Confessors Get Creative: Priests Adapt to Coronavirus Lockdown’s Limitations
Necessary limits have been imposed in light of the pandemic’s spread, but bishops and priests are finding innovative ways to allow the faithful access to the sacrament.
Most faithful around the U.S. continue to fast from the Eucharist after restrictions from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic forced Catholic dioceses to suspend public celebration of the Eucharist.
Yet some priests and the faithful in the U.S. took great solace in celebrating Lent 2020 in a manner fitting to the season with the sacrament of mercy: confession.
While all dioceses in the United States are conforming to state and federal restrictions, some pastors continued to offer confession either at scheduled times in their parishes or by appointment during Lent. However, coronavirus has posed a challenge to celebrating this sacrament, as the restrictions created by the mandate for social distancing — prohibiting public gatherings larger than 10 people and requiring a 6-foot buffer between individuals — prevented the use of confessionals and unprotected contact between penitents and confessors.
These restrictions have led many pastors to find creative ways to celebrate confession, such as providing so-called “drive-in” confessions and other alternative venues, such as well-ventilated conference rooms and classrooms or open-air locations, in which priests and penitents can come together to celebrate the sacrament.
This comes at a time when some dioceses are not allowing any confessions at all.
Notes of Caution
This creative element, however, has been offered guidance both by the Vatican and the U.S. bishops, in statements clarifying the perennial teaching on confession. Amid stories of priests and bishops overstepping their bounds regarding the norms of confession — whether in regards to how it is administered or how technology can or cannot be used in administering the sacrament — the Vatican issued a note from the Apostolic Penitentiary on the Sacrament of Reconciliation on March 20, clarifying basic teachings on confession in light of the pandemic.
“Even in the time of COVID-19, the sacrament of reconciliation is administered in accordance with universal canon law and with the provisions of the Ordo Paenitentiae,” the note states, indicating that individual confession remains “the ordinary way of celebrating this sacrament,” and “collective absolution” (more commonly known as general absolution) remains an option, although only in grave circumstances, without the opportunity for individual confessions.
In the U.S., Archbishop Leonard Blair of Hartford, Connecticut, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, issued clarifications on administering confession in a March 27 memo to U.S. bishops, especially noting that cellphones cannot be used as a means of confessing one’s sins.
“In addition, in the present circumstances, cellphones should not be used even for the amplification of voices between a confessor and penitent who are in visual range of each other,” Archbishop Blair states in the memo.
The memo was seen as a response to a suggestion by the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, that cellphones may be used in the confessional. In addition, a Peruvian bishop recently rescinded his permission for penitents to confess their sins by telephone.
Archdiocese of Indianapolis
The Archdiocese of Indianapolis has been particularly judicious about how priests may hear confessions. The Indiana Department of Health currently reports 2,149 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 49 deaths resulting from the disease.
“The current pandemic and the measures taken to combat it make responding to individual requests for confession very difficult,” the letter states. “Therefore, out of great concern for the health of our people and until further notice, requests for individual confession should be postponed unless it is requested by one who is in imminent danger of death.”
The letter also echoed a recent statement by Pope Francis by encouraging penitents to make an act of “perfect contrition” if confession is impossible during Lent because of the pandemic. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1452) states, “Such contrition remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible.”
Archdiocese of Seattle
The coronavirus first spread to the U.S. in Seattle, which is now considered a hot zone for the virus.
In the Archdiocese of Seattle, confession is being provided with commonsense precautions. According to Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg, who heads the archdiocese’s rapid-response team in addressing the pandemic, confession continues to be offered on a regular basis in many of Seattle’s parishes.
“We are asking priests to hear confessions in a larger space than the normal confessional,” he told the Register. “That may mean temporarily hearing confession in a classroom or conference room, a space which allows enough social distancing but also ensures privacy of the confession.”
Father Brad Hagelin is pastor of St. Luke parish, a community of 900 faithful located in Shoreline, Washington, about 10 miles north of Seattle. Taking up the archdiocese’s recommendation, Father Hagelin has converted St. Luke’s 600-square-foot cry room into the parish’s new confessional.
With the additional space, which the converted cry room provides, Father Hagelin said, “I can keep 6 feet distance, whether behind the screen or face-to-face, and there are windows in there, and I make sure there’s ventilation.”
Until recently, Father Hagelin was offering confession for an hour on Saturdays and Wednesdays. But since Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued a “stay home” order on March 24, the parish has been instructed not to provide regularly scheduled confessions.
“We’re not even allowed to publicize the time we do confessions,” Father Hagelin said. “But people can schedule an appointment with me, and I let it be known when I would be around in the church for the two hours a day we have the church open now for adoration. People should feel free, even if I’m praying, to ask for confession.”
