QUAERITUR: Can any priest hear a Confession on an airplane or ship?

From a reader:

Can any priest hear a Confession on an airplane or ship? I know jurisdiction is automatic in emergencies, but what if a passenger was not in immediate danger and simply wanted to confess?

In general, yes.  In the Latin Church, so long as the priest has faculties to receive sacramental confessions in either his diocese or his religious institute of incardination, the priest can validly absolve your sins anywhere you happen to be, even if you are not in immediate danger and even if one or both of you are not from the place where you run into each other.

If there is danger of death, as you mention, any validly ordained priest can validly absolve, even if he does not have faculties – for whatever reason.  Even a “laicized” priest, out of ministry for whatever reason, can validly absolve in danger of death.  The law itself gives him the faculty to absolve in cases of danger of death.

But in the normal case you are describing, that of running into a garden-variety priest in an airport or at a conference, yes, a priest can hear your confession and absolve you.

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20 Responses to QUAERITUR: Can any priest hear a Confession on an airplane or ship?

  1. RichardT says:

    In Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote, a character asks the Monsignor to hear his confession because, as a Monsignor, he has jurisdiction to do so outside his own parish but an ordinary priest would not.

    Was Greene making that up, or was that in the old code of canon law but not the new one? Or have I mis-remembered the story?

  2. Texas trad says:

    A priest friend told me that sometimes when he is flying on a commercial airline, a strange thing happens. If they hit turbulence, a number of heads will turn around and look at him. He always wonders to himself, “do they just want to make sure they know where the priest is sitting if the plane is going down” or are they looking for some confirmation of “Father, are we ok? Is the plane ok?” He always finds it interesting that some people look to him for comfort during turbulence.

  3. Maltese says:

    I’ve had a priest hear my confession in an airport, and he was happy to do it!

  4. CarpeNoctem says:

    Wouldn’t the rules apply for jurisdiction when on an airplane as they would as if on a sea-fairing ship, i.e., if a priest has faculties at the origin, those faculties continue during the duration? (Although I can’t find this in the current CIC… Maybe this is a matter of custom, at this point, rather than law?)

    Case-in-point, I thought I once heard that the diocese of Lincoln, NE has reserved the grant of faculties for confessions from externs. (…a visiting priest who doesnt otherwise have faculties by law needs a specific grant to absolve.) Presuming this is correct, would one otherwise need to be sure one is NOT flying over such a diocese when pronouncing absolution, to make sure it’s a valid act? :)

  5. sparks1093 says:

    Texas trad, I’ve always looked to a priest for comfort during life’s turbulent times ;-)

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  7. FrJLP says:

    Here are the relevant canons from the 1983 Code of Canon Law:

    Can. 965 Only a priest is the minister of the sacrament of penance.

    Can. 966 §1 For the valid absolution of sins, it is required that, in addition to the power of order, the minister has the faculty to exercise that power in respect of the faithful to whom he gives absolution.
    §2 A priest can be given this faculty either by the law itself, or by a concession issued by the competent authority in accordance with can. 969.

    Can. 967 §1 Besides the Roman Pontiff, Cardinals by virtue of the law itself have the faculty to hear the confessions of Christ’s faithful everywhere. Likewise, Bishops have this faculty, which they may lawfully use everywhere, unless in a particular case the diocesan Bishop has refused.
    §2 Those who have the faculty habitually to hear confessions, whether by virtue of their office or by virtue of a concession by the Ordinary of either the place of incardination or that in which they have a domicile, can exercise that faculty everywhere, unless in a particular case the local Ordinary has refused, without prejudice to the provisions of can. 974 §§2 and 3.
    §3 In respect of the members and of those others who live day and night in a house of an institute or society, this same faculty is by virtue of the law itself possessed everywhere by those who have the faculty to hear confessions, whether by virtue of their office or by virtue of a special concession of the competent Superior in accordance with cann. 968 §2 and 969 §2. They may lawfully use this faculty, unless in a particular case some major Superior has, in respect of his own subjects, refused.

    Can. 968 §1 By virtue of his office, for each within the limits of his jurisdiction, the faculty to hear confessions belongs to the local Ordinary, to the canon penitentiary, to the parish priest, and to those others who are in the place of the parish priest.
    §2 By virtue of their office, the faculty to hear the confessions of their own subjects and of those others who live day and night in the house, belongs to the Superiors of religious institutes or of societies of apostolic life, if they are clerical and of pontifical right, who in accordance with the constitutions have executive power of governance, without prejudice however to the provision of can. 630 §4.

