QUAERITUR: Can the newly ordained hear confessions? Wherein Fr. Z rants.

From a reader:

Being that it’s ordination season and there’s lots of new young priests eager to do priestly things, there’s something that crossed my mind recently. My understanding is that in order to hear confessions and absolve sins, priests need permission from the bishop. Is this something that happens automatically once a deacon is ordained a priest, or does there have to be paperwork filled out first? Basically, what I’m getting at is if someone not endanger of death went up to a newly ordained priest right after his ordination, could he licitally and validly absolve that person?

Ordination is one thing, permission from the Church to do priestly things is another.  Validly ordained priests must have faculties (permission, authorization) to say Mass, to preach, and to receive sacramental confessions.

Of course, since there are no longer any benefices, the whole point of ordaining a man – at least for diocesan priests – is precisely so that he can do priestly things.

I was ordained for an Italian diocese and, as a result, I did not go through the process that American priests have at the moment of their ordination. But how different could it be?  In my case – and in the cases of two American priests, one religious and one diocesan, I just checked with, we all had our paperwork, with the indications of faculties, before our ordinations.  I am sure that each new American or English or (CHOSE A PLACE) priest already has paperwork completed ahead of time so that at the moment of their ordination they have, not only their assignments, but their faculties as well.  In other words, they would, from the moment they are ordained, have faculties to say Mass, to preach, and to receive sacramental confessions.

An amusing aside: Since I was working for the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei” even before my ordination, I wrote my own faculties to use the 1962 Missale Romanum.  The Cardinal signed it ahead of time.  Thus, from the moment I was ordained I also had faculties for the older form of Mass.  Happily, none of that is needed today because of our wonderful Pope Benedict and that great gift to priests Summorum Pontificum.   I still have that document, as a souvenir of the bad old days.

Your question, however, prompts things from my memory.

Once upon a time some men were ordained only to say Mass, they were ordained “simplex“.  Sometimes they were called “Mass priests”.  I suspect that doesn’t happen anymore, except, perhaps, in some monasteries.  Perhaps it should?  I don’t know.  Also, once upon a time, in some places young priests were examined a few months after their ordination for the faculty to hear confessions.  Some continuing education and refreshers might be a good idea.

Digging deeper into my memory, in my own case, before ordination I had to do a whole series of oral exams – conducted by examiners appointed by the Vicariate of Rome – on different “tracts” or “topics”, such as De novissimis (On the Last Things), De gratia (On grace), De sacramentis (On sacraments), De virtutibus (On virtues) etc..  We hadn’t been educated specifically with a “tract” methodology, but they were still examining by it!  I went from examiner to examiner, for different topics.  I actually did one of my interrogations in Latin, since the examiner and I weren’t communicating well in Italian or English.  I did my Hebrew exam in Latin as well, but that is another kettle of gefilte fish.  I also had to write out my oath of fidelity, in front of witnesses, and then read it aloud with my hand on the Bible.  I did that in Latin too.  Hmmm… both my ordinations were in Latin also.  I am sensing a theme.

Given the fact that I frequently receive questions from people about this or that dopey priest using a strange form of absolution, were I pope would ratchet up the pre-ordination exams, especially concerning moral theology and about matters of the confessional.  Were I a diocesan bishop, I would talk to the men I was ordaining for my diocese to find out what they knew and what they didn’t know on a whole range of topics.  I would include the Extraordinary Form of Sacraments.  That’s the Roman Rite, right?  Is a Latin Church, Roman Rite priest well-formed if he doesn’t know half of his Rite?

And while I am getting steamed up, did you know that Canon Law for the Latin Church requires that seminarians be “very well trained” in Latin (can. 249 – “linguam latinam bene calleant“… not just calleant, but bene calleant)?  Did you know that Canon Law requires that they study especially St. Thomas Aquinas (can. 252 §3)?  Did you know that the Congregation for Education/Seminaries requires by a 1989 document that all seminary curricula include a separate rubric for Patristics (HERE and is it in English anywhere?!?)?  If they don’t learn these things, have they been properly formed?  some guy has to stand up in front of the ordaining bishops and attest that they are.  So, as a bishop (which will – thanks be to God - never happen) were I to discern that the gaps in formation were serious enough, I would delay their ordinations and then zoom over to the seminary with Darth Vader music playing and find out why the hell my men didn’t learn a, b, or c.

