When I hear the words “Apostolic Penitentiary,” I don’t usually think about the maternal love of the Church (actually, I had to go to Wikipedia to look up exactly what this tribunal does when I first heard of it). However, when I read the note they released on March 19, the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, about the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I was moved by their expression of God’s closeness, and his motherly love being expressed in this time of trial. While I encourage you to read this brief note in its entirety, I want to share some of the highlights of this document with you.
The note begins, “The gravity of the present circumstances calls for reflection on the urgency and centrality of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, together with some necessary clarifications, both for the lay faithful and for ministers called to celebrate the Sacrament.” Essentially, the Apostolic Penitentiary is publishing this letter in order to restate some of the Church’s less familiar teachings regarding Confession for the benefit of the faithful.
The first and largest part of the note is a clarification of Church teaching on general absolution. This is when a priest grants absolution to a group of people without requiring them to individually confess their sins. The note reminds us that, while “individual confession is the ordinary way of celebrating this sacrament,” general absolution “without prior individual confession” is an option in cases of “grave necessity.” The Catechism defines “grave necessity” as times “when there is imminent danger of death without sufficient time for the priest or priests to hear each penitent’s confession” or when there aren’t enough confessors “to hear individual confessions properly in a reasonable time.” However, once they are able to access individual Confession again, the faithful must seek it out (CCC 1483). The note says further:
“This Apostolic Penitentiary believes that, especially in the places most affected by the pandemic contagion and until the phenomenon recedes, the cases of serious need mentioned in can. 961, § 2 CIC above mentioned, will occur.”
This document is also quick to clarify that the authority to permit general absolution rests with the local bishop. Further, the Apostolic Penitentiary says that bishops may also adapt the normal celebration of private confession in order to make it more accessible. This could include protective screens to prevent the spread of Coronavirus or making this sacrament available outside of enclosed confessionals (here I think of the “drive-thru” confessions I see being offered by some priests now). The note specifically invites bishops to consider establishing groups of volunteer “extraordinary hospital chaplains” in order to “guarantee the necessary spiritual assistance to the sick and dying.” However, the note warns that all of these adaptations must give “absolute attention to the safeguarding of the sacramental seal.”
Next, the tribunal explicitly highlights the teaching that perfect contrition, even without sacramental confession, can obtain forgiveness of mortal sins. The note says:
“Where the individual faithful find themselves in the painful impossibility of receiving sacramental absolution, it should be remembered that perfect contrition, coming from the love of God, beloved above all things, expressed by a sincere request for forgiveness (that which the penitent is at present able to express) and accompanied by votum confessionis, that is, by the firm resolution to have recourse, as soon as possible, to sacramental confession, obtains forgiveness of sins, even mortal ones (cf. CCC, no. 1452).”
Many Catholics now find themselves unable to go to Confession due to quarantine, or the sacrament being unavailable at their parish. But the Church wants to make it clear that nobody who is sorry for their sins, even their mortal sins, should live in fear of not being forgiven or of having a fractured relationship with God simply because they can’t make it to Confession. God’s mercy and forgiveness are not bound by his sacraments.
I thought the most remarkable passage in the document was where it says,
“Never before has the Church experienced thus the power of the communion of saints, raising to her Crucified and Risen Lord her vows and prayers, especially the Sacrifice of Holy Mass, celebrated daily, even without the presence of the people, by priests.”
When a 2000 year old institution says “never before,” we should pay attention. At no other time has the Church experienced the power of the prayers of the faithful around the world and the saints in Heaven as we are experiencing them now. Not at the Battle of Lepanto. Not during the fall of Communism. Not when Napoleon held the pope captive. Never before has the Church so experienced the power of the communion of saints as much as we are now. This is a season of unprecedented grace
The Apostolic Penitentiary then invokes “the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy and Health of the Sick, and of her Spouse Saint Joseph” so that “humanity may be freed from such a scourge” as COVID-19. The final prayer here is particularly beautiful, encouraging us to listen to God where he has promised that he won’t abandon us or ever stop chasing us down:
“May Mary Most Holy and Saint Joseph obtain for us abundant graces of reconciliation and salvation, in attentive listening to the Word of the Lord, which he repeats to humanity today: ‘Be still and know that I am God’ (Ps 46: 10), ‘I am with you always’ (Mt 28 :20).”
Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, parish director of religious education, and co-founder of Where Peter Is. He can be found at his website, Rejoice and be Glad: Catholicism in the Pope Francis Generation.