Pope John Paul II Publishes New Apostolic Letter
on the Sacrament of Penance
On the Second Sunday of Easter, April 7, 2002, Pope John Paul II published a new Apostolic Letter motu proprio on the Sacrament of Penance under the title Misericordia Dei. The stated purpose of the letter is to "recall some of the canonical laws in force regarding the celebration of this Sacrament and clarify certain aspects of them," in the light of the fact that "in some places there has been a tendency to abandon individual confession and wrongly to resort to general or communal absolution." This includes "an arbitrary extension of the conditions required for grave necessity."
Ordinaries are directed to teach the Church in their care that, because "individual and integral confession and absolution are the sole ordinary means" for the forgiveness of grave sin, only physical or moral impossibility excuses from such confession.
Priests are urged to celebrate the Sacrament of Penance whenever reasonably asked and at days and times set down for the convenience of the faithful, especially before Masses, and even during Mass. (This stipulation appears to abrogate no. 13 of the Rite of Penance, which states, in part: "They should be encouraged to approach the Sacrament of Penance at times when Mass is not being celebrated and preferably at the scheduled hours."). Any practice which restricts confession to a generic accusation of sin or of only one or two sins judged to be more important is to be reproved.
The use of General absolution is clearly defined as appropriate only when "the danger of death is imminent and there is not time for individual confession or in cases of grave necessity. Grave necessity exists only when (1) there is a lack of confessors to hear confessions in an appropriate way and time and (2) penitents would be deprived of sacramental grace or Holy Communion for a long time (never to be interpreted as a period of less than a month)."
As an example of when General Absolution would be appropriate the Holy Father cites "mission territories or in isolated communities of the faithful, where the priest can visit only once or very few times a year, or when war or weather conditions or similar factors permit."
General Absolution cannot be justified, however, simply because of the lack of a sufficient number of confessors at a great feast or pilgrimage, the desire to include a longer pastoral dialogue with the penitent, or due to the penitents' preference for general absolution.
Judgement as to whether there exist the conditions required by Can. 961 §§1, 2 is not a matter for the confessor but for the diocesan Bishop who can determine cases of such necessity in the light of criteria agreed upon with other members of the Episcopal Conference. Indeed, the Holy Father directs that it would be appropriate for individual Bishops to inform the Episcopal Conference whether or not they are using General Absolution in their dioceses.
The full text of the Apostolic Letter may be found at /pope/motuproprio.htm and is reprinted here for the benefit of our readers.
ON CERTAIN ASPECTS
OF THE CELEBRATION OF THE SACRAMENT OF PENANCE
By the mercy of God, the Father who reconciles us to himself, the Word took flesh in the spotless womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary to save "his people from their sins" (Mt 1:21) and to open for them "the way of eternal salvation".(1) By identifying Jesus as "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (Jn 1:29), Saint John the Baptist confirms this mission. In all his deeds and preaching, the Precursor issues a fervent and energetic summons to repentance and conversion, the sign of which is the baptism administered in the waters of the Jordan. Jesus himself underwent this penitential rite (cf. Mt 3:13-17), not because he had sinned, but because "he allows himself to be numbered among sinners; he is already the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world' (Jn 1:29); already he is anticipating the baptism' of his bloody death" Salvation is therefore and above all redemption from sin, which hinders friendship with God, a liberation from the state of slavery in which man finds himself ever since he succumbed to the temptation of the Evil One and lost the freedom of the children of God (cf. Rom 8:21).
Christ entrusts to the Apostles the mission of proclaiming the Kingdom of God and preaching the Gospel of conversion (cf. Mk 16:15; Mt 28:18-20). On the evening of the day of his Resurrection, as the apostolic mission is about to begin, Jesus grants the Apostles, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the authority to reconcile repentant sinners with God and the Church: "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (Jn 20:22-23).(3)
Down through history in the constant practice of the Church, the "ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor 5:18), conferred through the Sacraments of Baptism and Penance, has always been seen as an essential and highly esteemed pastoral duty of the priestly ministry, performed in obedience to the command of Jesus. Through the centuries, the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance has developed in different forms, but it has always kept the same basic structure: it necessarily entails not only the action of the minister only a Bishop or priest, who judges and absolves, tends and heals in the name of Christ but also the actions of the penitent: contrition, confession and satisfaction.
