By Christopher Lamb in THE TABLET, 20 March 2020
Pope Francis says confessions can take place without seeing a priest while the Vatican has issued new guidelines on forgiveness of sins during the coronavirus pandemic.
At his early morning Mass, the Pope urged people to “return to the father” and ask forgiveness of their sins even if individual confessions with a priest are impossible.
Across Europe and the United States public liturgies have been suspended, while social distancing makes receiving the sacrament of reconciliation from a priest problematic. The unprecedented circumstances caused by the spread of Covid-19 is forcing the Church to adapt, making use of digital technology to stream services and find new ways to respond to the spiritual needs of believers.
“I know that many of you go to confession before Easter… Many will say to me: ‘But Father…I can’t leave the house and I want to make my peace with the Lord…How can I do that unless I find a priest’?” the Pope said today in his live-streamed Mass in the chapel of his home, the Casa Santa Marta.
“Do what the catechism says. It’s very clear. If you don’t find a priest to go to confession, speak to God. He’s your Father. Tell Him the truth: ‘Lord. I did this and this and this. Pardon me.’ Ask His forgiveness with all your heart with an act of contrition, and promise Him, ‘afterward I will go to confession.’ You will return to God’s grace immediately.”
Hours later, the Vatican issued new guidelines on “general absolution”, offering forgiveness of sins to groups of people without them having to confess individually to a priest. The Apostolic Penitentiary ruled that in places hard hit by the virus a blanket absolution can be offered: for example, a priest or bishop who is unable to enter a hospital. They should, the guidelines added, use an “amplification of the voice, so that the absolution may be heard”.
Church rules allow for general absolution to be offered in times of “grave need” although in the years following the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council the penitential services where general absolution was offered were more widespread. Anecdotal evidence suggested it led to a rise in individual confessions. But during the 1980s and 1990s the Holy See clamped down on the use of general absolution and sought to heavily restrict its use.
Along with the absolution guidelines, the apostolic penitentiary also offered plenary indulgences to those “suffering from the Coronavirus, subject to quarantine by order of the health authority, or in their own homes.” According to Catholic teaching indulgences remove all “punishment” in this life or the next for sins that have been confessed and forgiven.
The conditions for the indulgence for those “with a spirit detached from any sin”, “unite themselves spiritually through the media to the celebration of Holy Mass, to the recitation of the Holy Rosary, to the pious practice of the Way of the Cross or other forms of devotion, or if at least they will recite the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and a pious invocation to the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
But the new ruling waives the normal requirement to also attend Mass in person and make a personal confession in order to receive the indulgence. It simply says that penitents should have “the will” to fulfil these conditions.
In Bergamo in northern Italy, at the epicentre of the coronavirus crisis, many of those who have contracted the hospital are dying alone and without a funeral, and with just a blessing from a priest. Coronavirus has killed 3,405 in Italy, more than any other country and at least 18 of them are reportedly priests who have become exposed to the virus during their ministry.
In a new interview with La Stampa, the Pope likened the coronavirus to the Second World War.
“We have to think that it will be a bit like a post-war period. There will no longer be ‘the other’, but it will be ‘us’. Because we can only get out of this situation together,” he said.
“I don’t want to make a distinction between believers and nonbelievers. We are all human beings and as human beings we are all in the same boat. And no human thing must be alien to a Christian.”
He went on: “I think of the Apostles in the storm when they invoke Jesus: ‘Master, we are drowning’. The prayer makes us understand our vulnerability. It is the scream of the poor, of those who are drowning, who feel threatened, alone. And in a difficult situation, desperate, it is important to know that there is the Lord to hold on to”.
Finally, the Vatican’s liturgy department has also issued guidelines for Holy Week liturgies, which in many cases will take place without people present. The office says that the liturgies can be simplified but not transferred to another date. The chrism Mass, when bishops and priests gather to bless the oils used for the sacraments during the year, can be postponed.
The Tablet has an online list of useful spiritual and other resources during the Covid-19 pandemic.