It is really hard to blame priests of a certain age and era of ordination for things they didn’t learn (though because of the obligations of their state in life they were/are obliged to fill in the gaps once they see them).  Bishops, on the other hand….

St. John Chrysostom said:

I speak not otherwise than it is, but as I find it in my own actual experience. I do not think there are many among bishops that will be saved.  … Do not tell me that the priest or the deacon is at fault. Their guilt comes upon the head of those who ordained them.  (Acta Apostolorum 3, 5-6)

Okay, I’m ranting now.

Seminaries are vastly improved since my day.  Vastly.

And, yes, new priests have faculties.  Don’t worry.

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32 Responses to QUAERITUR: Can the newly ordained hear confessions? Wherein Fr. Z rants.

  1. “Once upon a time some men were ordained only to say Mass”

    One might say that every traditionally ordained priest is a priest simplex, at least for a half hour or so.

    In the traditional EF rite of ordination, the powers to offer sacrifice and to forgive sins are conferred explicitly and separately, unlike in the new OF rite of ordination, which–as I understand it, perhaps inadequately– is vague about conferral of specific powers.

    The EF conferral of the power to offer sacrifice is conferred before the offertory, whereas the conferral of the power to forgive sins occurs later, after holy communion.

  2. cresci says:

    Down here in Brazil it is a little different: It varies from diocese to diocese.
    In most major archdioceses where “lack of clergy” is not a major issue, faculties are granted along with parish assignments (and “automatic” bination and trination rights also, namely stomping over Canon Law). That is usually done a week AFTER ordination, so the neo-sacerdos has enough time to say his first masses freely anywhere and/or take a small break before assuming pastoral duties.
    On smaller dioceses where the number of clergy is tight or outnumbers the number of parishes (or where “pastoral” reasons are more important than “the evil hand of the Law” – in the lingo of the Liberation theologians and other kinds of progressivists), it’s handled differently: usually the parish assignments will be known beforehand (or even the diaconal placement will be on a parish that later on the same ordained priest will assume as administrator and then later, if he deserves, as pastor). Thus the subject will have all the paperwork done pre-ordination, and will have faculties already granted by ordination time.

  3. bookworm says:

    “Once upon a time some men were ordained only to say Mass, they were ordained “simplex“.

    Perhaps the best known example of such a priest is Ven. Solanus Casey, OFM Cap., who was (according to an old biography of him that I have, “The Porter of St. Bonaventure’s”) ordained “simplex” because he really struggled with his academics in seminary (he had a lot of trouble learning Latin; perhaps he had what we would now call a learning disability) and because — according to the book — his superiors thought he was a bit too sensitive a soul to handle hearing confessions of grave sins. Ironically, though, he became a confidant for thousands of people during his ministry.

  4. An article that appeared in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review last year, calling for the possibility of ordaining knowledgeable older men as simplex priests, without requiring seminary attendance:

    http://frvanhove.wordpress.com/2011/06/10/simplex-priests-now/

  5. Supertradmum says:

    I know three seminaries in the States, two with graduate programs, which do not require Latin. If a student knows Spanish, as his first language, he can “test out” of Spanish and that is his only language requirement besides English. I know this first hand.

    Secondly, not only is Latin not required, but the Patristics and Scholastic classes, as in Aquinas, are taught ad hoc, as the teachers want to present, and there are no “core” courses. In two classes on Aquinas one year, there were only a total of four boys taking the two semester course, and it was not required to take the second one.

    Thirdly, sacramental theology is “pastoral” not theological in some classes, as I have personal expereince of young men calling me for clarification.

    Fourthly, the CCC is not taught, never, never. I gave some copies to sems in graduate school and they have never had to use them, and in the third year already.

