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): http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_INDEX.HTM