Questions Answered: On Confession during Mass, and homilies given by non-ordained person

Confession during Mass

Question:  I have heard there is a new document the Holy See has issued on confession, and that that document states that confessions may be heard during Mass.  I thought this was not approved.

Answer: On March 9, 2011, the Congregation for the Clergy issued a document entitled, The Priest, Minister of Divine Mercy, which addresses the whole issue of confession.  This includes the theory, the practice, and such helpful things as an examination of conscience for priests.  The congregation issued this document to “afford a number of simple, factual, and inspiring examples drawn from numerous ecclesial documents (cited throughout), which may eventually be directly consulted.  This is not intended as an exercise in casuistry but one of daily hope and encouragement.”  (Priest, #6)

The Church remains committed to the practice of frequent auricular confession.  In fact, this practice is central to the spiritual renewal so sought after in Vatican II.  This is not only true for the faithful, but also for the clergy.  This is one of the reasons why the examination of conscience for priests is appended to the document.

Among other important points, this document clarifies the fact, as does the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that the tendency after Vatican II to describe this practice as reconciliation, but not confession or penance, is not accurate.  All three are involved with the practical use of the sacrament, and so all three terms are fittingly used for it.  Confession is one of the principal, vital experiences of the mystery of divine grace, because perseverance in one’s initial conversion of heart must be constantly strengthened, and often renewed.  Far from being a grim application of divine judgment, the celebration of this sacrament is an invitation to divine renewal.  The judgment aspect is merely the background for the spiritual healing of grace, which forms the remedy for sin, or the support for the avoidance of venial sin.  For this purpose, the document, in union with the constant teaching of the Church, recommends: “Frequent confession of venial sins and imperfections”  (Priest, #50).

Since this sacrament is so important for daily perseverance in grace, it is a serious obligation for pastors to supply opportunities to celebrate it.  It has become custom, in some places, to reduce the celebration of the sacrament of Penance to communal celebrations.  Though these are good and emphasize the social nature of sin—provided they include private confessions—they cannot substitute for the personal encounter of private confession.  In some of these celebrations, it has become customary, in some places, for priests to recommend the confession of only one sin.  This is, of course, inadequate, according to the canons of the Council of Trent, still in force, that all remembered mortal sins must be confessed in number and kind.

It is, therefore, important that opportunities for private confession be offered as generously as possible, given the needs of the faithful and the priest.  This includes offering them during Mass, even though after Vatican II, some taught that one should not celebrate two sacraments at the same time.  John Paul II recommended this highly: “It is particularly recommended that, in places of worship, confessors be visibly present […] and that confessions be especially available even during Mass, in order to meet the needs of the faithful” (John Paul II, Misericordia Dei, 2002, 1b-2, Lc. 455).  The Church even extends this to the concelebrated Mass.  “In the event of a ‘concelebrated Mass, it is warmly recommended that some priests refrain from concelebrating so as to hear the confessions of the faithful” (Priest, #57).

Homily by non-ordained person
Question:  I was traveling, and attended Sunday Mass in another diocese.  The homily was given by a member of the parish staff.  When I wrote the local bishop about this, he informed me that he has “given permission for the lay leaders, which include vowed religious, to reflect on the scriptures during the Sunday Eucharist occasionally.”  I thought this was strictly forbidden by Canon 767.

Answer:  The issue of the homily at Mass is an important one.  It underlines the necessary relation between the liturgy of the Word, and the liturgy of the Eucharist.  There are some people in the Church who consider this relationship to be accidental.  This impression might have been created by the fact that the laity are permitted, in the ordinary form, to be lectors at Mass, and to participate in an action that is central to the celebration of Mass, something which does not take place in the extraordinary form.  As the homily is, in a certain sense, the culmination of the liturgy of the Word, it could be construed by some that it does not matter who gives it as long as they are competent.

In fact, Vatican II is clear that there is an intense relationship between Word and Sacrament at the sacrament of all sacraments, the Mass. “The Eucharist appears as the source and the summit of all preaching of the gospel” (Presbyterorum Ordinis, 5).  The explanation of the faith is central as a preparation to the actual carrying out of the action of the whole Church by which the paschal event is made present to the faithful.  Both word and sacrament must be intimately connected, as are knowledge and love.  As such, the homily is meant to bridge that gap, and stands at the culmination of the word, and the beginning of the action of love itself.  In principle, only the ministers who directly participate in the act of transubstantiation—namely: bishop, priest or deacon—have the right and faculty to preach.  This is made clear in the canon mentioned in the question which clearly states: “The most important form of preaching is the homily, which is part of the liturgy itself, and is reserved to a priest or deacon” (Canon 767).

Regarding the nature and content of homilies, the instruction, Inter Oecumenici, states: “By a homily, derived from the sacred text, is understood an explanation either of some aspects of the readings from holy scripture, or of another text from the Ordinary or Proper of the Mass of the day, taking into account the mystery which is being celebrated, and the particular needs of the hearers” (54).  One should note that a homily does not have to be based on the readings of the day.  In fact, with the advent of the new English translation of the Roman Missal, the prayers of the Roman liturgy would be excellent homily material.  One could also use the life of one of the saints.  Whatever the material is, though, it must be a clear bridge, in some way, between the truths of faith expressed in the readings, or prayers of the Mass, and the moral conversion supported and deepened by the presence of the faithful at the offertory, consecration and communion.  Thus, a homily is reserved exclusively to the priest or deacon.

There may be other more general forms of preaching.  As an exception, the laity are permitted, by the Code of Canon Law, to engage in these, even in Church. “The laity may be allowed to preach in a church or oratory if in certain circumstances it is necessary, or in particular cases it would be advantageous, according to the provisions of the Bishop’s Conference and without prejudice to canon 767, 1” (Canon 766).  Preaching of this type could be conferences given at parish missions or retreats, for example.  Teaching catechism in Church would not be an example of preaching.

The case which is mentioned in the question does not seem to be either preaching in general, or the specific preaching of the priest or deacon.  Though non-ordained people can speak of matters during Mass, for example, give a financial report, or tell a vocation story, this is not preaching, either in general, or in particular.  For a vowed religious to give homily is contrary to the intense union of word and sacrament.  For a vowed religious to report on the Catholic school would not be inappropriate, as it would not be preaching.  For a vowed religious or catechist to speak during a communion service would seem to be fine as this is not Mass.

This must be done prudently, and with no impression that they are giving a homily.  As many people are unclear about these distinctions, an excellent way to do this would be to have the non-ordained people give the financial report, or tell the vocation story at another time than when the homily is given, after the reading of the gospel at Mass.  After communion would be an excellent time to do this.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
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Portland, OR 97232
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  1. We used to attend a Ukrainian Catholic Church in Edmonton Alberta, Canada. They would offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation during the Divine Liturgy. It was when we went there that we participated regularly in the sacrament. There is always one, and sometimes two priests there to hear confessions. There is never an excuse not to go. On the other hand, a person can always find a ‘reason’ not to go on a Saturday morning. Making an appointment is just kind of awkward.

    The reason they were able to offer this is because the parish was attached to a Basillian Monastery. Which meant that there were several priests available at any one time.

    It seems to me that if there is a way to encourage regular confession it should be explored.

  2. I would welcome frequent occasions to go to Confession. My Parish of some 1500 families has Confessions on Saturday from 4:30-5:00pm and at 10:00am on the 1st Sunday of the month. I have deduced that we must be the holiest congregation in all of these United States!!!!! And how wonderful to read that Mother Church recommends frequent confession of venial sins and imperfections, as I have been advised that only if I have a mortal sin am I to go to Confession. I must admit that some in the Church have probably wrongly deduced that I am a very sinful woman.
    Keep up the flow of information.

  3. If I were to go to confession during Mass, would I be at risk of failing to fulfill my Sunday obligation?

  4. Avatar Rev. Michael McLain says:

    Unless you have the gift of bilocation as Padre Pio did, it would be impossible for one to be at confession and at Mass at the same time. I would not want to get into a discussion of what constitutes the ‘minimum’ of attendance at Mass for it ‘to count’ or to fulfill one’s obligation.
    I am the only priest in a parish of 975 registered families, and I offered Confession Tuesday night, Wednesday morning, Friday morning and Saturday morning. And yes, some people recognize the necessity of confession so much that they take me up on my offer of an appointment…it works.
    As the pastor of a Catholic school as well, I have started the practice of having ALL the students come to Confession every 3 months…and it is working well.

  5. Avatar JOHN GRONDELSKI says:

    At St Peter’s during the Easter Vigil I have observed the Basilica’s confessors hard at work. I think we need to revisit this question: just as the demise of Holy Saturday confessions in some places, so also the opportunity for confession at Mass needs to be defended.

  6. Avatar Loretta Hoffman says:

    If people know that confessions are available for more than 1/2 hour once a week, they will come, especially if they are encouraged to do so from the pulpit at Sunday Masses. We need to get back to twice-a-day for an hour each (or as long as it is necessary) on Saturdays and prior to Holydays. If people need to go to confession and they have to make an appointment to do so, most will not go, especially if they have to go “face-to-face”. It is up to our priests to encourage people to go to frequent, even weekly, confessions so they can grow in the practise of their faith and stay in a state of sanctifying grace.

    • Avatar JOHN GRONDELSKI says:

      Very sage comments – we say things by the way we do things – if we stuff Confessions into a half hour before the Saturday evening Mass (so that the confessor is antsy to get to the sacristy and vest) we are already communicating our valorization of the process. A simple solution would be for priests to make themselves available AFTER the Saturday Vigil Mass (a more useful function than “pressing the flesh” on the church steps).

  7. Avatar J. Dunn says:

    I am a cradle Catholic and have received all the sacraments. I have attended Mass, confession and communion for years when healthy. Now I am 84 yrs, old and severly hearing impaired and cannot understand a word that is said in Mass or any other multiple gathering. I have other health and transportation issues that prevent me from attending Mass on a regular basis. I receive communion sporadically when it is offerred at my place of residence. I do not belong to a parish any longer because of being relocated.
    I’ve discussed this with several priestsover a period of time but get conflicting information as to how to do deal with this. I pray the rosary and most of our prayers and read catholic literature. The the state of my soul is a source of worry for me.

    What are the requirements at my age and abilities?
    Thank You,


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