Confession for RCIA Candidates

And More on the Prayer of the Faithful

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ROME, NOV. 1, 2005 ( Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: Recently I received a baptized Christian into the Catholic Church during a Mass in which the person received holy Communion. The RCIA ritual encourages the candidate to go to confession before the Mass and Communion, and this was done. However, since the confession was made before the candidate was actually in the Catholic Church, how could it have been a valid Catholic sacrament? Or does the absolution take effect only when the person is received into the Church? I cannot fit this event into my traditional understanding of Catholic sacraments. — D.J., Buffalo, New York

A: We briefly addressed this question in a follow-up on April 27, 2004, in which we said:

«A catechist from Michigan asked if candidates in the RCIA may receive the sacrament of penance before they have been formally initiated into the Church.

«In this case we are dealing with Christians validly baptized but who have not yet made their solemn entrance into the Catholic Church nor received the sacraments of confirmation and Eucharist.

«This case is already foreseen in the appendix to the Introduction to the Rite for the Christian Initiation of Adults.

«Norm No. 9 stipulates that if the candidate is to admitted to the Catholic Church during Mass (the usual practice), then beforehand, the candidate, having considered his personal condition, confesses his past sins after having informed the priest of his proximate admission.

«Any priest with faculties for hearing confessions may receive this confession.

«Thus, not only may the future Catholic make his confession before being formally received but in general he or she should do so.»

Thus there is no question regarding the canonical legitimacy of the practice described. Yet, this does not answer the theological difficulties experienced by our reader.

Perhaps an answer could be found by making a distinction between impediments to the valid reception of a sacrament stemming from divine law and those stemming from Church law.

From the point of view of divine law, baptism is absolutely necessary before receiving any other sacrament. Once baptism has been received, however, the person has at least the root possibility of receiving some of the other sacraments even though other impediments might exist.

A person baptized as a Protestant (Eastern Christians are in a very different position) is usually impeded from receiving the sacraments of confirmation, Eucharist, penance, anointing and holy orders due to their lack of communion with the Catholic Church.

The Church usually recognizes the sacramental quality of any valid marriage between a baptized man and woman.

Since most of the impediments to valid reception of these sacraments by non-Catholic Christians are rooted in Church law, not divine law, the Church itself may decide under what conditions a person not within her fold may receive the comfort of some of her sacraments and thus lift the impediment to invalidity.

Such conditions are set out, for example, in the Ecumenical Directory, and usually require grave conditions such as danger of death, the spontaneous request of the person desiring the sacrament, and faith in the Catholic understanding of the sacrament by the person requesting it.

In the case of the person who is about to be received into full communion, the Church creates, so to speak, an automatic exception which makes the sacrament of reconciliation both valid and licit for the person involved.

Although this answer may be a trifle speculative, I hope it is sufficient to clear up the difficulties.

* * *

Follow-up: Concluding the Prayer of the Faithful

Readers sought some clarifications regarding aspects of the Prayer of the Faithful (see Oct. 18).

Before responding, I would point out that, although this form of prayer has very ancient roots, its present form is fairly novel in liturgical practice and thus there are no traditional norms regarding its practice.

As a consequence, several slightly diverse customs have arisen and it is not easy to say if one is necessarily more correct than another.

Apart from the norms quoted in the previous column we could say that a rule of thumb is that they be guided by common sense and that the petitions should be clear and brief, couched in general terms, and should not be multiplied beyond measure.

Some readers asked if it were permissible for the faithful to be invited to formulate spontaneous petitions from the pews.

While there is no rule forbidding this, I think it is a practice best reserved for smaller groups who have the necessary experience to formulate appropriate petitions. Such groups could be those who regularly attend daily Mass, religious communities, and prayer groups.

It is probably wisely avoided at a parish Sunday Mass, since the number of petitions could easily become inflated or their content turn out to be excessively personal, verbally garbled or political. They could even create annoyance if the same people tend to dominate the «spontaneous» petitions week after week.

Some other readers asked about the practice of reciting the Hail Mary during the Prayer of the Faithful.

While this custom is not universal, it seems to have its roots in English liturgical practice from even before the Second Vatican Council. One reader suggested that a document exists impeding this practice, but I have been unable to find it. I would say that, barring some authoritative intervention, the practice could continue where it has been customary to do so.

The objections to the use of the Hail Mary are usually based on the principle that liturgical prayers are practically always directed to the Father, and on rare occasions to the Son.

However, when the Hail Mary is used in the Prayer of the Faithful she is not addressed directly but is usually invoked as a mediator to carry our prayer to the Father within the context of the communion of saints.

This invocation is certainly unnecessary from a liturgical standpoint, and it is probably better not to introduce it where it does not exist. However, I do not believe it needs to be forbidden where already well established.

Finally an Irish priest asked if the celebrant could reserve a particular petition, such as for the soul for whom Mass is celebrated, to himself rather than to the deacon or reader. I would say that this may be done for good pastoral reasons, just as the priest may also add a particular intention which he believes should be kept in mind at that moment.

* * *

Readers may send questions to 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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