    I am glad, Father Z, that you think things have improved. I myself was in seminary classes, in the local college (sorry, not at a feminist, but as the only girl in theology and philosophy in the old days, when girls did not take such stuff) and Aquinas was never studied. I had to make up for that lack much later, during graduate school.

    I wait for the real renewal of American seminaries.

  6. Fr. Thomas says:

    When I was ordained a priest eight years ago I did not immediately receive faculties to hear Confession from the diocesan bishop. My abbot had granted me the necessary faculties for the monastery, but it was about 10 days before I received them from the chancery. I distinctly remember having to turn someone away for the Sacrament because I did not have the faculties (it was not a life or death situation but I could tell the individual was disturbed because he could not receive the Eucharist). However, my confrere who was ordained last month had them immediately. In other words, it varies. Just ask the priest, he will tell you if he has faculties.

    The question of faculties reminded me of an interesting historical side note. As Fr. Z mentioned, in the past you were required to pass a series of examinations or you were simply not ordained. However that still wasn’t enough for a priest to be a Confessor for a convent of sisters or monastery for nuns. The older members of my community used to speak about how they were required to have been ordained for at least 5 years (by that time having had regular practice for hearing confessions) and then be examined again before they were given the faculty to hear the Confessions of Consecrated Religious.
    Which poses an interesting question: If such care was still given to the selection of Confessors for Women Religious, would we have need the papal investigation and oversight of the LCWR today?

  7. APX says:

    I was at my friend’s ordination last night. From what i can tell, he’s pretty well formed. Knows Latin, passed his faculties exams, knows or will soon know the EF and will offer it, has solid theology, and intends on actually hearing confessions…regularly.

  8. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Re: Solanus Casey — It wasn’t so much that he had trouble learning Latin, as that all the classes in Milwaukee’s seminary were in German or Latin. And since they expected everybody to know Latin already, and since Germans pronounce Latin differently anyway… well, it doesn’t seem to have been Happy Fun Time Seminary. [Seminary isn't supposed to be fun.]

  9. paenitentia says:

    I wrote my masters thesis (KU Leuven) on the topic of penitential jurisdiction. For those who might be interested in reading it, the .pdf can be found here:
    http://kuleuven.academia.edu/TravisRankin/Papers/877876/Jurisdiction_in_the_Sacrament_of_Penance_A_Canonical_-_Theological_Schema
    Despite the fact that we rarely hear much about penitential jurisdiction, we should take care not to forget about its importance within the framework of the sacrament. Indeed, in the modern penitential discipline of the Church, such importance is evidenced by the fact that the offenses typified in can. 1378 § 2, 2° (attempted sacramental absolution and the prohibited hearing of confession) have been elevated to the status of graviora delicta as per the May 2010 revisions of Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela.

  10. Supertradmum says:

    Henry Edwards, I rarely disagree with you and do not know if I am now, but formation is so important for any man coming out of the world, I cannot imagine no seminary training. This would, in my opinion, cause the types of scandals we have just encountered. There has to be oversight concerning the spiritual formation, as well as the academic, and that takes time, no matter how old a person is.

  11. dans0622 says:

    I don’t think there is any need for a priest to have a faculty to celebrate Mass.

  12. Supertradmum: “Henry Edwards, I rarely disagree with you and do not know if I am now”

    I am not the author of the article with which I assume you disagree, nor have I expressed any opinion on anything it says.

  13. As part of the Confession Practicum I taught to diaconate classes for some years, I would have the deacons write to their Bishops requesting that they be sent those parts of the faculties referring to the Sacrament of Penance, that the same might be discussed in class. All bishops complied.

    The results varied from refreshing to truly horrific. The faculties that were refreshing included, for instance, specific mention of the absolution of abortion (otherwise reserved to the bishop). Their was one diocese that presented one short paragraph on the faculties for confession. The syntax was so confused that I could only reckon that no priest of that diocese had general faculties, ever, to grant an absolution, but obtained them only by way of the appointment in virtue of the law.