I wrote in my Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte: "I am asking for renewed pastoral courage in ensuring that the day-to-day teaching of Christian communities persuasively and effectively presents the practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. As you will recall, in 1984 I dealt with this subject in the Post-Synodal Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, which synthesized the results of a General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops devoted to this question. My invitation then was to make every effort to face the crisis of "the sense of sin" apparent in today's culture. But I was even more insistent in calling for a rediscovery of Christ as mysterium pietatis, the one in whom God shows us his compassionate heart and reconciles us fully with himself. It is this face of Christ that must be rediscovered through the Sacrament of Penance, which for the faithful is the ordinary way of obtaining forgiveness and the remission of serious sins committed after Baptism'. When the Synod addressed the problem, the crisis of the Sacrament was there for all to see, especially in some parts of the world. The causes of the crisis have not disappeared in the brief span of time since then. But the Jubilee Year, which has been particularly marked by a return to the Sacrament of Penance, has given us an encouraging message, which should not be ignored: if many people, and among them also many young people, have benefitted from approaching this Sacrament, it is probably necessary that Pastors should arm themselves with more confidence, creativity and perseverance in presenting it and leading people to appreciate it".(4)
With these words, I intended, as I do now, to encourage my Brother Bishops and earnestly appeal to them and, through them, to all priests to undertake a vigorous revitalization of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This is a requirement of genuine charity and true pastoral justice,(5) and we should remember that the faithful, when they have the proper interior dispositions, have the right to receive personally the sacramental gift.
In order that the minister of the Sacrament may know the dispositions of penitents with a view to granting or withholding absolution and imposing a suitable penance, it is necessary that the faithful, as well as being aware of the sins they have committed, of being sorry for them and resolved not to fall into them again,(6) should also confess their sins. In this sense, the Council of Trent declared that it is necessary "by divine decree to confess each and every mortal sin".(7) The Church has always seen an essential link between the judgement entrusted to the priest in the Sacrament and the need for penitents to name their own sins,(8) except where this is not possible. Since, therefore, the integral confession of serious sins is by divine decree a constitutive part of the Sacrament, it is in no way subject to the discretion of pastors (dispensation, interpretation, local customs, etc.). In the relevant disciplinary norms, the competent ecclesiastical authority merely indicates the criteria for distinguishing a real impossibility of confessing one's sins from other situations in which the impossibility is only apparent or can be surmounted.
In the present circumstances of the care of souls and responding to the concerned requests of many Brothers in the Episcopate, I consider it useful to recall some of the canonical laws in force regarding the celebration of this Sacrament and clarify certain aspects of them in a spirit of communion with the responsibility proper to the entire Episcopate(9) with a view to a better administration of the Sacrament. It is a question of ensuring an ever more faithful, and thus more fruitful, celebration of the gift entrusted to the Church by the Lord Jesus after his Resurrection (cf. Jn 20:19-23). This seems especially necessary, given that in some places there has been a tendency to abandon individual confession and wrongly to resort to "general" or "communal" absolution. In this case general absolution is no longer seen as an extraordinary means to be used in wholly exceptional situations. On the basis of an arbitrary extension of the conditions required for grave necessity,(10) in practice there is a lessening of fidelity to the divine configuration of the Sacrament, and specifically regarding the need for individual confession, with consequent serious harm to the spiritual life of the faithful and to the holiness of the Church.
1. Ordinaries are to remind all the ministers of the Sacrament of Penance that the universal law of the Church, applying Catholic doctrine in this area, has established that:
a) "Individual and integral confession and absolution are the sole ordinary means by which the faithful, conscious of grave sin, are reconciled with God and the Church; only physical or moral impossibility excuses from such confession, in which case reconciliation can be obtained in other ways".(12)b) Therefore, "all those of whom it is required by virtue of their ministry in the care of souls are obliged to ensure that the confessions of the faithful entrusted to them are heard when they reasonably ask, and that they are given the opportunity to approach individual confession, on days and at times set down for their convenience".(13)
Moreover, all priests with faculties to administer the Sacrament of Penance are always to show themselves wholeheartedly disposed to administer it whenever the faithful make a reasonable request.(14) An unwillingness to welcome the wounded sheep, and even to go out to them in order to bring them back into the fold, would be a sad sign of a lack of pastoral sensibility in those who, by priestly Ordination, must reflect the image of the Good Shepherd.
