Pope: Confess sins directly to God if no priests available during virus pandemic

Pope Francis leaves after delivering a speech at the Atomic Bomb Hypocenter Park on November 24, 2019, in Nagasaki, Japan.
Pope Francis leaves after delivering a speech at the Atomic Bomb Hypocenter Park on November 24, 2019, in Nagasaki, Japan. | Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

Pope Francis is saying that general absolution of sin — confessing directly to God as opposed to through a priest — applies during the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

A Vatican tribunal that deals with matters of conscience, including confession, called the Apostolic Penitentiary, issued a notice Friday, stating that though absolution of sin is the usual means through which sins are forgiven by a priest, in times of "grave necessity," such as now with the ongoing spread of the virus, other solutions are needed, according to Catholic Herald (UK). Confession is considered a sacrament in the Catholic Church.

What qualifies as "grave necessity" has generally been determined by local bishops, the outlet noted; yet in the 1980s and 90s, Rome has urged adherence to stricter definitions.

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“This Apostolic Penitentiary holds that, especially in places most impacted by the pandemic contagion and until the phenomenon subsides, there are cases of grave necessity” thus yielding the conditions for general absolution, the notice reads.

In a Mass celebrated Friday that was livestreamed from Rome, Pope Francis said people who cannot manage to go to confession as a result of being locked down because of the coronavirus or another serious issue, can confess directly to God.

“This is the right time, the opportune moment. An act of contrition done well, and our souls will become white like the snow,” the pope said.

“Return to your father who is waiting for you,” he continued. "The God of tenderness will heal us; He will heal us of the many, many wounds of life and the many ugly things we have done. Each of us has our own!”

In Roman Catholicism, believers are required to confess their sins to a priest in order to be absolved from sin but official teaching allows for exceptions for specific circumstances.

Francis elaborated Friday: “Do what the Catechism (of the Catholic Church) 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.”

“As the catechism teaches,” he said, “you can draw near to God’s forgiveness without having a priest at hand. Think about it. This is the moment.”

Although some Protestant evangelicals practice the discipline of confessing sin to one another — as is instructed in James 5:16 — it is often done so in a less formalized manner and is often not understood as a sacramental rite. A key theological objection of the Protestant Reformation centered around the abuse of the sacrament, namely that the Roman Catholic Church was using the confessional as a means to control the masses. The Reformers contended that it is unnecessary to confess sin through a human intermediary in order to receive forgiveness from or have access to God.

The New International Version of James 5:16 reads: "Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed."

Italy is among the nations that are most seriously affected by the coronavirus pandemic with hundreds of deaths being reported daily, occurring mainly among the elderly, many of whom were already suffering from comorbid conditions. The nation has been on lockdown since March 10.

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