Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Our pastor has the children in the parish day school come regularly for the sacrament of reconciliation. Each of the children is required to fill out a page with their name and their sins written in their own hand. While this helps their memory and speeds up the movement of a large number of children, I worry. Some of these pages have been found in the church by others. Parents might find them in their children’s book bags. I am concerned about the confidentiality of the sacrament and the good of the penitent. I have expressed this concern, but the situation continues. Do you have any insight or advice for me? — D.N., Euclid, Ohio
A: I would answer that the question should be considered from several points of view.
From the point of view of the penitent, there is nothing inherently wrong about preparing one’s confession in written form. Many souls do this so as not to forget at the moment of confession.
If for some good reason one is unable to speak, then it is also possible to write one’s sins and hand them to a priest. For example, in his historic “Manual of Moral Theology,” Jesuit Father Thomas Slater (1855-1928) stated that:
“[O]ral confession is not absolutely necessary for the validity of the sacrament, for mutes or penitents who know no language known also to the confessor, or those who are dying and unable to speak, may confess by signs. Moreover, for good reason, anyone may write his confession, hand it to the priest to read, and accuse himself in general terms, such as ‘I confess all that is written here.'”
This could happen, for example, to a person suffering from some psychological condition which blocks the verbal expression of the sin committed. The only way they can manage a complete confession is through writing.
In all such cases it is incumbent upon the penitent to destroy what he has written, although, strictly speaking, he would not be obliged to do so. The obligation of secrecy falls upon the priest, not the penitent. It is quite conceivable that some souls would wish to keep some record in order to discuss the same matters, on a different level, with a spiritual director.
In the case of young children, however, I believe that they should not be asked, under any circumstances, to write their name on a list of sins. There is absolutely no need to do this and they also have a right to anonymity in the confessional.
I also believe that writing the sins should be a practical suggestion and not an obligation.
If there is any danger of their leaving their lists lying around, then I think that the pastors or catechists could help by providing a closed receptacle where the children could tear up the list and deposit it after confessing. The lists should be destroyed at the earliest opportunity.
In some places penitents have been encouraged to write their sins and, after confession, burn the list in a brazier that is set up for this purpose. While this has some symbolic value, it could easily detract from grasping the meaning of the priest’s absolution, which is the sacramental moment when grace is fully restored or increased.
The possibility of such misinterpretations makes me somewhat wary of encouraging such practices.
Indeed, there have even been some cases where priests have given the impression of substituting the destruction of lists of sins for sacramental absolution, thus casting doubt on the validity of the sacrament.
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Follow-up: Birettas and Academic Hats at Mass
Relative to our reply on liturgical and academic head coverings (see March 5), a Boston reader asked about the use of the black shoulder cape worn over the cassock.
This elbow-length shoulder cape, open at the front, is sometimes called a “pellegrina,” due to its resemblance to the similar cape worn by pilgrims. It usually forms part of the vesture of bishops, cardinals and the pope, and does not normally form part of the priest’s black cassock. As an episcopal vesture it is regulated by Pope Paul VI’s 1969 instruction on the “Dress, Titles and Coat of Arms of Cardinals, Bishops and Lesser Prelates.”
This document permits the use of the short cape along with the cassock, with color trimming according to the prelate’s rank.
Nothing whatsoever is said about its general use by priests. Nor does there appear to be any specific prohibition of the use of the black cape.
In earlier periods it would appear that its use was permitted as a privilege in some areas. For example, photos of St. John Bosco often represent him wearing such a cape. Likewise, when Blessed Pius IX restored the hierarchy in the British Isles he permitted all Catholic priests to use this cape, as it was also frequently used among Anglican clergy.
It thus became a distinctive feature of clergy from Ireland, the United Kingdom, and later places such as New Zealand and Australia.
It would appear that it is little used by clergy in other places.
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Readers may send questions to [email protected]. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.