May confessions be heard during Mass?
There is still rather a lot of confusion about this question — both among priests and laity. It is not unusual to hear of a priest who, with a great sense of certitude, declares that confessions may not be heard during Mass — we don’t do that anymore! (Such priests are wrong.)
And then among laypeople, there is the concern whether one could go to confession during Mass and have that Mass still “count” toward their obligation — for example, when confessions are offered during a Mass on a day of precept like Sunday or a Holy Day. (The answer is yes.)
The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments helpfully clarified these matters back in 2001. You can read the complete text of their official response HERE. But I will summarize:
- Confessions may be heard during Mass, as long as it is not the main celebrant of the Mass who is hearing them (in other words, Mass and confession cannot be combined by the same priest — it needs to be a different priest hearing confessions).
- The faithful are encouraged to form the habit of going to confession at other times. This favors better participation in the Mass (i.e., by not interrupting hearing Mass to go to confession) and having a better sense of tranquility in going to confession.
- However, it is acknowledged that having confession offered during Mass often has a real advantage. Therefore, this decree does not discourage that possibility at all.
- It is suggested that one or more priests who might otherwise concelebrate that Mass hear confessions instead.
- The decree doesn’t specifically say it, but it is certainly implied that one can go to confession during Mass AND fulfill any obligation one has to attend that Mass simultaneously. This is the traditional understanding and I do not consider it in doubt.
There is obviously a tension between # 2 and # 3 in the list above. I think this tension is resolved by reflecting on how # 3 can lead to # 2. There are some faithful who may not have good habits about going to confession. Having confession during Mass may be the way to facilitate their going. But then, in that context, the priest-confessor could encourage them to go more regularly and place a higher priority on this aspect of their spiritual life. If they take his advice seriously, then this leads to # 2.
I have tried to facilitate having confession during Mass at my parish for at least some events, when possible. The clergy shortage in some areas is really starting to be felt. I do also think that bishops should do a lot more not only to encourage their priests to offer more confession times, but help them by offering concrete suggestions about how they may do so (for example, by asking that some priests hear confessions during certain diocesan celebrations, or that in churches with an Associate Pastor, the Pastor and he work out a plan whereby one is “in the box” while the other is celebrating Mass).
The good news is that, while we do still have a way to go, I can say that at least in my neck of the woods it seems that more times for confession are being offered. There are a few places with daily confessions, and several others that have them more than just on Saturday for 25 minutes.
A priest-friend of mine talks about how pastors should calculate the cumulative annual time they offer for confessions (minutes per week multiplied by 52) and then divide that by the number of parishioners in his parish. The result is how many minutes each parishioner gets for confession each year — assuming they only go once a year!
My parish has 3.5 hours of scheduled times each week (spanning 6 out of the 7 days). Divided by the number of parishioners that means 7.8 minutes per person per year. Now there are some extra times that we offer in Advent and Lent and there are other area parishes that offer big penance services with several priests, so it’s possible some could take advantage of those opportunities also. And then there are occasions when we have more than one priest hearing confessions simultaneously. But even with our generous schedule, my assessment is we are not offering enough times — especially if we hope that everyone might go more than once a year to confession! We still have a way to go. And that is with a 6 day schedule! I know of parishes that are twice the size of mine that only have confession for an hour or less each week!
All of that to say, there are certainly many challenges today, but challenges often require creative solutions. Offering confession during Mass may be one piece of that puzzle, where it is possible. Bishops should encourage it and priests who have the means to offer it (because of retired clergy or associate priests or hired help or whatever!) should facilitate it. It is an especially suitable way to “seek and save” those who might no longer have good habits and so might not go to scheduled times — but seeing the light on and being nudged by the Holy Spirit, might take advantage of an odd opportunity while at Mass and leave there a much happier and more peaceful person.