2. Local Ordinaries, and parish priests and rectors of churches and shrines, should periodically verify that the greatest possible provision is in fact being made for the faithful to confess their sins. It is particularly recommended that in places of worship confessors be visibly present at the advertized times, that these times be adapted to the real circumstances of penitents, and that confessions be especially available before Masses, and even during Mass if there are other priests available, in order to meet the needs of the faithful.(15)
3. Since "the faithful are obliged to confess, according to kind and number, all grave sins committed after Baptism of which they are conscious after careful examination and which have not yet been directly remitted by the Church's power of the keys, nor acknowledged in individual confession",(16) any practice which restricts confession to a generic accusation of sin or of only one or two sins judged to be more important is to be reproved. Indeed, in view of the fact that all the faithful are called to holiness, it is recommended that they confess venial sins also.(17)
4. In the light of and within the framework of the above norms, the absolution of a number of penitents at once without previous confession, as envisaged by Can. 961 of the Code of Canon Law, is to be correctly understood and administered. Such absolution is in fact "exceptional in character"(18) and "cannot be imparted in a general manner unless:
1. the danger of death is imminent and there is not time for the priest or priests to hear the confessions of the individual penitents;
2. a grave necessity exists, that is, when in 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 the penitents would be deprived of sacramental grace or Holy Communion for a long time through no fault of their own; it is not considered sufficient necessity if confessors cannot be readily available only because of the great number of penitents, as can occur on the occasion of some great feast or pilgrimage".(19)
With reference to the case of grave necessity, the following clarification is made:
a) It refers to situations which are objectively exceptional, such as can occur in mission territories or in isolated communities of the faithful, where the priest can visit only once or very few times a year, or when war or weather conditions or similar factors permit.
b) The two conditions set down in the Canon to determine grave necessity are inseparable. Therefore, it is never just a question of whether individuals can have their confession heard "in an appropriate way" and "within an appropriate time" because of the shortage of priests; this must be combined with the fact that penitents would otherwise be forced to remain deprived of sacramental grace "for a long time", through no fault of their own. Therefore, account must be taken of the overall circumstances of the penitents and of the Diocese, in what refers to its pastoral organization and the possibility of the faithful having access to the Sacrament of Penance.
c) The first condition, the impossibility of hearing confessions "in an appropriate way" "within an appropriate time", refers only to the time reasonably required for the elements of a valid and worthy celebration of the Sacrament. It is not a question here of a more extended pastoral conversation, which can be left to more favorable circumstances. The reasonable and appropriate time within which confessions can be heard will depend upon the real possibilities of the confessor or confessors, and of the penitents themselves.
d) The second condition calls for a prudential judgement in order to assess how long penitents can be deprived of sacramental grace for there to be a true impossibility as described in Can. 960, presuming that there is no imminent danger of death. Such a judgement is not prudential if it distorts the sense of physical or moral impossibility, as would be the case, for example, if it was thought that a period of less than a month means remaining "for a long time" in such a state of privation.
e) It is not acceptable to contrive or to allow the contrivance of situations of apparent grave necessity, resulting from not administering the Sacrament in the ordinary way through a failure to implement the above mentioned norms,(20) and still less because of penitents' preference for general absolution, as if this were a normal option equivalent to the two ordinary forms set out in the Ritual.
f) The large number of penitents gathered on the occasion of a great feast or pilgrimage, or for reasons of tourism or because of today's increased mobility of people, does not in itself constitute sufficient necessity.
5. Judgement as to whether there exist the conditions required by Can. 961 §§1, 2 is not a matter for the confessor but for "the diocesan Bishop who can determine cases of such necessity in the light of criteria agreed upon with other members of the Episcopal Conference".(21) These pastoral criteria must embody the pursuit of total fidelity, in the circumstances of their respective territories, to the fundamental criteria found in the universal discipline of the Church, which are themselves based upon the requirements deriving from the Sacrament of Penance itself as a divine institution.
6. Given the fundamental importance of full harmony among the Bishops' Conferences of the world in a matter so essential to the life of the Church, the various Conferences, observing Can. 455 §§ 2 of the Code of Canon Law, shall send as soon as possible to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments the text of the norms which they intend to issue or update in the light of this Motu Proprio on the application of Can. 961. This will help to foster an ever greater communion among the Bishops of the Church as they encourage the faithful everywhere to draw abundantly from the foun tains of divine mercy which flow unceasingly in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
In this perspective of communion it will also be appropriate for Diocesan Bishops to inform their respective Bishops' Conferences whether or not cases of grave necessity have occurred in their jurisdictions. It will then be the task of each Conference to inform the above-mentioned Congregation about the real situation in their regions and about any changes subsequently taking place.