    Can. 969 §1 Only the local Ordinary is competent to give to any priests whomsoever the faculty to hear the confessions of any whomsoever of the faithful. Priests who are members of religious institutes may not, however, use this faculty without the permission, at least presumed, of their Superior.
    §2 The Superior of a religious institute or of a society of apostolic life, mentioned in can. 968 §2, is competent to give to any priests whomsoever the faculty to hear the confessions of his own subjects and of those others who live day and night in the house.

    Can. 970 The faculty to hear confessions is not to be given except to priests whose suitability has been established, either by examination or by some other means.

    Can. 971 The local Ordinary is not to give the faculty habitually to hear confessions to a priest, even to one who has a domicile or quasi-domicile within his jurisdiction, without first, as far as possible, consulting that priest’s own Ordinary.

    Can. 972 The faculty to hear confessions may be given by the competent authority mentioned in can. 969, for either an indeterminate or a determinate period of time.

    Can. 973 The faculty habitually to hear confessions is to be given in writing.

    Can. 974 §1 Neither the local Ordinary nor the competent Superior may, except for a grave reason, revoke the grant of a faculty habitually to hear confessions.
    §2 If the faculty to hear confessions granted by the local Ordinary mentioned in can. 967 §2, is revoked by that Ordinary, the priest loses the faculty everywhere. If the faculty is revoked by another local Ordinary, the priest loses it only in the territory of the Ordinary who revokes it.
    §3 Any local Ordinary who has revoked a priest’s faculty to hear confessions is to notify the Ordinary who is proper to that priest by reason of incardination or, if the priest is a member of a religious institute, his competent Superior.
    §4 If the faculty to hear confessions is revoked by his own major Superior, the priest loses everywhere the faculty to hear the confessions of the members of the institute. But if the faculty is revoked by another competent Superior, the priest loses it only in respect of those subjects who are in that Superior’s jurisdiction.

    Can. 975 Apart from revocation, the faculty mentioned in can. 967 §2 ceases by loss of office, by excardination, or by loss of domicile.

    Can. 976 Any priest, even though he lacks the faculty to hear confessions, can validly and lawfully absolve any penitents who are in danger of death, from any censures and sins, even if an approved priest is present.

  8. Moreos1986 says:

    Is it just my overactive imagination, or is the priest in the picture a Dominican priest? ;)

  9. Imrahil says:

    I figure the question was not about whether a person can approach a priest and be confident that he has jurisdiction as usual anyway (yes she can), but about that old regulation (which I’m not sure about, though) that any priest has such jurisdiction explicitly on the high sea or on a plane in mid-air.

    Though fortunately at sea and on a plane we are not (or no longer) in what we’d call precisely danger of death, the regulation seems to have had its origin from a view that that constitutes at least somewhat near to danger of death. For, I guess, similar reasons it was once (is?) argued (at least I’ve heard such reasoning) that before any medical operation whatsoever (if by reason of some sort of illness), a patient should ask for Extreme Unction.

  10. RichardT says:

    Aha, the 1917 Code of Canon Law seems to have been more restrictive.

    Under the old Code, except for the Pope and Cardinals, ordinary jurisdiction to hear confessions was only for the relevant place (so a pastor only for his parish; a bishop only in his diocese); old Canon 873.

    That ordinary jurisdiction was automatic; if you were parish priest, you could hear confession in your parish, without specific faculties. Bishops could grant more general faculties to specific priests to hear confession, but the law (I don’t know about the practice) suggests that should be rare; old Canon 877.

    However provided a priest could hear confessions somewhere, he could still do so even if he was outside his jurisdiction (e.g. a pastor outside his parish), in two situations:
    1) for his own subjects (e.g. his parishioners) wherever they were together; old Canon 881.2
    2) for anyone when he (the priest) was making a sea trip; old Canon 883.

    I guess it’s that old Canon 883 that prompted this question.

    Therefore the assumption of the old law seems to have been that most priests would only have jurisdiction to hear confessions in their own parish, and that therefore jurisidiction had to be granted for specific situations such as sea journeys. Whether that was formally extended to air travel at some point between 1917 and 1983 I do not know, but it sounds likely. The sea trip also included time on shore during the trip, which I suppose was the equivalent of the airport.

