By Father Edward McNamara, LC
ROME, 19 March 2013 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Our pastor has the children in the parish day school come regularly for the sacrament of reconciliation. Each of the children is required to fill out a page with their name and their sins written in their own hand. While this helps their memory and speeds up the movement of a large number of children, I worry. Some of these pages have been found in the church by others. Parents might find them in their children's book bags. I am concerned about the confidentiality of the sacrament and the good of the penitent. I have expressed this concern, but the situation continues. Do you have any insight or advice for me? — D.N., Euclid, Ohio
A: I would answer that the question should be considered from several points of view.
From the point of view of the penitent, there is nothing inherently wrong about preparing one's confession in written form. Many souls do this so as not to forget at the moment of confession.
If for some good reason one is unable to speak, then it is also possible to write one's sins and hand them to a priest. For example, in his historic "Manual of Moral Theology," Jesuit Father Thomas Slater (1855-1928) stated that:
"[O]ral confession is not absolutely necessary for the validity of the sacrament, for mutes or penitents who know no language known also to the confessor, or those who are dying and unable to speak, may confess by signs. Moreover, for good reason, anyone may write his confession, hand it to the priest to read, and accuse himself in general terms, such as 'I confess all that is written here.'"
This could happen, for example, to a person suffering from some psychological condition which blocks the verbal expression of the sin committed. The only way they can manage a complete confession is through writing.
In all such cases it is incumbent upon the penitent to destroy what he has written, although, strictly speaking, he would not be obliged to do so. The obligation of secrecy falls upon the priest, not the penitent. It is quite conceivable that some souls would wish to keep some record in order to discuss the same matters, on a different level, with a spiritual director.
In the case of young children, however, I believe that they should not be asked, under any circumstances, to write their name on a list of sins. There is absolutely no need to do this and they also have a right to anonymity in the confessional.
I also believe that writing the sins should be a practical suggestion and not an obligation.
If there is any danger of their leaving their lists lying around, then I think that the pastors or catechists could help by providing a closed receptacle where the children could tear up the list and deposit it after confessing. The lists should be destroyed at the earliest opportunity.
In some places penitents have been encouraged to write their sins and, after confession, burn the list in a brazier that is set up for this purpose. While this has some symbolic value, it could easily detract from grasping the meaning of the priest's absolution, which is the sacramental moment when grace is fully restored or increased.
The possibility of such misinterpretations makes me somewhat wary of encouraging such practices.
Indeed, there have even been some cases where priests have given the impression of substituting the destruction of lists of sins for sacramental absolution, thus casting doubt on the validity of the sacrament.