7. As regards the personal disposition of penitents, it should be reiterated that:
a) "For the faithful to avail themselves validly of sacramental absolution given to many at one time, it is required that they not only be suitably disposed but also at the same time intend to confess individually the serious sins which at present cannot be so confessed".(22)
b) As far as possible, including cases of imminent danger of death, there should be a preliminary exhortation to the faithful "that each person take care to make an act of contrition".(23)
c) It is clear that penitents living in a habitual state of serious sin and who do not intend to change their situation cannot validly receive absolution.
8. The obligation "to confess serious sins at least once a year"(24) remains, and therefore "a person who has had serious sins remitted by general absolution is to approach individual confession as soon as there is an opportunity to do so before receiving another general absolution, unless a just cause intervenes".(25)
9. Concerning the place and confessional for the celebration of the Sacrament, it should be remembered that:
a) "the proper place to hear sacramental confessions is a church or an oratory",(26) though it remains clear that pastoral reasons can justify celebrating the Sacrament in other places.(27)
b) confessionals are regulated by the norms issued by the respective Episcopal Conferences, who shall ensure that confessionals are located "in an open area" and have "a fixed grille", so as to permit the faithful and confessors themselves who may wish to make use of them to do so freely.(28)
I decree that everything I have set down in this Apostolic Letter issued Motu Proprio shall have full and lasting force and be observed from this day forth, notwithstanding any provisions to the contrary. All that I have decreed in this Letter is, by its nature, valid for the venerable Oriental Catholic Churches in conformity with the respective Canons of their own Code.
Given in Rome, at Saint Peter's, on 7 April, the Second Sunday of Easter, the Feast of Divine Mercy, in the year of our Lord 2002, the twenty-fourth of my Pontificate.
JOHN PAUL II
- Roman Missal,Advent Preface I.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church,536.
- Cf. Ecumenical Council of Trent, Session XIV, De Sacramento Paenitentiae, Can. 3: DS 1703.
- No. 37: AAS 93 (2001) 292.
- Cf. Code of Canon Law, Cans. 213 and 843 §§ 1.
- Cf. Ecumenical Council of Trent, Session XIV, Doctrina de Sacramento Paenitentiae, Chap. 4: DS 1676.
- Ibid., Can. 7: DS 1707.
- Ibid., Chap. 5: DS 1679; Ecumenical Council of Florence, Decree for the Armenians (22 November 1439): DS 1323.
- Cf. Can. 392; Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, Nos. 23, 27; Decree on the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops Christus Dominus, No. 16.
- Cf. Can. 961, §§ 1, 2.
- Cf. Nos. 980-987; 1114-1134; 1420-1498.
- Can. 960.
- Can. 986, §§ 1.
- Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests Presbyterorum Ordinis, 13; Ordo Paenitentiae, editio typica, 1974, Praenotanda, No. 10, b.
- Cf. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Responsa ad dubia proposita: Notitiae, 37 (2001) 259-260
- Can. 988, §§ 1.
- Cf. Can. 988, §§ 2: John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (2 December 1984), 32: AAS 77 (1985) 267; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1458.
- John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (2 December 1984), 32: AAS 77 (1985) 267.
- Can. 961, §§ 1.
- Cf. above Nos. 1 and 2.
- Can. 961, §§ 2.
- Can. 962, §§ 1.
- Can. 962, §§ 2.
- Can. 989.
- Can. 963.
- Can 964, §§ 1.
- Cf. Can. 964 §§ 3.
- Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, Responsa ad propositum dubium: de loco excipiendi sacramentales confessiones (7 July 1998): AAS 90 (1998) 711.
