Bishop Urges Confessors Stress Mercy, Not Guilt

Highlights Sacredness of Sacramental Seal

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By Mirko Testa

ROME, MARCH 16, 2010 (Zenit.org).- The regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary is urging confessors to avoid creating excessive anguish or guilt complexes in penitents, and to emphasize rather the merciful love of God.

Bishop Gianfranco Girotti stated this in a March 8 address on the first day of a weeklong course on the internal forum.

The course focused on moral and canonical themes related to the ministry of penance, above all that of confession.

Speaking about this sacrament, Bishop Girotti highlighted the need for priests to be aware that they are "depositories of a precious and irreplaceable ministry."
 
Moreover, he added, "it is absolutely necessary that, to carry out their ministry well and faithfully, every confessor acquire with assiduous study, under the guidance of the magisterium of the Church, and above all with prayer, the science and prudence necessary for this purpose."
 
"In the seminaries, it is true, the approach to confession is only that of theology and morality," the prelate acknowledged.

However, he added, to be a good confessor, one must "also have precise knowledge of all that the Church establishes regarding specific situations that can present themselves in the confessional."

Human weakness
 
Hence, the bishop underlined the need for priests "to prepare themselves" with a "cultural, psychological and above all ascetic profile, knowing that they are called to be concerned with things that do not exalt, but do reveal, all the weakness -- and at times the baseness -- of the human condition."
 
He stated that priests should not forget that "the human reality is historical and dynamic, so that while the abstract judgment can remain immutable, the evaluation of the concrete acts calls for a very high theological and moral sensitivity, so as not to increase the evident detachment between the faithful and the sacrament of penance."
 
In the confessional, Bishop Girotti pointed out, the most unthinkable cases can also be presented, which could catch the priest unprepared, such as when topics are addressed that relate to bioethics.
 
He reminded his listeners "that the presbyter always has an authoritative word to say in the delicate questions of today regarding aspects of the medical practice."
 
For this reason, the bishop said, "it might require a bit of time to pronounce oneself on the judgment and to consult the Apostolic Penitentiary, which comes into play in situations in which the priest does not have the faculty to absolve and in cases in which he can be unprepared or uncomfortable."

Among the counsels offered to priests, the regent of affirmed that the penitent "needs to be encouraged to put all his trust in the infinite mercy of God."

For penitents, he added, every confession of sins should cause them to "burst into joyful song of praise and thanksgiving to the Father who 'has loved us first.'"
 
"On imposing the penance," the prelate said, "it is necessary to look to its feasibility on the part of the penitent, favoring those forms that help in spiritual growth, such as attending a Mass, going to communion, or also helping a neighbor in difficulty or contributing to support parish works, combining the interior life and social commitment, as the masterful way of the committed Christian."

Giving penances
 
"To a penitent who comes to confess after long years of being estranged from the Church it is imprudent to give complex and exhausting penances, whereas to a good cloistered nun ordinarily one can assign a longer prayer," he added.
 
Bishop Girotti highlighted the necessity of assuring that the penitent has an "awareness of sin and of its consequences and to awaken in him the firm decision to open a new chapter in his relations with God and with his neighbor in the heart of the Church."
 
"It is good then to recall that the faithful who has reached the age of discretion is required to confess his grave sins at least once a year," and that the penitent "has the possibility of confessing his sins to the confessor he prefers, legitimately approved, even of another rite," he affirmed.
 
In addition, the prelate said, the penitent "has the possibility of making use of an interpreter," while "obviously avoiding abuses and scandals and the obligation of secrecy remaining firm."
 
He reviewed the obligations connected with the sacramental seal and the secrecy of penitents, a topic that the Church has always had at heart, and, if violated, gives very severe punishments that were defined by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1125, which promulgated the first universal law on the matter.
 
To this end, the bishop stressed that the Code of Canon Law (Canon 1550, paragraph 2,2) excludes, in fact, "as incapable of giving testimony in trial the priests, relating to all that they have learned in the sacramental confession, also in the case in which it was the penitent who requested the deposition."
 
Bishop Girotti continued by saying that the confessor, if violating this seal of secrecy, "would commit a sin of injustice towards the penitent and of sacrilege in encounters of the sacrament itself," betraying "the trust that the faithful places in him, as minister of God" and rendering "odious the sacrament of penance in the eyes of the faithful."

Professional secret
 
He reminded his listeners that the new code of criminal procedure that came into force in Italy in 1989 "recognizes the sacramental seal, as part of the professional secret according it a particular tutelage" and links the confessor exclusively to this seal, while "all other persons who for whatever reason come into knowledge of the content of a confession, as for example the interpreter and others who eventually might hear it, are bound, instead by the secret."
 
"Such a distinction of responsibility determines, in fact, in case of violation, a difference of punishment," the prelate explained.
 
Moreover, he said, "the priest is held to the sacramental seal vis-à-vis anyone, including the penitent."

He continued, "If, in fact, the confessor wishes to speak with the penitent of the sins confessed he must have his permission, unless it does not happen immediately after the confession -- in such a hypothesis this would be considered as moral continuation of the confession -- or else if the penitent himself, in subsequent meetings, returns to some consideration relating to the preceding confession."
 
"Not even the death of the penitent will be able to release the confessor from this obligation," he specified.
 
Bishop Girotti affirmed that the Church, stemming from a decree issued in 1988 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, also punishes with particular severity "whoever violates the secrecy relating to confession, registering through technical instruments or divulging through instruments of social communication what is said by the confessor and by the penitent."
 
"In this case," he concluded, "the person concerned incurs the specific punishment of excommunication 'latae sententiae.'"