Going to confession
By Fr Joe Babendreier
Last year an elderly gentleman from Argentina was visiting Rome. He was on a pilgrimage with his family. The whole family was Catholic, but the man had not been to confession for many years.
Their visit to St Peter’s Basilica was the highlight of the trip. That’s the church in the Vatican where the Pope says Mass on great feast days like Christmas and Easter. It’s named after the first pope, St Peter, the apostle Jesus called the “Rock” (Mt 16:18)—the Rock on which he wanted to build his Church.
The family was standing together in the middle of the Basilica when they saw a figure dressed in a long, white robe walking through the church, not far from the confessionals. One of the children said, “Look, it’s Pope Francis!” Sure enough, it was the Pope and he was walking in their direction. They were just about to start walking towards him when they saw him stop and turn around. He was headed for one of the confessionals.
At first they thought the Pope was going to sit in the confessional so he could hear confessions for the pilgrims. The Pope does this from time to time, hearing confessions the same way any priest does. But Pope Francis did not place himself in a confessional to hear confessions. Instead, he knelt down in a confessional where there was already a priest hearing confessions. The Pope wanted to go to confession. When he finished, he got up and left.
The grandfather of that family—the elderly gentleman mentioned above—explained later to his family that something strange happened to him at that moment. When he saw the Pope kneeling down to confess his sins, the man heard an interior voice. It was a motion of the Holy Spirit—a voice without the sound of words.
The man heard this voice saying: “And what about you?” The man was so moved by the example of the Pope that he decided to go to confession.
By the way, in case you didn’t know, priests, bishops—and even the Pope—go to confession the same way you do. They kneel in front of a priest, confess their sins, receive absolution and do the penance.
Are there any sins that cannot be forgiven?
“Father, what about those sins that cannot be forgiven? How does that work?” This is one of the most frequent questions I hear from Christians. They have a vague recollection about some verse in the Bible where Jesus mentioned the, “sin against the Holy Spirit”—a sin that, “cannot be forgiven either in this world or the next” (Mt 12:32).
As long as you are sorry for your sins, there is absolutely no sin of any kind that the Church cannot forgive. This is true for sins committed before baptism, which are forgiven when a person is baptised. This is just as true for sins committed after baptism, which are forgiven when a person makes a good confession.
Jesus gave this absolute power over sin first to St Peter first and later to all the Apostles, when he said: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven. Whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19 & Mt 18:18). It has been the constant teaching of the Church, from the beginning, that St Peter and the Apostles passed on this power, through Holy Orders, to their successors, that is, to the Pope and the other bishops. When a bishop ordains a priest, he passes on this power so that priests can also forgive sins.
Let me repeat this fact: as long as you are sorry for your sins, there is absolutely no sin of any kind that the Church cannot forgive. However, notice that you must be sorry. Lack of sorrow—or simply having no desire to seek mercy from God—is the sin against the Holy Spirit. If you are not sorry—for instance, if you are not sorry for getting drunk or stealing money or any other serious offense against God—then none of your sins will be forgiven.
What about Excommunication?
The Church has established that some offenses are so serious that they must be punished with a special penalty called ‘excommunication’. For instance, if a priest violates the seal of confession (if he reveals the sin a person committed after hearing that person confess the sin to him), he is automatically excommunicated and must seek forgiveness for that offense from the Pope.
This is not the place to go into all the details, but we also have to distinguish between different kinds of excommunication. For instance, a man or woman directly involved in an abortion is automatically excommunicated. Because of the decision that Pope Francis announced at the end of the Year of Mercy, all priests now have the power to lift an excommunication for abortion whenever someone comes for confession.
Some excommunications are more complicated. For instance, if you are guilty of an act of desecrating the Sacred Host, the excommunication imposed requires special action. You would still go to confession with a priest in your parish. You would still have the right to remain anonymous. (One of the reasons for using a confessional is so that the penitent can remain anonymous.) But the priest would have to ask you to come back within 30 days. In the meantime, the priest would write to the Pope (normally using mail sent to the Vatican by the Papal Nuncio).
The priest asks what penance you will be required to do in order to be received back into communion with the Church. The priest communicates that penance to you when you return to him in the confessional and remind him that you were the one who needed the special penance from the Pope.
What about Skype?
We do everything by smart phone these days. Why not confession? Some Christians mention a practical reason why a priest should give absolution over the phone. Suppose you’re stuck in a place where you cannot find a priest. As long as a priest can hear your voice and speak to you, what’s the difference between confessing through a phone and confessing through a grill in a confessional?
This question has been around ever since the phone was invented. No pope has ever made an official declaration on the subject. Even so, a tradition has been maintained that a priest should give absolution in the Sacrament of Penance only if the person confessing is physically present, and even then, the preference is to use a confessional. The Code of Canon Law states: “Except for a just reason, confessions are not to be heard elsewhere than in a confessional” (CCL, c.964, n.3).
In 2011, a bishop in the United States issued a public approval for an iPhone app that helps prepare people to do a good confession. It’s called: “Confession: A Roman Catholic App”. It’s mainly an aid to help people make a good examination of conscience before confession and, then, how to make a good confession. Father Federico Lombardi, who at that time was the Vatican spokesperson for Pope Benedict XVI, noted that, while there was nothing wrong with the app, priests are not allowed to give absolution to someone at a distance who is speaking to them (or texting them) over the phone.
Referring to the app, Fr Lombardi said: “It is essential to understand well that the Sacrament of Penance requires personal dialogue between the penitent and the confessor, and the absolution by the confessor. This cannot in any way be substituted by a technology application. One cannot talk in any way about a ‘confession via iPhone.’”
If you are ever in a situation where you want to go to confession but do not have access to a priest, follow the tradition of the Church and try to make an act of perfect contrition. You tell Jesus you are sorry for your sins while promising him that you will go to confession as soon as possible.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “Among the penitent’s acts, contrition occupies first place. Contrition is sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again. When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is called ‘perfect’ (contrition of charity). Such contrition remits venial sins. It also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible.” (CCC, n.1451-1452)
Fr Joe is a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei. He is currently a director of the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross.