During the Easter Octave we continue to celebrate the solemnity of Our Lord’s resurrection that began with the Easter Vigil. Under normal circumstances, the faithful would attend Mass during the Octave, but would seek sacramental confession if in dire need, since most practicing Catholics would have sought the sacrament during Lent.
But these aren’t normal times. Amid the Covid-19 crisis, some American bishops have limited access to sacramental confession since well before Easter, citing the dangers of transmission of the virus. In many areas, Catholics have had difficulty arranging for pastoral care for loved ones stricken with Covid-19. Even in cases in which Catholics are in danger of death, hospitals have restricted priests from providing the last rites, leading to struggles for families to obtain the sacraments for dying relatives.
While a few families have found success in obtaining the last rites for the stricken, most haven’t been as fortunate, creating heart-wrenching scenarios of Catholics dying alone, with neither their families to surround them or the sacraments to strengthen them and prepare them for the possibility of death.
Last month, as the numbers of infected and dying Catholics in Italy spiked, Pope Francis reminded Catholics that it’s possible to confess their sins directly to God outside of sacramental confession:
Do what the Catechism says. It is very clear: If you cannot find a priest to confess to, speak directly with God, your Father, and tell him the truth. Say, ‘Lord, I did this, this, this. Forgive me,’ and ask for pardon with all your heart.
Francis underscored the importance of sacramental confession, adding, “Make an act of contrition … promise God, ‘I will go to confession afterward, but forgive me now.’ And immediately you will return to a state of grace with God.”
Wags on social media responded to Francis’s exhortation by circulating images of Martin Luther looking astounded by the reports that “Pope says Catholics who can’t go to confession can ask God directly for forgiveness,” but Francis was citing longstanding Catholic teaching on the contrition that obtains forgiveness for sins:
When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is called “perfect” (contrition of charity). Such contrition remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible (CCC 1452).
Francis also offered brief advice on how to make a good confession to God in the absence of a priest. Let’s unpack his remarks.
“If you cannot find a priest to confess to, speak directly with God, your Father.”
The Catechism makes clear that “confession to a priest is an essential part of the sacrament of penance” (1456).
Under ordinary circumstances, Catholics confess their sins to God through the ministry of the priest. The Code of Canon Law states:
Individual and integral confession and absolution constitute the sole ordinary means by which a member of the faithful who is conscious of grave sin is reconciled with God and with the Church. Physical or moral impossibility alone excuses from such confession, in which case reconciliation may be attained by other means also (canon 960).
We have an obligation to go to sacramental confession when it’s available. When it’s not available, Pope Francis said, “speak directly with God, your Father” in private prayer.
“Tell him [God] the truth. Say, ‘Lord, I did this, this, this.’”
One reason Christ gave his Church the sacrament of penance was so that the faithful would be required to name their sins. When confessing to a priest, a Catholic must list out his sins, both in kind and in number. In private prayer to God, it’s all too easy for a Catholic to avoid this act of humility, perhaps figuring that since God knows all our sins anyway, why do we need to tell him?
Francis urged Catholics without access to confession not to skip the act of naming their sins to God in private prayer. God does indeed know all our sins, but we need the experience of naming our sins to God so that those sins are brought out into the light for healing. Sins that go unnamed tend to remain in the dark corners of our souls, capable of festering into worse sins. The Catechism states:
The confession (or disclosure) of sins, even from a simply human point of view, frees us and facilitates our reconciliation with others. Through such an admission man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them, and thereby opens himself again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a new future possible (1455).
“Ask for pardon with all your heart.”
One of the conditions for forgiveness of sins is contrition, which the Catechism defines as “sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again” (1451). Contrition can arise from either fear of consequences or from love of God. While a fear of consequences can be sufficient for receiving absolution for mortal sins from a priest in the confessional, contrition needs to arise from love of God for mortal sins to be forgiven outside a confessional.
Contrition inspired by love of God is called perfect contrition (1452), and this can cause some confusion for Catholics because they sometimes think that they must do contrition “perfectly” to be forgiven. But this is a misunderstanding. It is the motive, love of God, that is called perfect, not our performance of the act. We can only “be perfect,” as Christ commanded (Matt. 5:48), if we love God without regard to ourselves and that love is a gift of the Holy Spirit.
That’s why Francis recommend asking for forgiveness “with all your heart.” He meant that we must do so out of love for God, not from fear. If we do so, then our contrition will be “perfect” and we will be forgiven.
“Promise God, ‘I will go to confession afterward.’”
It’s certainly possible to pray for forgiveness of sins with an implicit intention to go to sacramental confession once it’s available again, but it’s helpful to explicitly state the intention to God because it’s a way of giving our word to God. God doesn’t need our verbal commitment to go to confession to forgive us, but we may need it as a way of reminding ourselves of the necessity of sacramental confession.
The steps to confession without a priest are not difficult. In short, we should approach God in prayer, name our sins in kind and in number just as we do in sacramental confession, ask for forgiveness because we love God and desire to be in communion with him, and resolve to go to confession when we’re able to go again.
The hard part is trust in God that he will forgive us. Christ gave us the gift of sacramental confession so that we could hear God saying, through his priest, “I forgive you.” For now, we may not have that solace available, but if we trust that God is with us, that perhaps he sleeps for a while in the boat of our soul (St. Therese of Lisieux’s image for spiritual dryness) but hasn’t abandoned us, then we need not fear that he might someday ask us, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matt. 14:31).