If Confessor Doesn't Know Penitent's Language

And More on Crosses and Images in Lent

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ROME, MARCH 22, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: There are three to four Polish seamen in my town awaiting repatriation. They have been to confession with our priest who does not speak Polish and they do not speak English. Is the confession and absolution valid? — K.D., Gibraltar

A: There are several aspects to be considered here. The first situation is the general obligation of confessing grave sins. This is addressed in Canon Law, No. 960:

“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.”

The lack of a common language between penitent and confessor would enter into the category of a “physical or moral impossibility” which would excuse either the obligation of confession or its integrity, and allow for reconciliation to be obtained by other means.

In the present case we would be dealing with the confessor making a prudential judgment that the penitent is excused in virtue of a physical and moral impossibility and presuming the latter’s sincerity in manifesting those sins confessed in his native language.

Thus in this particular situation the sacrament would be valid.

However, canon law does foresee the possibility of confessing by using an interpreter, although the penitent may not be obliged to do so. To wit: “Canon 990: No one is prohibited from confessing through an interpreter as long as abuses and scandals are avoided and without prejudice to the prescript of can. 983, §2.”

Canon 983, §2, requires absolute secrecy on the part of the interpreter analogous to the priest’s sacramental seal: “The interpreter, if there is one, and all others who in any way have knowledge of sins from confession are also obliged to observe secrecy.”

The violation of the secrecy of confession by an interpreter may be punished by the imposition of a canonical penalty not excluding excommunication (see Canon 1388, §2).

An interpreter need have only a sufficient command of the two languages involved and requires no official certificates of competence.

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Follow-up: Covering Crosses and Images

According to Horace, “Quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus.” Sometimes even excellent Homer nods. Although the only thing I share with the author of the Trojan epic is a penchant toward nodding, I certainly drooped in my piece on veiling statues during Lent (see March 8).

In that column I affirmed: “The custom of veiling the images during the last two weeks of Lent hails from the former liturgical calendar in which the Passion was read on the Fifth Sunday of Lent (hence called ‘Passion Sunday’).”

In this, as pointed out by several readers, I erred. In fact the Passion was not read on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, even though the Sunday was called Passion Sunday and the period that followed it Passiontide.

The Gospel for this Sunday was John 8:46-59, the discussion between Jesus and the Jewish authorities which ended in a frustrated attempt to stone him. This reading is now found, in a slightly briefer version, on Thursday of the fifth week of Lent.

In the former liturgy, the daily Gospel readings following Passion Sunday were all taken from John and evoke the increasing tension between Jesus and the authorities that eventually lead up to Good Friday.

The present cycle of readings for the latter part of Lent evokes the same basic theme although the texts — also taken from St. John — are organized in a different manner.

On the question of veiling statues and crucifixes, a Virginia reader asks: “Our parish covered all images, including the crucifix on the altar, on Ash Wednesday. Apparently they will be unveiled on Saturday, March 26, 2005, at the Easter Vigil. Also, all of the holy water was removed from our parish as of Ash Wednesday.”

Veiling during all of Lent may have been a common practice in the Middle Ages, but it has been restricted to Passiontide for several centuries. Hence, the practice our reader described is incorrect. The altar or processional cross is not veiled and, indeed, its use is implied in the rubrics for the solemn Masses of Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday.

As mentioned in the previous column, the crosses are unveiled after the Good Friday ceremonies while other images are unveiled, with no ceremony whatsoever, before the Easter Vigil — not at the celebration itself.

Regarding the removal of holy water, we repeat the response given on March 23, 2004:

The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments recently responded to a similar question (3/14/03: Prot. N. 569/00/L) giving a clear answer: “This Dicastery is able to respond that the removing of Holy Water from the fonts during the season of Lent is not permitted, in particular, for two reasons:

“1. The liturgical legislation in force does not foresee this innovation, which in addition to being ‘praeter legem’ is contrary to a balanced understanding of the season of Lent, which though truly being a season of penance, is also a season rich in the symbolism of water and baptism, constantly evoked in liturgical texts.

“2. The encouragement of the Church that the faithful avail themselves frequently of the sacraments is to be understood to apply also to the season of Lent. The ‘fast’ and ‘abstinence’ which the faithful embrace in this season does not extend to abstaining from the sacraments or sacramentals of the Church.

“The practice of the Church has been to empty the Holy Water fonts on the days of the Sacred Triduum in preparation of the blessing of the water at the Easter Vigil, and it corresponds to those days on which the Eucharist is not celebrated (i.e., Good Friday and Holy Saturday).”

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Readers may send questions to news@zenit.org. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country.

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