These times are difficult for everyone. The current COVID-19 pandemic has affected virtually every part of our lives. For Catholics, it is a special trial, especially since we cannot go to Mass and Confession. It is truly a Lenten penance.
This is not the first time the Church has encountered such a situation. We have been through plagues and natural disasters before where normal sacramental life was disrupted. God does not abandon us in these situations and continues to work through his Church.
For many, right now the fear is that we might become ill or even die without the chance to receive the sacraments. Most priests would be willing to risk going to the dying, but the civil authorities might prevent them. So, what do you do if you are in such a situation and want to go to confession?
The Church’s Code of Canon Law says: “Individual and integral confession and absolution constitute the only ordinary means by which a member of the faithful conscious of grave sin is reconciled with God and the Church. Only physical or moral impossibility excuses from confession of this type; in such a case reconciliation can be obtained by other means” (Canon 960).
Let’s parse that out. The ordinary way we are forgiven for grave, or mortal, sins is by confession. That does not mean there are not extraordinary ways that God can work outside of the sacraments. Note that this is for mortal sins, as venial sins can be forgiven routinely outside of the confessional. The canon says that physical and moral impossibility excuses one from confession. God does not require of us the impossible. How is that determined?
The next canon in the code states that there must be danger of death, insufficient time to hear confessions and grave necessity (see Canon 961). In that situation, general absolution can be given to groups of the faithful. The diocesan bishop is the one who determines this to be the case. All that is required of the faithful is that they be disposed properly and promise to confess their sins when the opportunity becomes possible.
However, what do you do if there is no priest present at all? Fortunately, the Holy See’s Apostolic Penitentiary, the Holy See’s tribunal responsible for issues pertaining to the forgiveness of sins, has responsibility for cases like this and issued a note on March 19:
“Where the individual faithful find themselves in the painful impossibility of receiving sacramental absolution, it should be remembered that perfect contrition, coming from the love of God, beloved above all things, expressed by a sincere request for forgiveness (that which the penitent is at present able to express) and accompanied by votum confessionis, that is, by the firm resolution to have recourse, as soon as possible, to sacramental confession, obtains forgiveness of sins, even mortal ones (cf. CCC, no. 1452).”
This means that if we find ourselves in a grave situation without access to confession, we can make an act of perfect contrition, with the intention of confessing our mortal sins when we can, and God will forgive our sins.
Perfect contrition is sorrow for our sins for the love of God — not just the fear of hell. How can we have that kind of contrition? Most importantly, it is a grace given by God, but God is not stingy with his gifts. If we sincerely want this kind of contrition, we can be sure that God will give it to us. It is not merely a feeling, but a motive. The motive of love for God does not exclude secondary motives, such as fear of hell. Therefore, make the act of contrition, which contains the promise to confess, and know that our loving and merciful God is always ready to offer the graces necessary of salvation. We can predispose ourselves to receiving his grace by the means of prayer and penance. Use this time to pray and grow closer to God. The Apostolic Penitentiary recommends such prayers, devotions and actions: “Visit to the Blessed Sacrament, or Eucharistic adoration, or reading the Holy Scriptures for at least half an hour, or the recitation of the Holy Rosary, or the pious exercise of the Way of the Cross, or the recitation of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, to implore from Almighty God the end of the epidemic, relief for those who are afflicted and eternal salvation for those whom the Lord has called to Himself.” We can all gain a plenary indulgence to help us to live in a state of grace.
We can also receive a plenary indulgence at the time of death. The Apostolic Penitentiary reminds us:
“The Church prays for those who find themselves unable to receive the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and of the Viaticum, entrusting each and every one to divine Mercy by virtue of the communion of saints and granting the faithful a Plenary Indulgence on the point of death, provided that they are duly disposed and have recited a few prayers during their lifetime (in this case the Church makes up for the three usual conditions required). For the attainment of this indulgence the use of the crucifix or the cross is recommended (cf. Enchiridion indulgentiarum, no.12).”
Like a mother, the Church offers us Christ’s salvation even in extreme circumstances. We don’t need to despair. God is with us and wants to forgive our sins. Make the act of contrition daily and entrust yourself to the infinite mercy of God. He is with you.
Father James Goodwin writes from North Dakota.