Anonymity in the Confessional

And More on the Rite of Washing of the Feet

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ROME, APRIL 6, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.



Q: Is it permissible, and/or is there any good reason for a confessor to ask the identity of a penitent when the confession is anonymous; that is, it is not "face to face"? -- L.L., Washington, D.C.

A: Anonymous confession, along with the confessional as we know it today, is generally attributed to an initiative of St. Charles Borromeo (1538-1584), the archbishop of Milan, Italy. Previously, the confessor would sit in a chair and the penitent, who usually was kneeling, was clearly visible to him.

In order to ensure modesty and discretion, Cardinal Borromeo mandated in 1564 that the confessionals in his diocese be closed on both sides with a grill between penitent and priest. Pope Paul V's Roman Ritual adopted this provision, which helped spread its use, although it did not become a universal practice until the 17th century.

Anonymous confession remains the norm although current dispositions allow for the penitent who so desires to request face-to-face confession. And confessionals may be designed to allow for both options.

Although the penitent may request face-to-face confession, the priest is not obliged to accede to the request and may insist on the use of the grill.

If a penitent desires anonymity, the priest should respect this desire and in the vast majority of situations he should never have any need or right to inquire as to the identity of the penitent.

Even if the priest recognizes the penitent it is usually more prudent not to make personal references unless the penitent makes some form of self-identification or the circumstances warrant it, such as could be the case of a regular penitent well known to the priest.

More frequently there may be situations when, in order to determine the exact nature and gravity of the sin involved, the priest may make a general inquiry as to the penitent's state in life, for example, if he or she is married, or a vowed religious, etc.

In some confessionals, where the penitent is almost invisible, it can happen that a priest may have to ask some detail of age, or even sex, in order to tailor his counsel to the penitent's specific characteristics.

Some very grave sins, such as abortion, also might incur excommunication reserved to the bishop or in some special cases, such as the deliberate profanation of the Eucharist, to the Holy See.

In such cases the confessor may not be able to grant absolution immediately, or only on condition that the penitent requests the lifting of the canonical penalty within a month from the competent authority.

As most penitents would be unaware of how to go about this process, the priest may offer to help by contacting either the bishop or the Holy See as the case may be. This is always done without revealing any personal data or identifying circumstances (see Canon 1357).

If the penitent wishes to remain anonymous then he or she may make an appointment to return to confession to the same priest after a certain time in order to have the sanction formally lifted. But in some cases it may be necessary to reveal some personal data so that the priest can inform the penitent of the arrival of the proper authorization.

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Follow-up: Washing of the Feet

Our replies regarding feet washing and the use of the crucifix rather than a cross (March 23) generated a high level of correspondence some of which was very informative and which also leads me to review some of my previous statements.

Regarding washing only men's feet on Holy Thursday, several readers asked about a statement published by the U.S. bishops' liturgy committee in 1987 (see www.usccb.org/liturgy/q&a/general/feet.htm).

Paragraphs 4 and 5 read:

"Because the gospel of the mandatum read on Holy Thursday also depicts Jesus as the 'Teacher and Lord' who humbly serves his disciples by performing this extraordinary gesture which goes beyond the laws of hospitality, the element of humble service has accentuated the celebration of the foot washing rite in the United States over the last decade or more. In this regard, it has become customary in many places to invite that both men and women to be participants in this rite in recognition of the service that should be given by all the faithful to the Church and to the world. Thus, in the United States, a variation in the rite developed in which not only charity is signified but also humble service.

"While this variation may differ from the rubric of the Sacramentary which mentions only men ('viri selecti'), it may nevertheless be said that the intention to emphasize service along with charity in the celebration of the rite is an understandable way of accentuating the evangelical command of the Lord, 'who came to serve and not to be served,' that all members of the Church must serve one another in love."

One correspondent, a woman, asks: "Did the U.S. conference have the authority to change the rubric of the Sacramentary? Did it get the approval of Rome? Certain dioceses will allow men only to have their feet washed; Jesus chose 12 men, his apostles."