    The practice nowadays seems to be that pretty much all priests are given general faculties to hear confessions anywhere, and so the specific rules for travellers are no longer needed and seem to have been dropped from the 1983 Code.

    I can’t find anything specific to cover Monsignor Quixote though; possibly something to do with the jurisdiction of domestic prelates?

  11. Father K says:

    RichardT and Imrahil – all to do with 1917 Code. Fr Z is correct, as long as you have faculties in your own diocese you can hear confessions anywhere: in the air, under the sea, on the sea, underground, on the ground, in the adjacent diocese, in Outer Mongolia…

  12. acardnal says:

    It has been a concern of mine when traveling to large Catholic conferences – Marian, Eucharistic, Pro-Life, etc. – outside of my home diocese whether or not that person over there who is dressed like a priest REALLY IS a priest or an imposter?! Moreover, if he is a real priest, does he have faculties in to hear Confessions? I once asked a priest about this concern and he confirmed that imposters do sometimes show up at these large conferences. Some have even tried to kill the Pope as in Spain when JPII visited. I asked him if priests carry an ID card from their bishop and he said no, only a carnet (?) for use when traveling to the Vatican.

  13. FrJLP says:

    @acardinal: That would be a “celebret” (trans. “let him celebrate”). This is basically a document stating that a priest is in good standing with his diocese/order and enjoys certain faculties (often listed on the back). I can serve as an “ID” card of sorts. I have one from my own diocese and one from the Diocese of Rome. Interestingly enough, in all my travels around the world, I’ve never been asked for it, even when I offered it. Of biggest concern to me was when I accompanied my best friend to Medjugorje after his priestly ordination (not my cup of tea, but he’d heard a special vocational call on Cross Mountain and wanted to go back) and we both occupied the confessional stalls for hours on end without ever having to present ourselves to the priests there or prove that we were priests. Now, we were priests in good standing, but it was disconcerting to me that, at least theoretically, anyone could walk in there and pretend to be a priest. In the 1983 Code of Canon Law, as I cited above, the faculties for hearing confessions are liberally applied…but I think pastors and bishops should be diligent in ascertaining that the men hearing confessions at these big events are 1) priests, and 2) priests in good standing.

  14. Father K says:

    acardnal – Oh, come now! Do you think that Holy Mother Church is slack in her provisions to ensure the faithful are well protected? Actually it is required by canon law for all priests travelling to have a ‘celebret’ from their Ordinary attesting to their having faculties in their own diocese/institute. That they are priests in good standing. It is up to the Pastor/Bishop/Superior to ensure that priests participating in liturgical events are actually in good standing.

    Yes, if he is a ‘real priest’ barring any impediments, he can hear confessions.

  15. acardnal says:

    @FrJLP: Good to hear you say that. I agree with you regarding pastors and bishops responsibilities regarding visiting priests – especially at national conferences.

  16. Father K says:

    Father JLP

    That has always been my experience too-everywhere, without exception in over 20 years – even when saying Mass at St Peters, St John Latern and St Mary Major!

  17. FrJLP says:

    @Father K: During my studies in Rome, I celebrated Mass at St. Peter’s two or three times a week, and was never asked for it. I even tried to show it the first couple of times, and the guy waved it away! Come to think of it, I was asked for my celebret once. Right after I was ordained a priest, I made pilgrimage to Canterbury (my patron saint during my conversion to Catholicism and for confirmation was/is St. Thomas Becket) and I’d received permission from both the Catholic bishop of the area and the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral to celebrate Mass at the altar now erected over where Becket had been martyred. The verger at the Cathedral asked to see my credentials…. Hmmmmm…..

  18. Interesting post on the Canon Law part – I had always assumed that a priest was a priest was a priest

    Does the line get gray though? Arent priests required to say a mass a day? (or is that an old rule), I can see a traveling priest have issues with that, Bishops are busy men, though the card that they carry should certainly be enough too.

    It makes sense? Atleast from my Lay understanding a Priest is a coworker with the Bishop, so as the canon law states, more or less, works at his Pleasure.

  19. dans0622 says:

    CarpeNoctem, I don’t see how that story about the Diocese of Lincoln could be correct. The law allows a priest’s faculty to be restricted only in particular cases (c. 967). What you describe is akin to a general decree, not a singular (particular) act.

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