ROME, 6 APRIL 2004 (ZENIT).
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.
Q: Is it permissible, and/or is there any good reason for a confessor to
ask the identity of a penitent when the confession is anonymous; that is,
it is not "face to face"?
A: Anonymous confession, along with the confessional as we know it today,
is generally attributed to an initiative of St. Charles Borromeo
(1538-1584), the archbishop of Milan, Italy. Previously, the confessor
would sit in a chair and the penitent, who usually was kneeling, was
clearly visible to him.
In order to ensure modesty and discretion, Cardinal Borromeo mandated in
1564 that the confessionals in his diocese be closed on both sides with a
grill between penitent and priest. Pope Paul V's Roman Ritual adopted this
provision, which helped spread its use, although it did not become a
universal practice until the 17th century.
Anonymous confession remains the norm although current dispositions allow
for the penitent who so desires to request face-to-face confession. And
confessionals may be designed to allow for both options.
Although the penitent may request face-to-face confession, the priest is
not obliged to accede to the request and may insist on the use of the
If a penitent desires anonymity, the priest should respect this desire and
in the vast majority of situations he should never have any need or right
to inquire as to the identity of the penitent.
Even if the priest recognizes the penitent it is usually more prudent not
to make personal references unless the penitent makes some form of
self-identification or the circumstances warrant it, such as could be the
case of a regular penitent well known to the priest.
More frequently there may be situations when, in order to determine the
exact nature and gravity of the sin involved, the priest may make a
general inquiry as to the penitent's state in life, for example, if he or
she is married, or a vowed religious, etc.
In some confessionals, where the penitent is almost invisible, it can
happen that a priest may have to ask some detail of age, or even sex, in
order to tailor his counsel to the penitent's specific characteristics.
Some very grave sins, such as abortion, also might incur excommunication
reserved to the bishop or in some special cases, such as the deliberate
profanation of the Eucharist, to the Holy See.
In such cases the confessor may not be able to grant absolution
immediately, or only on condition that the penitent requests the lifting
of the canonical penalty within a month from the competent authority.
As most penitents would be unaware of how to go about this process, the
priest may offer to help by contacting either the bishop or the Holy See
as the case may be. This is always done without revealing any personal
data or identifying circumstances (see Canon 1357).
If the penitent wishes to remain anonymous then he or she may make an
appointment to return to confession to the same priest after a certain
time in order to have the sanction formally lifted. But in some cases it
may be necessary to reveal some personal data so that the priest can
inform the penitent of the arrival of the proper authorization. ZE04040622