Did Pope Francis have to go to confession?

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RACHAEL ASKS:

Who does the pope go to if he has to go to confession or is he exempt because he’s the pope?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

The pope gets no pass because he’s the pope.

Pope Francis, who has shown a flair for the dramatic his first year in office, demonstrated this in highly unusual fashion during this Lenten season, which puts special emphasis on contrition for sin. On March 28, to the surprise of worshippers in St. Peter’s Basilica, the pontiff publicly kneeled before a priest with his back to the cameras and congregation and confessed his sins for about three minutes. The AP reported the priest seemed to chuckle so perhaps he was also surprised. Then Francis joined 61 priests along the sanctuary walls who heard confessions from penitents, something popes usually do on Good Fridays.

The doctrine of original sin says (and history sometimes proves) that the popes are flawed humans just like all the rest of us. A pope’s infallibility involves only his personal definitions of faith and morals.

Francis explained at a weekly “general audience” talk last November that “priests and bishops too have to go to confession. We are all sinners. Even the pope confesses every 15 days, because the pope is also a sinner. And the confessor hears what I tell him; he counsels me and forgives me, because we are all in need of this forgiveness.”

Francis appreciates performing this priestly function. In off-the-cuff remarks on Pentecost Eve last year he said he regrets he cannot do it more often. “When I go to listen to confession — and I can’t yet because to go out and listen to confession, well, I can’t leave this place. But that’s another issue … ”

Catholicism asks all parishioners to regularly confess in order to be in the proper spiritual state to receive Communion, and by all means to do so during Lent.

Confession must be done before a priest who alone can grant absolution on God’s behalf and prescribe deeds of piety and charity as “satisfaction” for sin, as opposed to Protestants’ individual or group prayer for forgiveness directly to God. Francis stated in the November talk that God himself wills that believers “receive forgiveness by means of the ministers of the community.”

Penance (also called the sacrament of reconciliation) is so central that it takes up 76 sections in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This includes the teaching, rejected by Protestants, that the church has the unique power to grant “indulgences” that remove partial or full punishment due to sin for either the living or the dead in Purgatory. Observance of Penance has declined this past generation more than with the church’s other six sacraments (Communion, baptism, confirmation, clergy ordination, marriage and the anointing of the sick).

About the “who” question: Under the confessional “seal,” a priest is forbidden to ever reveal what was said, even in cases of serious crimes. This sense of privacy tends to extend to the identity of a confessor. However, we do know that as an archbishop in Argentine Francis regularly confessed to Berislav Ostojic, a Franciscan immigrant from Croatia. Francis revealed March 6 that when his former Argentine confessor died he removed the cross from the rosary on this priest’s corpse in the casket and wears it continually under his cassock. Francis said this unnamed “great confessor” heard confessions from most Buenos Aires clergy and from a visiting Pope John Paul II.

The pope’s personal staff included the “Confessor of the Pontifical Household” till the post was abolished in a 1968 streamlining decree. The Vatican still appoints the “Preacher of the Pontifical Household,” always a member of the Capuchin order. The office-holder since 1980, Raniero Cantalamessa, is always available to hear confessions and has been reported to be the regular choice of Pope Benedict XVI if not of Francis. John Paul II’s personal secretary once remarked that this pontiff regularly confessed on Saturdays to “an elderly Polish monsignor,” so it was not Cantalamessa.

Protestants may be interested that early in the Reformation Martin Luther wrote that though private confession “cannot be proved from Scripture, it is in my opinion highly satisfactory and useful or even necessary.” The Augsburg Confession, a 1530 Lutheran platform for negotiations with the papacy, stated that “private absolution ought to be retained in the churches, although in confession an enumeration of all sins is not necessary for it is impossible according to the Psalm [19:12]: Who can understand his errors?”

Index to the Catechism (Penance is treated in Part 2, Section 2, Article 4, #1422-1498).

QUESTION FOR THE GUY? Leave it in our comments pages or at his site.

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About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    About the pope and infallibility: When the pope speaks or writes “ex cathedra” it is not viewed by Catholics as something “personal.” It is much deeper than one man’s ” personal” views. When Pope Benedict XVI wrote his books about the Life of Christ he made it a point to state that his “personal” views and conclusions in the books were NOT “ex cathedra” (from the bishop’s chair) and thus were not infallibly declared Catholic doctrine. (Unless the doctrine he was discussing already was part of official Church teaching.)

    • AuthenticBioethics

      Yes, “personal definitions” would be better put “official definitions.”

  • Käthe

    Creeping infallibility strikes again: the pope is not infallible in his “personal definition of faith and morals,” anything he declares infallible ex cathedra has to essentially already be doctrine accepted by the Church through the ages (such as the Immaculate Conception).

  • FW Ken

    This is of a piece with the pope’s central message, which is the infinite mercy of God freely extended to the penitent heart.

    The interesting thing about this event is that, as far as I can find, a pope has never been seen going to confession.

    • http://acatholicviewoftheworld.wordpress.com/ Roki

      It may be that a pope has never been photographed going to confession. But since anonymous confession – and the seal attached to it – became common by the 11th century, explicitly recording anyone going to confession has been uncouth at least, and possibly against canon law. I was very surprised, for example, to see the photos showing faces of people at confession at World Youth Day last year.

      All that said, popes have long had more-or-less official confessors, and while we may not have known of particular instances of popes confessing their sins, it has always been clear that they do so, just like every other Catholic.


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