Q: What is the general opinion on listening to confessions during Mass? -- M.G., Malmoe, Sweden
A: This is a point which often stirs heated debate among priests. Some condemn the practice because it easily distracts the faithful from the Mass itself. Others ardently defend it as an excellent opportunity to offer the sacrament when the faithful are present in significant numbers and likely to be moved to confess by the mere fact of availability.
Cultural factors also come into play. Priests and faithful hailing from an Irish, Anglo-Saxon and North European heritage are, by and large, accustomed to a separation of the two sacraments. The priests are generally reluctant to make confession available during Mass.
The practice is more common, although not universal, in Italian, Latino and Polish communities, and many faithful go to confession during Mass even though it is also offered at other times.
From the normative point of view it is certainly not forbidden. In 2001 the Holy See gave an official answer to this question in a letter published in the June-July edition of Notitiae, the official organ of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.
In its response the congregation affirmed the preference for celebrating reconciliation outside of Mass. But in virtue of the canonical norm that "Reconciliatio penitentium omni tempore ac die celebrari potest" (Reconciliation may be carried out at any time and day, "Ordo Paenitentiæ," 13), it specifically allows the hearing of confessions during Mass. It even recommends that, during large concelebrations attended by numerous faithful, some priests refrain from concelebrating so as to be available for confession.
In the light of this reply we could say that it is clearly preferable that confession and Mass be held at different times so that the faithful can live the Eucharistic celebration to the fullest. This implies that reconciliation be scheduled at times when the faithful are able to go.
Confession during Mass should respond to concrete pastoral needs such as when the habitual number of penitents exceeds the regularly scheduled confession times; when a priest has to attend more than one parish; and other situations that would make it pastorally advisable.
For the sake of clarity by confession during Mass, I mean that one or more priests are hearing confessions while another celebrates Mass.
This might seem obvious, but I have personally found situations where priests heard confessions at the celebrant's chair during the readings. While such a practice might appear to be pastoral zeal, I believe it is misplaced.
The celebrant should never act as if he were extraneous to the liturgical assembly. He leads the faithful in prayer not only in virtue of his ordination but also through his example, in this case listening attentively to God's word which is also directed toward him.
It is hard to expect the people to pay attention to the readings if the priest does not do so himself.
Likewise, it should be remembered that reconciliation and Mass may never be combined to form a single rite.
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Follow-up: Praying for the Departed
Related to the question on prayers for the departed, a reader from India asked: “How many intentions can be offered by a single priest celebrating mass? On Sundays our parish priest mentions more than 15 to 20 intentions for a single Mass that he celebrates. Is this valid and OK?”
We tried to address the complex question of Mass stipends and intentions on Feb. 2, 2005, and March 8, 2005.
On the latter date we wrote about the situation described by our reader: “[I]n some poor countries […] many people ask the priest to remember them at Mass and often offer a tiny sum as a symbolic contribution. Such offerings are not considered stipends as the faithful are accustomed to Mass being offered for many intentions besides their own.”
This remains the case. The principle involved is that since the Mass, insofar as it is Christ’s very sacrifice, is of infinite value, there is no limitation to the number of intentions that may be offered at any Mass.
The Church, however, normally allows for the priest to receive only one stipend for each Mass. However, as mentioned above, in poor countries where there are many requests for Mass and no true stipend as such, it is often allowable to offer Mass for several intentions.
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Father McNamara is professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university. Readers may send questions to email@example.com. Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.