and love I have appealed to you for the salvation of your souls without achieving anything. I maintain with certainty that if I had wasted so many words in Spain or in England, or amongst the Turks or the Jews I would have achieved more than what I have achieved as you can see although I still hope to see good, genuine Christians. I believe for certain that there will be a perfect way of life filled with generosity and sincerity. Yet if you do not want to improve, I can say and promise you this, that on judgement day I will be the one who shouts out against you before Christ. All the souls who will be over to the left will do the same because they did not have the same help to amend that you had.

Therefore I exhort and beg of you from the bottom of my heart in the name of Christ that during these few days[32] you be willing to be prepared to live a strict life and to do penance, out of real love and with the firm purpose of never more offending Christ as far as your strength will permit, if you were to live for a thousand lifetimes, and that you wish to amend your old way of living by undertaking a new way of life. I assure you that if you do not stop wanting to be Nineveh, you will end up being Sodom.[33] Therefore prepare yourselves and try to amend. May God inspire you to do this etc!

  1. 1 Cor 2:14
  2. Rom 7:23
  3. The figure of the “naked Christ” is a basic element in Ochino’s spirituality since it means so much in mystical terminology. (cf. DS XI 584s). In a sermon delivered in Geneva, that was published much later in 1562, Bernardino Ochino wrote: “When Christ on the cross was stripped of human support and prudence, of all wealth, pleasures and worldly dignity, of all the cunning, the threats, the tricks, the crimes and viciousness of the devil, he said: “The prince of this world has come and he found nothing that pertained to him in me. Just as Christ on the cross, being a divine person who had been born was naked and stripped of everything earthly and of what pertained to the devil, so too you need to be the same, totally taken up with and intent on God’s glory.”
  4. Further on Ochino disapproves of these manuals because they make you recall things just like an animal. Regarding this kind of literature cf. R. Rusconi, Manuali milanesi di confessione editi tra il 1474 e il 1523, in AFH 65 (1972) 107-156; id., “Confessio generalis”. Opuscoli per la practica penitenziale nei primi cinquanta anni della introduzione della stampa, in I frati minori, tra ‘400 e ‘500. Atti del XII convegno internazionale (Assisi 18-19-20 ottobre 1984), Assisi 1986, 189-227.
  5. Cf. Lk 19:8
  6. Jm 4:6; 1 Pt 5:5; Prov 3:34.
  7. Cf. Ex 4:6
  8. Cf. Ex 4:3; 7:10-12
  9. Cf. Es 7:20
  10. Constanzia in the text perhaps should be conscienzia.
  11. Opposite things when placed next to one another shine out more clearly.
  12. This is the classical principle of knowledge of God and knowledge of self that is strongly emphasised by spiritual writers. Note here the image of the “mirror” which is also mentioned in the Constitutions 1536, nn. 83; 113; 152.
  13. Note how Ochino frequently interrupted his sermons to take a break.
  14. Phil 3:8
  15. Eccl 1:2
  16. Rom 3:12; Ps 13:3; 54:4 (Vulg)
  17. Is 64:6
  18. 1 Cor 131ff
  19. 1 Jn 1:8
  20. Ps 41: 8 (Vulg)
  21. This is important advice given by spiritual masters, and which is repeated, for example, by Giovanni da Fano in his Arte de la unione (cf. above nn. 3968-3970).
  22. Cf. Ex 13:21-22; 49:38; Num 21:6-9.
  23. Cf Decret. Greg. IX, lib. V tit. 38: De penitent, et remiss, and Omnis utriusque sexus (CIC II, 887)
  24. The Gospel quotes that appear up to the next footnote are taken from Jn 8:46-59.
  25. Here we see Ochino’s style of reading and explaining the Gospel. He takes phrases and events and gives them a concrete application to moral life and life in society highlighting the relevant vices and virtues.
  26. It was a worthy practice of the ancient preachers to recite the Ave Maria before they went into the pulpit or immediately before they started preaching.
  27. This is another important feature of Ochino’s spirituality; He refers to Christ being veiled in terms that are challenging and typical of the Reformation. As far as he is concerned false Christians are those who hide the living, true Christ, he who shines, naked in the glory of the cross. We note the strong expressions he subsequently uses when describing the individual and social, personal and collective vices. He paints a sad picture of Italian society at the time which was a theatre of war and social suffering.
  28. Carnassa =Carnevale
  29. Jn 8: 49 This is a strong Gospel expressionwhen applied to the social vices that are being denounced.
  30. These are very strong words criticising the Roman Curia and its monetary dealings and the accumulation of benefices. They are typical of the complaints against Church administration as made by the Reformers beyond the Alps
  31. This concept is developed in a better way in chapter IX Const. 1536 especially in number 111.
  32. This sermon was delivered on Passion Sunday 1539 on 23rd March, two weeks before the Feast of Easter.
  33. He is referring to two Biblical cities: on Nineveh (Neh 3:1-10) and the other Sodom (and Gomorrah) that remained in sin and was destroyed by fire (cf. Gen 19:1-29).