Many dioceses are “suspending” the sacrament of confession. As the permission of the bishop is required for the validity of absolution, it is necessary to clarify that even when “suspended” confessions remain valid.
Yet priests are still in need of pastoral guidance. And the guidance that the sacrament is to be entirely suspended creates some confusion for them and the faithful.
It is an issue of some urgency, as many priests report that — where confessions are available — there is an uptick in penitents, including those who have not confessed for many years. That is to be expected in spiritually intense times; the same happened after 9/11 and the death of St. John Paul II, the 15th anniversary of which was yesterday, April 2.
Several clarifications are in order to avoid confusion.
While some dioceses are permitting confessions to be heard if social distancing and privacy are ensured — both parties outdoors, through a window, “drive-through” — others are opting to cancel confessions altogether.
For example, in Los Angeles “priests may offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation only in danger of death or extremely extraordinary situations. … There are no confessions by telephone, electronic means, or by ‘driveup.’”
In Baltimore, “the archbishop has instructed priests not to offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation in parishes and to only perform the sacraments in cases where the individual is in danger of dying.”
There are many similar directives elsewhere.
Clarity in Communications
The clarity around confessions has not matched the clarity about the Holy Mass. When bishops suspended the public participation at Mass, it was made universally clear that the worship and prayer of the Church would continue. Mass would still be said privately. As more Masses were live-streamed, guidelines further clarified that technicians, readers, servers and musicians could be present. Such Masses were thus public Masses, albeit with very small congregations.
Similarly, the sacrament of confession continues, though in reduced and altered circumstances. Like private Masses, it is to be assumed that priests who live or work with other priests are still going to confession; surely the bishop has not stopped seeing his own confessor, if safely available.
Thus the sacrament of mercy continues. It should be noted that Pope Francis, despite the pandemic lockdown in Italy, asked that his initiative “24 Hours for the Lord” — a Lenten period of adoration and confession, somehow continue, if only in a symbolic way.
Independent of Pope Francis, the highest law of the Church recognizes that confessions are never suspended. Upon the death or abdication of a pope, all heads of Vatican departments lose their positions. The sole exception is the Apostolic Penitentiary — the Church’s supervisor of confessions, as it were. He alone continues in office to ensure that the mercy of the confessional is not impeded.
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