By Catherine Pepinster
It is one of the most-well known Catholic practices – beloved of film-makers and novelists – but now Pope Francis has said that confession is not necessary during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The sacrament of confession is one of the ways in which Roman Catholicism sharply divides from Protestant churches, in that it requires a priest to act as an intermediary between God and a person, hearing a penitent confess their sins and then receive forgiveness and absolution from the priest.
But on 20 March during his mass live streamed from the Vatican, Pope Francis explained that the faithful can confess their sins directly to God, ask for them to be pardoned and experience God’s loving forgiveness.
During his homily, or sermon during mass, the Pope said: “Return to your father who is waiting for you. The God of tenderness will heal us; he will heal us of the many, many wounds of life and the many ugly things we have done. Each of us has our own!”
The homily reflected the emphasis that Pope Francis has put on forgiveness and mercy during his seven-year pontificate. God welcomed every repentant sinner with open arms, he said. “It’s like going home.”
But the decision by Pope Francis to speak about confession and suggest that people could instead pray directly to God about their sins is also influenced by the highly unusual situation people find themselves in.
Many Catholics think of going to confession during Lent because it is a traditional time of repentance. There is also a tradition that people make their Easter duty during Eastertide – going to confession and to holy communion. But these practices are put into jeopardy this year by the coronavirus pandemic and the demands of governments, accepted by the Vatican, that people stay away from churches and engage with others.
Lent is a special time “to let God wash us, purify us, to let God embrace us”, the Pope said, and the best place for that is the confessional.
“But many people today would tell me, ‘Father, where can I find a priest, a confessor, because I can’t leave the house? And I want to make peace with the Lord, I want him to embrace me, I want the Father’s embrace’.”
And he advised Catholics that the Church teaches through the catechism that you can make your own direct confession to God if you find yourselves in a situation where you cannot go to confession. Instead, said Pope Francis: “As the catechism teaches, you can draw near to God’s forgiveness without having a priest at hand. Think about it. This is the moment.”
According to Christopher Lamb, author of The Outsider, an analysis of Pope Francis’s papacy, which is due to be published on 28 March, the Pope is also very aware that many Catholics see a last confession as a crucial preparation for death.
“Having a priest there at your deathbed is so important for Catholics and particularly those in Italy. Being redeemed and absolved in this way before you die matters to people,” Lamb said. “So Pope Francis is reassuring them and letting them know what they can do instead when a priest is not available.
In previous crises, such as wartime, Catholics have been permitted to make their confession by phone to a priest but Pope Francis has not recommended it during the pandemic.
“He wants people to take more responsibility and repent from the heart,” said Lamb. “In a way he is using this crisis to get people to be more mature. The situation is forcing them to think harder about their faith.”
The Pope may well have also been concerned about the risks priests are facing in administering to people. By Monday night, the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera was reporting that 60 priests have died of Covid-19, mostly in northern Italy where the pandemic is at its worst.
While Pope Francis has encouraged Catholics to make their own personal confession instead of seeing a priest, plenty have been doing that for years. The once-weekly or monthly spiritual discipline has been ignored by many Catholics for years, especially those living in the West.
According to John Cornwell, author of The Dark Box, a history of confession, its distinct unpopularity is due to Catholics being first initiated as penitents when children.
“It really went down the tubes because it was so infantilised”, he said, reflecting on the lists of trivial misdemeanours that children felt obliged to list to priests.
Its usual pattern – shaped by childhood – is that a penitent lists his or her sins in a few minutes and the priest listens, maybe asks a few questions, then imposes a penance, usually an Our Father or saying a few Hail Marys, and after an act of contrition is said, offers the penitent absolution. But Cornwell insists it is a worthwhile practice for adults to help them develop a stronger relationship with God when there is more of a dialogue between the person confessing and the confessor.
“In fact it is a beautiful sacrament if you have sinned grievously and you turn to God you find forgiveness,” he said. “For adults it can be a wonderful means of spiritual direction.”
The Vatican is also considering the use of general absolution during the Covid-19 crisis. On 20 March it published a text from the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Roman Curia office that dates back to the 12th century which deals with matters of the “internal forum” – how individuals come to personal moral decision-making.
The note advised that in the time of Covid-19 the sacrament can be administered in the normal way where possible through the individual confession, but it recognises the possibility of the administration of “general absolution” to members of the faithful together without “individual confession” in times of “imminent danger of death”, as explained in the code of Canon Law 961.
It recalls that the decision regarding the presence of this danger lies with the local bishop. This may mean that some bishops might stand at the entrance of a hospital giving general absolution.
(photo Emilio Labrador)