Presentation to the Press

Author: Archbishop Julián Herranz


Archbishop Julián Herranz, President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, presented the normative clarification of the canons that regulate the practice of the Sacrament of Penance/Reconciliation. He explains that the extraordinary celebration must be truly extraordinary. Some authors have given as examples the two cases of the threatof imminent death, e.g. a plane crash or an army or a good sized regiment going into battle at the last minute, and the missionary situationin which the pastor of widespread mission stations the size of a European country can never hear all the confessions when he comes to a place for Mass.The application of the practice is connected with to the interpretation of the long time in which the faithful would be deprived of the grace of the sacrament and the priest cannot hear confessions in an appropriate time. Here is a translation of the Archbishop's Italian comment on the canons.

"Heart attack"—which today can be effectively prevented—is what doctors call the blocking of an artery that stops the flow of the blood with consequent damage to the part of the body which the blood can no longer oxygenate and vivify. Applying the example to the spiritual order, I would dare to say that there can also be a "spiritual heart attack" in the life of the faithful and in the Mystical Body of Christ: this occurs when the activity of those divine channels of grace, the sacraments "instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1131) is reduced to a minimum.

Good pastors prevent spiritual heart attacks

If this were to happen with the Sacrament of Penance, instituted for the remission of sins and the soul's reconciliation with God and with the Church, divine life would no longer reach us in the usual way and the affected part of the Body of Christ—an individual person or a whole parish or diocesan community—would finish being spiritually weakened by becoming deaf to the ever valid call of the Incarnate Word: "Be converted", "Repent" (Mt 4,15; Mk 1,15). Good pastors, like good doctors, know how to take advantage of timely remedies to heal, and even better, to prevent such an illness. It is in this positive perspective of salvation, of renewed commitment to helping people rediscover the living and active presence of the risen Lord in the sacrament that we must understand the present disciplinary decree.

Protects right of the faithful to receive sacraments and the duty of pastors to observe canons

This legislative document, a Motu Proprio entitled Misericordia Dei concerning the proper celebration of a sacrament, is likewise an act of ecclesiastical governance that is not only prudent and timely, but also in full conformity with the magisterium of John Paul II on the virtue of justice, seen as a primary demand of charity which, at the same time, is inseparable from mercy in the juridical order of the Church. In fact, the canonical norms concern the fulfilment of God's merciful divine plan of salvation, in the light of which two realities prominent in the Motu Proprio reveal their dimension of justice. They are: on the one hand, the fundamental right of the faithful to receive from the sacred pastors the sacraments instituted by Christ (cf. CIC, can. 213), in this case the sacrament of forgiveness and of divine mercy; and on the other, the relative duty ofsacred pastors to lay down the canonical and liturgical norms that guarantee the valid and licit celebration of the sacraments (cf. CIC, can. 841) and have them applied with diligence. In the introduction to the Motu Proprio, the Roman Pontiff therefore declares that he is addressing "my Brother Bishops and, through them all priests, to undertake a vigorous revitalization of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This is a requirement of genuine charity and true pastoral justice, and we should remember that the faithful, when they have the proper interior dispositions, have the right to receive personally the sacramental gift".

Confession is the only ordinary way; priests should be available to hear confessions

On the basis of this principle, the binding norms of this document—awaited by many at the last Assembly of the Synod of Bishops—concern in the first place the sole ordinary means by which the faithful, conscious of grave sin, can receive the divine pardon, that is, individual confession with the absolution by the minister of the sacrament (a bishop or priest), who himself acts in the name and with the authority of God, the Father of Mercy. Therefore all those who have been entrusted with the care of souls (bishops, parish priests, chaplains, etc.) are reminded that they have the obligation—juridical, but also moral—to provide that the individual confessions of the faithful be heard, and to this end days and times should be fixed for their convenience in the respective churches, shrines, etc. All priests withfaculties to administer the Sacrament of Penanceare also invited—even if they are burdened with other commitments—always to be readily available for the administration of this sacrament of forgiveness and joy, which the faithful are invited to "rediscover" and which many perhaps are unconsciously seeking.

Norms on integrity of confession, personal dispositions of penitent

Continuing along those same lines of a disciplinary revitalization of the sacrament, other canonical norms are also reasserted: concerning the integrity of confession, which cannot be reduced to a mere general accusation of sin (n. 3); regarding the personal disposition of penitents (n. 7); concerning the appropriate place for sacramental celebration, generally a church or an oratory (n. 9a); regarding the place of confessionals, which even with the variety of possible forms—must be provided with "a fixed grille", so as to permit the faithful and confessors themselves who may wish to make use of them to do so freely (n. 9b), etc.

Norms for the extraordinary way of administering the sacrament

Secondly, the document concerns the extraordinary way of administering the sacrament, that is, the absolution of a group of penitents without prior individual confession. Two unique cases are mentioned in which this exceptional possibility is foreseen: when "the danger of death is imminent" and when there is a state of "gravenecessity". The latter can be deemed to exist only "when, in the light of the number of penitents a supply of confessors is not readily available to hear the confessions of individuals in an appropriate way within an appropriate time, so that penitents would be deprived of sacramental grace or Holy Communion for a long time through no fault of their own" (CIC, can. 961 § 1,2º). In this regard, detailed explanations are now given to prevent those erroneous or abusive interpretations which, regrettably, seem to be very much present in some places.

Bishops' Conferences have to establish norms for extraordinary form

These normative clarifications refer precisely to the inseparability and significance of the two conditions requested, that is: the impossibility for individuals to have their confession heard "in an appropriate way" and "within an appropriate time", and the fact that penitents might otherwise be forced to remain deprived of sacramental grace "for a long time". Judgement as to whether these conditions exist is not a matter for the confessor but for the respective bishop, in the light of the normative criteria which each Bishops' Conference must establish as soon as possible with a general decree for this purpose, as prescribed by the common law (cf. CIC, can. 455, § 2). All this is to ensure "full harmony among the Bishops' Conferences of the world in a matter so essential for the life of the Church" (n. 6).

Norms for the Eastern Churches on grave necessity

Lastly it is worth noting the legislator's affirmation that what is established in the Motu Proprio "by its nature, is also valid for the venerable Eastern Catholic Churches, in conformity with the respective canons of their own Code". These canons, in fact, contain norms very similar to those of the Latin Code, differing from them slightly on some points, especially with regard to the procedure for establishing criteria concerning "grave necessity" in the case of collective absolution, given that the Latin canonical institution of Bishops' Conferences does not exist in the Eastern Churches (cf. can. 720 § 3 of the Codeof Canons of the Eastern Churches, with reference to cann. 961 § 2 and 455 of the Latin Code).

I would like to conclude by joining the Holy Father in warmly hoping that this Apostolic Letter may contribute to a further revitalization of the Sacrament of Penance, and serve to overcome difficulties in the practice of this sacrament. Indeed, just as the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, has overcome other equally serious cultural and moral crises and has succeeded once again in giving minds the taste for Truth, Goodness and Beauty, so now she is strongly committed to sowing again in human hearts the need to rediscover the sense of sin so as to rediscover the sense of God's mercy.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
8 May 2002, page 4

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