Diocese of San Angelo
In the heart of oil country in West Texas, the Diocese of San Angelo has likewise advised pastors to administer confession either in well-ventilated areas or — as Father Ryan Rojo, parochial vicar of St. Ann parish in Midland, Texas, has done — in an outdoor space.
Father Rojo and two other priests serve about 1,700 faithful at St. Ann’s.
Penitents are invited to confession in the parish’s Mary Garden, a 400-square-foot cloistered space flush with rose bushes surrounding statues of Mary and Jesus. The confession line forms at the single entrance gate to the garden, and Xs on the ground are marked with duct tape at 6-foot intervals “so people know where to stand in line,” Father Rojo told the Register. The confessional is a temporary partition draped in purple cloth located at the end of a roofed plaza to the side of the garden. During confessions, Father Rojo said, “we play some instrumental music in the background, popular Church hymnody, so that no one else can hear. Penitents walk through this open-air ambulatory to the partition we have set up. The parking lot is right next to the garden — so they get out of the car and immediately line up on the duct-tape Xs on the sidewalk.”
As a member of the diocese’s liturgical committee, Father Rojo reported the success of this venue to Bishop Michael Sis of San Angelo, who incorporated it into diocesan guidelines for confession.
“I actually got the idea from a local supermarket here in Midland,” he said. “On the floor they have little footprints where a person would stand 6 feet apart while in the checkout line, and you would try to stand on those footprints to respect appropriate social distancing. When I saw that, I brought it here to St. Ann’s.”
St. Paul and Minneapolis
Almost 1,200 miles northeast of Midland, Archbishop Bernard Hebda issued a letter to his flock on March 18 regarding the celebration of the sacraments in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, noting that while public Masses have been suspended, he is particularly “grateful that confessions will continue to be heard at parishes, with appropriate precautions and adaptations taken in accordance with the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control.”
Father Michael Izen, pastor of St. Michael’s and St. Mary’s parishes in Stillwater, Minnesota, located in the eastern part of the archdiocese on the St. Croix River, and Father John Powers, associate pastor of these parishes, have begun providing what they hope is an efficient way to ensure the safety of penitents even as they provide the healing that comes with confession.
Inspired by other priests providing drive-in confessions that Father Izen read about on social media, he took the idea to his parish team, and they embraced it. According to Father Izen, the team chose St. Mary’s — which is only a few blocks from St. Michael’s — because its parking lot was more accessible to penitents than St. Michael’s. Fathers Izen and Powers serve 1,800 faithful at both parishes.
“We have two entrances and put up signs and cones to help guide people coming into the parking lot,” Father Izen said.
“At the back of the parking lot, Father Powers or I will be sitting in a lawn chair, on a berm, which juts out into the parking lot. We also put up cones to indicate where penitents should park for confession — 6 feet away from the priest. After we had one bad-weather day, someone put up a pop-up canopy.”
Father Izen wasn’t sure what to expect when word went out over social media that St. Mary’s was opening its drive-in confessional on March 26. “As I was walking to my first confession, I was hoping there would be at least one car waiting in the parking lot,” he told the Register. “It turned out, there was a line of five cars even before I got to the house to get my stole and lawn chair!”
“I wound up hearing about nine confessions that first half-hour,” he added.
The first penitent, Father Izen said, was the most memorable because, after receiving absolution, this individual hopped out of the car and said, “We have more in the next car!”
This penitent went to the car next in line, Father Izen said, and a family member jumped out of that car and into the car still parked in front of the priest. When this penitent received absolution, another family member took this second penitent’s place.
“So this family found a creative way to have everyone go to confession,” he said. “That was an impressive way to start.”
Hungry for Mercy
Father Izen said his desire to provide confession to the faithful is driven by his sense that this sacrament is necessary now more than ever, not only because Lent is the season of mercy, but because Lent was a penitential season of sorts for the entire world.
“God’s mercy is something people are always hungry for,” he said. “But needing the Divine Mercy, needing God’s love, needing to articulate one’s sins — all the usual reasons confession is always important have been escalated now. People appreciate the human part of it, too — making contact with another person in confession; people are more hungry for that human element now, with the current social restrictions.”
According to Father Hagelin, with the suspension of public Masses, he hopes the faithful might refocus their hearts on God’s mercy through confession.
“Separation from the Eucharist hopefully should help us reflect on the fact that God is always with us, and the Holy Spirit is always dwelling in our hearts and keeping sanctifying grace aflame and burning and active as possible,” he said. “Confession is a huge help to make sure we’re operating as close to 100% in our friendship with Jesus.”