I was not unaware of this statement. But since the entire text is couched in ambiguous terms and does not claim any authority whatsoever (in spite of the aura of officialdom in its being published by the liturgy committee) I did not consider it a relevant source.

What is surprising in this document is that it does not question the premise that a pastor or even a bishop has the authority to change or vary a specific rite at his own behest. He does not have such authority except where the law specifically allows him to do so.

This said, other paragraphs of the above statement correctly recall that this rite was reintroduced into parish celebrations relatively recently (1955) and so, as a rite, cannot claim a long liturgical tradition directly linking it to Christ's action on Holy Thursday -- although this is the obvious interpretation.

Thus, at least hypothetically, it could be subject to a reinterpretation to "emphasize service along with charity" in such a way as to be also open to women.

Yet the proper authority for such a reinterpretation is the Holy See or a two-thirds vote of an episcopal conference ratified by the Holy See and not an individual bishop or pastor.

Another correspondent affirmed that the Holy See had informed an American cardinal that women were not excluded from the rite, but the writer was unable to provide sources. I have been unable to corroborate this affirmation from any official source. The above-mentioned statement from the liturgy committee explicitly states that no further official pronunciations have been made since 1987 (although the new Latin missal reconfirms the rubric regarding only men being called). If this affirmation is confirmed, then obviously our position would have to change.

Several other readers questioned the strength of my argument regarding the obligatory nature of using a crucifix during the Good Friday adoration of the cross.

They point out, and correctly I think, that the actual text of the rubrics does not specifically state that a crucifix be used. They also note that my use of the first form of the rite to uphold my point was more a description of how the rite is usually carried out than an analysis of the rubrics.

Also, some official documents such as the U.S. bishops' recent "Built on Living Stones" (No. 83) specifically allow either a cross or a crucifix for veneration on Good Friday.

Part of the difficulty is that Latin uses the same word for cross and crucifix, although in liturgical documents over the last several centuries the word "cross" almost invariably meant crucifix. A cross without the figure of Christ was practically unknown in a liturgical context.

Accordingly, I agree with a correspondent from New Zealand, who noted there is little significance in "the change to 'dextrum brachium Crucis' instead of 'brachium dextrum Crucifixi' as one of the many changes, some merely stylistic, that the Second Vatican Council revision of the Missal made in the rubrics of Pope Pius XII's reform of the 'Triduum Sacrum' liturgy. Rather, I see this change as acceptance of the inevitability, when uncovering the right arm of the figure of Christ crucified, of unveiling also the whole right arm of the cross."

The new General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) does at times specify that the cross used at Mass should have the figure of Christ. But this specification has only become necessary because of recent attempts to introduce figureless crosses into churches.

At other times the Latin document simply refers to this crucifix as the cross, such as when it describes the rite of incensing. Thus I do not believe that each time the Latin GIRM or the rubrics do not specify that the cross have a figure, it follows that either a cross or a crucifix may be used.

It is also true, as another reader states, that "a cross without a corpus harkens back to the original form of this rite, derived from the Jerusalem rite, in which the actual relic of the cross was venerated. For this reason the hymns all speak of the 'crux.'"

If a church were to possess a relic of the true cross of Christ, then of course it should be used on Good Friday. But this is a rare privilege and so historically the use of the crucifix as a substitute came to predominate.

Therefore, while admitting that my former argument lacked force, I would contend that the overall weight of traditional liturgical practice falls heavily in favor of the use of the crucifix.

I would further move that the use of the crucifix is much better from a pastoral point of view. Once more I concur with our writer from New Zealand: "'Venite, adoremus' is the response of the people at the Good Friday liturgical service, and we kneel in worship. We do not worship a mere cross ... but the Person who died on a cross." And it seems best to emphasize this by using the cross with the image of the Crucified.

Another reader asked where to find the document on the removal of holy water during Lent.

This document comes from the review Notitiae, the official organ of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, which unfortunately does not yet publish this review online. Fortunately this document was published in an interesting site called www.catholicliturgy.com.

Finally, I would like to thank all our correspondents, especially those who disagreed with me, for the exemplary Christian courtesy used in their communications. I desire a blessed Easter to all.

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