Vox Clara: New CDWDS Committee on Translation
Vox Clara, a newly formed Committee of senior Bishops from throughout the English-speaking world, met from April 21-24, 2002 at the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
The Committee was formed in order to advise the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments on matters pertaining to English-language translations of liturgical texts and to strengthen effective cooperation with the Conferences of Bishops. According to a statement released by the Congregation, the membership was chosen "so as to reflect both the breadth and the diversity of the cultures in which the English language is spoken." Four USCCB Bishops serve on the Committee: Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb, Chairman of the USCCB Committee on the Liturgy, Cardinal Francis George, OMI, Chairman-elect of the USCCB Committee on the Liturgy and USCCB representative to the ICEL Episcopal Board, Archbishop Alfred Hughes, alternate USCCB representative to the ICEL Episcopal Board, and Archbishop Justin Rigali, member of the USCCB Committee on the Liturgy and the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
In addition, the Committee is composed of: Archbishop George Pell, (Archdiocese of Sydney, Australia), Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, (Archdiocese of Westminster, England), Archbishop Peter Kwasi Sarpong, (Archdiocese of Kumasi, Ghana), Archbishop Kelvin Felix (Archdiocese of Castries, Saint Lucia), Archbishop Oswald Gracis, (Diocese of Agra, India), Bishop Colin Campbell (Diocese of Antigonish, Canada), Bishop Rolando J. Tria Tirona, OCD (Malolos, Philippines), and Bishop Philip Boyce, OCD (Diocese of Raphoe, Ireland).
The officers of the Committee consist of Archbishop Pell (Chairman), Archbishop Lipscomb (First Vice-Chairman), Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor (Secretary), Archbishop Rigali (Treasurer), and Archbishop Gracis (Second Vice-Chairman). In the course of its meetings, the Vox Clara Committee affirmed unanimously its conviction of "the absolute need for translations of the Roman editiones typicae which are precise, theologically faithful and effectively proclaimable." It acknowledged the important contribution of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), which has worked on many of the English-language liturgical translations approved by the Conferences of Bishops and then presented for the recognitio of the Holy See in recent years. ICEL now faces a major challenge to renew its Statutes and structures in the light of the Instruction Liturgiam authenticam, to send "an unmistakable signal that the goal of achieving good liturgical translations is in sight". The Committee noted that such a renewal would help to ensure the active participation of the Bishops and their Conferences in the work of liturgical translation, according to no. 36 of the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.
Brief presentations were given on a number of particular topics, and around these, intensive discussions took place. In keeping with its Mandate received from the Congregation, the Committee has begun to review English-language translations of selected elements of the Ordo Missae, and also to prepare a draft ratio translationis (cf. Liturgiam authenticam, no. 9). The Vox Clara Committee will again meet in November, 2002, at which time the results of this initial work will be considered.
On the first day of their meeting, the Committee members and advisors received a personally signed Message from the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, which is reproduced here for the information of our readers:
|To my Venerable Brother, Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estιvez, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments:|
In the peace of Christ, our eternal High Priest (cf. Heb 5:10), I greet you and the members and advisors of the Vox Clara Committee which has been established to assist and advise the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in fulfilling its responsibilities with regard to the English translations of liturgical texts. Representing the different continents as it does, the committee reflects the international character of the English language. This makes available to the Holy See the great wealth of pastoral experience drawn from different cultures.
In my Apostolic Letter Vicesimus Quintus Annus, marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium, I spoke of the pastoral promotion of the Liturgy and the need for a "permanent commitment to draw ever more abundantly from the riches of the Liturgy that vital force which spreads from Christ to the members of his body, which is the Church" (no. 10). Undoubtedly, the use of the vernacular has been an important means of enabling the faithful to participate more deeply in the encounter with God in Christ.
Since the lex orandi conforms to the lex credendi, fidelity to the rites and texts of the Liturgy is of paramount importance for the Church and the Christian life. In that light, I wish to offer every encouragement to the Vox Clara Committee in its task of assisting the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in ensuring that the texts of the Roman Rite are accurately translated in accordance with the norms of the Instruction Liturgiam Authenticam.
In a special way, I wish to commend to the Pastors of the Church the important task of making available to the faithful, as quickly as possible, the vernacular translations of the editio tertia of the Missale Romanum, the publication of which I authorized on 10 April 2000. I am pleased to learn that the members of the Vox Clara Committee have generously pledged to assist the Holy See in expediting the revision and recognitio of these translations by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
Invoking the light of the Holy Spirit upon the Committee and the Congregation, and entrusting your work to the loving care of Mary, Mother of the Church, I gladly impart my Apostolic Blessing as a pledge of peace in the Risen Saviour.
From the Vatican, 20 April 2002
In the April issue of the BCL Newsletter, two errors should be noted. On page 62, the fifth bullet under "2. Additions" should read: Mass sets for the Vigil of the Ascension of the Lord..." Also, all references to NCCB should be changed to USCCB