Sacrament of Penance in Crisis, Says Bishop

Urges More Training for “Special” Cases

VATICAN CITY, MARCH 6, 2008 ( The sacrament of the confession is experiencing a crisis, and the Church needs its pastors to be better trained to overcome some particular difficulties, says the regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary.

Bishop Gianfranco Girotti said this in reference to a course taking place this week on the “internal forum” — questions of conscience — organized by the tribunal of the Apostolic Penitentiary. He said the seminar, which ends Saturday, has been promoted to “strengthen the training of priests, who are the ministers of reconciliation.”

“As with vocations and the institution of marriage,” the regent told L’Osservatore Romano this week, “so also the sacrament of penance must confront a period of crisis, which though it began a number of decades ago, is becoming much worse.”

Bishop Girotti recalled the results from a study conducted by the Milan-based Catholic University of the Sacred Heart to underscore the serious state of the current difficulties in understanding the sacrament of confession, “which is so key to the health and salvation of souls.”

According to the 1998 study, 30% of the faithful in Italy do not believe that priests are needed in confessionals. In fact, 10% consider the priest gets in the way of a direct dialogue with the Lord, while 20% say it is difficult for them to speak with another person about their own sins.

The prelate told the Vatican daily that the crisis isn’t just among the lay faithful, but has begun “to cross the door into seminaries, colleges and ecclesiastic institutions.”

Confessor’s mission

During Bishop Girotti’s intervention in the course, he paid special attention to “some unique aspects of the confessor’s mission, with regard to certain categories of penitents classified as ‘special.’”

The first type are divorced people and couples that are not married, with regard to whom “the doctrine and official Church practice try follow a path that nevertheless allows us to remain faithful to the mandate to administer God’s forgiveness and mercy.”

Because of this, “the confessor has the obligation to propose solutions, from time to time, that would heal the situation or transform it into a relationship of friendship and solidarity, the only conditions necessary to once again receive the Eucharist.”

Bishop Girotti said that confessors should always be especially caring in dealing with people who are divorced and remarried, who “should have their own particular place in the caring love shown by the pastor of souls, and not just in this extreme situation, but also in the daily pastoral activities.”

“A pastoral practice inspired by the Gospel,” he added, “cannot and should not ever make a person despair.”

Consecrated souls

The regent said the confessor also needs to make a special effort in dealing with those who are consecrated members of the Church, or candidates for the priesthood or consecrated life.

In this case, he said, the confessor should position themselves as a “just judge” or “good doctor of the spirit,” always remembering that “hardness of heart has often been fatal for many people.” The bishop said the confessor “should never assume an apocalyptic tone.”

Bishop Girotti recalled that regarding those who display homosexual tendencies in their lives as they approach the seminary and holy orders, “the Church cannot admit into the seminary or holy orders those who practice homosexuality, display deeply rooted homosexual tendencies, or adhere to the so-called ‘gay culture,’ that is, those candidates who display an exclusive same sex attraction in dealing with people of the same sex, regardless of whether or not they’ve had erotic experiences.”

In these cases, he said, the confessor must know how to distinguish between “deeply rooted homosexual tendencies,” and those that are “not deeply rooted.”

In the first case, exclusion from the seminary is called for; in the second case, at least three years without a recurrence is required in order to receive admission to the seminary.

Bishop Girotti then took time to discuss some “delicate and complex cases,” such as diabolic, mystical or supposedly supernatural phenomena, scruples and relapses.


Although the intervention of an exorcist is recommended for diabolical phenomena, and expert confessors in cases of mysticism, he said the situation is different in the case of scruples or relapses.

The bishop explained that scrupulous penitents are those that those that go from one confessor to another out of fear that the first one or the following ones did not understand their sins, or they feel the need to confess them again.

Relapsing souls, added the regent, are those that continue to fall in the same sin that they continue to confess. In these cases, he said, the confessor should act wisely to step out to meet the needs of the faithful, helping them understand the truth.

“And so, this is the first lesson given to the course,” concluded Bishop Girotti, “much patience is needed in the confessional.”

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