Papal Funerals and the Sede Vacante

And More on Confessions in Another Language

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ROME, APRIL 12, 2005 ( ZENIT’s liturgical columnist, Father Edward McNamara, fielded more questions regarding the passing of John Paul II.

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Many questions have still poured in regarding the liturgical specifics of papal funerals and the period of «Sede Vacante.»

An Australian liturgical scholar wrote regarding the use of red vestments: «With respect to Fr McNamara’s comments on the red vestments of the pope [see April 7], red is worn because the pope is the vicar of Peter who was a martyr.»

I believe this comment complements rather than contradicts my earlier answer regarding the pope’s use of red in celebrating funerals.

I specifically stated that red was the color of the apostles and this is so because all, except St. John, died as martyrs and their feasts are celebrated in red.

It is specifically true of St. Peter and this would explain the traditional use of red for papal funerals and, except when the liturgy requires another color, for the nine days of celebrations in suffrage held at St. Peter’s beginning with his funeral Mass.

I would point out that the pope is successor to Peter, not his vicar. The pope is the vicar of Christ.

Some questioners harbored doubts regarding the correctness of some procedures carried out during these days in various countries.

A Hungarian reader asked if it was correct for a priest to celebrate in black vestments on Sunday, April 3.

Since this day was within the octave of Easter it was incorrect, as the liturgy of the day has precedence over the requiem Mass.

Indeed, the Mass celebrated for the Pope this same day by Cardinal Angelo Sodano in St. Peter’s Square followed the Sunday liturgy in white vestments. The following day was the Annunciation and so the first day at which a requiem Mass, or a votive divine office of the dead, was possible, was Tuesday, April 5.

Another correspondent remained puzzled by a ceremony during a requiem Mass for the Holy Father in which an empty coffin was blessed and incensed.

This practice used to be common in some countries for requiems before the Second Vatican Council, but is no longer permitted. The introduction to the «Ordo Exequiarum,» No. 10, allows the rites of sprinkling and incensing to be performed only in the presence of the mortal remains.

Another reader asked why a pall was not used at the funeral Mass for John Paul II. The Holy Father asked that his funeral follow the dispositions first laid down by Pope Paul VI as well as those which he himself approved in the new order for papal funerals.

Both Popes were addicted to simplicity and asked that the coffin used in the funeral be the plain cypress wood box, placed at ground level, and with the open Book of the Gospels placed upon it.

Several readers asked regarding prayers for the Pope, especially those for his intentions related to gaining a plenary indulgence.

During these days most prayers directly for the Holy Father, such as those in the Prayers of the Faithful, or intercessions of the Divine office, are usually omitted.

With respect to plenary indulgences, it is certainly not the Church’s intention to make them unavailable during the interregnum. Since God is not bound to time, I suggest praying the usual prayers and let him take care of the rest.

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Follow-up: If Confessor Doesn’t Know Penitent’s Language

Subsequent to our piece on confession with the aid of an interpreter (March 22) a priest from Los Angeles asks: «Is it required that the interpreter be in the state of grace in order to participate this way in the celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation?»

We would hope that everybody should always be in the state of grace and especially someone chosen to carry out such a delicate act as interpreting for another’s confession.

However, since this is an intimate matter, there is no way of knowing, and it does not appear to be a requirement for acting as an interpreter. Indeed, it appears that the only requirements are competence in the two languages, and satisfaction on the part of priest and penitent that the interpreter understands and accepts the grave bond of secrecy regarding all that he hears.

The interpreter should be a Catholic, however, as suggested by the fact that canon law (in Canon 1388.2) establishes a just punishment for violating the secret, «not excluding excommunication.» Such a disposition would be useless in the case of a non-Catholic.

Meanwhile, a priest from Ohio asks «whether or not it is permissible to have confessions taking place during a period of Eucharistic adoration. It seems to me that it is a mixing of two liturgical rites. Perhaps it depends on how one phrases the question: Can one have exposition during a communal celebration of the sacrament of penance? Or: Is it appropriate to have priests available in a side chapel during Eucharistic adoration for those who want to confess?»

There is no official document on this specific question. But the Holy See did officially answer a related question regarding confession during Mass published in the Congregation of Divine Worship’s bulletin, Notitiae, of June-July 2001.

In its response the congregation affirmed the preference for celebrating reconciliation outside of Mass. But in virtue of the canonical norm that «Reconciliatio penitentium omni tempore ac die celebrari potest» (Reconciliation may be carried out at any time and day, «Ordo Paenitetentiæ,» 13) it specifically allows the hearing of confessions during Mass and even recommends that, during large concelebrations attended by numerous faithful, some priests refrain from concelebrating so as to be available for confession.

Following the logic of the above document I would say that, at least in principle, having reconciliation during a period of adoration is not forbidden. Whether it is the best option is a pastoral decision that has to be decided in accordance with local conditions, traditions and customs.

A lay person from Canberra in Australia comments: «A priest who hears confessions at my Church does not ask penitents to make an act of contrition during the confession itself. Instead, he asks the penitent to make an act of contrition privately, after the confession is over, when doing the penance. Having given the penance and having told the penitent to make the act of contrition, he then pronounces the words of absolution. Does this practice invalidate the sacrament?»

Of course, one should be grateful for having a priest who so readily makes himself available for hearing confessions even though he may have picked up an odd foible. Perhaps he has passed some time in territories where confession lines are still long and he acquired the habit of shortening the rite so as to confess as many people as possible.

In principle he should not only wait for the act of contrition but actually invite the penitent to manifest his contrition through an act of prayer. The ritual for reconciliation allows the penitent to make a traditional act of contrition or recite a short Scriptural phrase such as «Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.» Our reader could adopt this solution if he fails to persuade his priest to change his habits.

Although the practice is incorrect it does not invalidate the sacrament because the act of contrition is not an essential or indispensable element of reconciliation. It is important, however, as it manifests externally the essential interior attitudes for a valid confession.

Those attitudes are repentance, purpose of amendment, and acceptance of the penance. The essential exterior elements are confession of one’s sins and the priest’s absolution.

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