Hearing Confessions During Mass

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Hearing Confessions During Mass


Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: What is the general opinion on listening to confessions during Mass? — M.G., Malmoe, Sweden

A: This is a point which often stirs heated debate among priests. Some condemn the practice because it easily distracts the faithful from the Mass itself. Others ardently defend it as an excellent opportunity to offer the sacrament when the faithful are present in significant numbers and likely to be moved to confess by the mere fact of availability.

Cultural factors also come into play. Priests and faithful hailing from an Irish, Anglo-Saxon and North European heritage are, by and large, accustomed to a separation of the two sacraments. The priests are generally reluctant to make confession available during Mass.

The practice is more common, although not universal, in Italian, Latino and Polish communities, and many faithful go to confession during Mass even though it is also offered at other times.

From the normative point of view it is certainly not forbidden. In 2001 the Holy See gave an official answer to this question in a letter published in the June-July edition of Notitiae, the official organ of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.

In its response the congregation affirmed the preference for celebrating reconciliation outside of Mass. But in virtue of the canonical norm that "Reconciliatio penitentium omni tempore ac die celebrari potest" (Reconciliation may be carried out at any time and day, "Ordo Paenitentiæ," 13), it specifically allows the hearing of confessions during Mass. It even recommends that, during large concelebrations attended by numerous faithful, some priests refrain from concelebrating so as to be available for confession.

In the light of this reply we could say that it is clearly preferable that confession and Mass be held at different times so that the faithful can live the Eucharistic celebration to the fullest. This implies that reconciliation be scheduled at times when the faithful are able to go.

Confession during Mass should respond to concrete pastoral needs such as when the habitual number of penitents exceeds the regularly scheduled confession times; when a priest has to attend more than one parish; and other situations that would make it pastorally advisable.

For the sake of clarity by confession during Mass, I mean that one or more priests are hearing confessions while another celebrates Mass.

This might seem obvious, but I have personally found situations where priests heard confessions at the celebrant's chair during the readings. While such a practice might appear to be pastoral zeal, I believe it is misplaced.

The celebrant should never act as if he were extraneous to the liturgical assembly. He leads the faithful in prayer not only in virtue of his ordination but also through his example, in this case listening attentively to God's word which is also directed toward him.

It is hard to expect the people to pay attention to the readings if the priest does not do so himself.

Likewise, it should be remembered that reconciliation and Mass may never be combined to form a single rite.

* * *

Follow-up: Hearing Confessions During Mass [17 June 2008]

During our comments on hearing confession during Mass (see June 3), I mentioned that this practice is common in some “Latino” communities. A reader took umbrage at this statement and wrote: “It is about the use of the word 'Latino.' Perhaps, [a] less insulting would be the word 'Hispanic.' After all, the Romans (of the Roman Empire, who spoke Latin) never set foot on America.”

It never crossed my mind that this word could be insulting to anyone, but then words can be tyrants or servants, depending on social contexts.

I admit that I chose the word as being the most apt for the context. I sought an expression that covered Spain, Portugal, Mexico, all Spanish-speaking Central and South American countries, and Portuguese-speaking Brazil.

The word "Latin America" leaves out the European motherlands, and "South America" omits Mexico and Central America. "Hispanic" was unusable because it ignored millions of Portuguese speakers. I thought about using "Iberian culture," but this expression, while historically and culturally correct, is used almost exclusively in Spain.

Therefore I opted for "Latino." I have friends from almost every one of the countries referred to, and they readily refer to themselves as Latin Americans without the slightest hint of its being a derogatory expression. Likewise the Holy See has a special office for coordinating with the bishops of this region called the Commission for Latin America.

A Spaniard or Portuguese would not spontaneously refer to himself as “Latino,” but he would accept that the term could be used to describe the common cultural and religious milieu shared with former colonies.

Another question from a Maltese priest referred to the place for hearing confession during Mass: “In a parish church, in the body of the church but somewhat hidden, a confessional has just been placed. Is it according to or against the spirit of the liturgy that during the Mass confession be celebrated in the church, even if the confessional is not seen by the faithful in the church? If the practice of hearing confessions in the body of the church during Mass is not according to some instruction or other, would it be acceptable if the confessional is, say, in the sacristy or in a room where confessions are also heard?”

I would suggest that if, as explained in the previous column, there is a true need for hearing confessions during Mass, then it is best done in a confessional within the body of the church so that those awaiting the sacrament can participate in as much of the Mass as possible. The sacristy is possible if those in line are waiting inside the church.

The confessional should be sufficiently soundproofed so that both priest and penitent can hear one another.

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