When Pope Francis ushered in the Year of Mercy last November, he emphasized both in his daily homilies and weekly audiences the importance and gift of the sacrament of penance.
Msgr. Ronny Jenkins, the former general secretary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the annual Priests’ Convocation of the Archdiocese of New Orleans Sept. 20 that the pope, whose own vocation to the priesthood was sparked by a life-changing experience in the confessional, continues to hammer home the point that in confession, God’s mercy is boundless.
A ‘magisterial’ tweet
“In confession, we encounter the merciful embrace of the Father,” Pope Francis tweeted on Aug. 12. “His love always forgives.”
“Ten million people have seen that tweet and thought about it,” Msgr. Jenkins told the 200 priests gathered for the conference. “If that sentence had been included in an encyclical, how many people would have seen it? So even though tweets are not yet magisterial, they still are quite effective.”
Msgr. Jenkins, a professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America, said despite the pope’s emphasis on the sacrament, recent studies of Catholic religious practice indicate “a crisis in confession.”
In 2008, the most recent year for which statistics are available, even though 67 percent of Catholics believe “forgiveness or absolution of confessed sins is necessary to make a confession with contrition and an internal attitude of sorrow and repentance,” 75 percent of Catholics report they never participate in the sacrament or they do it less than once a year.
Church law states that Catholics must go to confession at least once a year.
“If this is the Year of Mercy, when confession is so critical, why are we seeing these numbers?” Msgr. Jenkins asked. “The sacrament is indispensable, yet there is a crisis.”
Be prepared as a confessor
One “essential” solution, Msgr. Jenkins said, is for priest confessors to take to heart the advice of St. John Paul II to improve and update their ministerial presence in the confessional and “never to go to it unprepared or lacking the necessary human qualities and spiritual and pastoral preparation.”
Msgr. Jenkins explained that the sacrament of confession has gone through major changes over the centuries. In the early church, he said, confession essentially was a public act that entailed public penance.
“It was for the very serious sins, and penance was done before the community,” Msgr. Jenkins said. “It was meant to reintroduce you to the community. There is no indication in the early church of a type of private penance that was similar to our confession.
“Nowadays, we do not have public penance. According to what we can find, private penance began with Pope Leo way back in the fifth century. Pope Leo determined that priests would not go through public penance. They would do private penance, and it would be done before a bishop.”
Because the early church’s understanding that confession was intended to be used for serious sins such as murder or adultery, Msgr. Jenkins said penitents essentially had one chance to reconcile with the church.
“You got one chance after baptism, and if you messed up after that one chance and committed another one of those terrible sins, that was it,” he said. “You were in God’s hands, but you were out of the church’s hands. So, we’ve gone from non-repeatable (penance) to as many times as you need, if your conversion is sincere.”
It was Pope Innocent III and 600 bishops who assembled at Lateran Council IV in 1215 who set the course for our current understanding of the sacrament, Msgr. Jenkins said. The council called for Catholics to go individually to a confession at least once a year to an authorized confessor. The priest was bound to sacramental secrecy, and there were harsh penalties imposed for violating the seal of confession.
“There was a beautiful sentence from the Fourth Lateran Council that the priest must always remember that he comes to the patient as a physician with oil, and his first duty is to pour the oil on the penitent to soothe the wounds and heal them.”
“General absolution” – an extraordinary form used in times of war when there are a large number of people in imminent danger of death – is available only in the rarest circumstances, he said.
As for the sacramental seal, Msgr. Jenkins said it is inviolable. “It can never be violated,” he said.
The seal is so fundamental to the sacrament of confession that if a priest were ever asked about the content of a confession, “the confessor can and must respond that he knows nothing at all about it,” Msgr. Jenkins said.
States have passed laws in an attempt to force priests to violate the sacramental seal, but Msgr. Jenkins said “state law cannot remove divine law.” Louisiana currently has no such law.