    The practice of granting faculties varies enormously from diocese to diocese. Some get their faculties immediately, in the sacristy after Mass, as it should be (for many want to go to confession to the new priest immediately, before the first blessings even!).

    Some priests don’t get the faculties for weeks, or never, for it is still the practice in some places never to grant general faculties, but to let the priests obtain the faculties by virtue of the law, that is, if they are appointed to an office (such as parish priest or chaplain), which necessitates faculties to exercise that office properly. Sometimes the bishop will announce the assignments of the priests at the end of the ordination Mass. In doing this, he is granting them faculties by virtue of the Law.

    And then there are the super liberal dioceses which appoint, say, Sister LCWR as personnel manager for the clergy, so that she makes the appointments without oversight of the bishop, making the appointments and the ex-officio faculties invalid. This would have the “benefit” of “distancing” the bishop. Does the priest assume he has faculties. Most likely. Does the penitent assume this. Sure. Ecclesia supplet for the faculties.

    It is always prudent to ask a newly ordained priest if he has received the faculties to absolve sin.

  14. acardnal says:

    @Holy Souls Hermitage: That is disturbing, Father. Don’t newly appointed bishops go to “bishop’s school”? Seems me there is a need for this in view of above and so many other dubious actions.

  15. @acardnal – Not to worry, those who did idiot things are quickly retiring/dying. The young canon lawyers I know have entirely rewritten the faculties in their dioceses. Times they are a changing. But still, it is prudent to ask. And there is a bishops’ school (they all go to Rome for some weeks), but this wouldn’t be something they would cover, for everyone would assume that it’s all being done properly. Not.

    I remember that as a chaplain in Lourdes there was a constant fight to get faculties from the (now previous) bishop, although we had faculties by way of assignment as chaplains. Written faculties simply were not given. I asked specifically for the faculty to absolve from abortion, and received it. After a huge row (before I got there), the Holy See faxed the bishop what he should give us as faculties, which (in consideration of the shrine and the multitude of confessions daily) were extremely extensive. The fax was simply photocopied and given to us! I think that about the only thing I couldn’t absolve was a direct, violent, and malicious attack on the person of the Holy Father, which is reserved to the Holy Father (if he survives!).

  16. [+amgD]
    Priests, after all, are empowered by our Lord Himself, no less, as proxies fully qualified to grant us the Forgiveness we have already been given– [The Church has Christ's own authority to determine how the sacraments He instituted are celebrated.] but not yet accepted and received; we also know that while the advice we receive will vary by minister, the Forgiveness itself does not (for this reason, I am quite certain that the right practice to do is still to Confess one’s Mortal Sins at the earliest possible valid opportunity, but then of course, inform if not re-Confess if one is in the practice of aligning spiritual development under the guidance of a Spiritual Director–for the same reason that will follow presently)–

    For to bar the validly-ordained Priest from granting any one this divine gift would at best be tantamount to presuming ourselves entitled to a minute more of life than we already have had… and I would not need or dare mention what I might think to be “at worst…”

    Fewer than 48 hours ago, I had a discussion with one of our brothers in Christ who told me of [a well-known sacred minister I am ashamed has slipped my mind at the moment] who the moment after he was Ordained a Priest, went to the Confessional to grant the Forgiveness so few of us would receive, much less appreciate for what it really is! [I hope he had faculties.]

  17. mpolo says:

    As a religious priest, I had been working outside of Rome as a deacon, so that I was not able to take the exam “ad audiendas confessiones” until I was there for ordination. As a result, it was over two months before I received permission from my diocese of residence (any time I change diocese of residence, I have to apply for new faculties, by the way) to hear confessions. During this time I technically had permission to hear confessions of members of the order only (as that permission comes from my superiors), but no faculties to hear confessions of lay people.

    In general, faculties are granted by the diocese where you have residency, but are valid for the whole Church, except for the United States and Canada, which have stripped faculties from all priests who do not explicitly receive those faculties from each diocese they will be hearing confessions in. So, if my mother were to become seriously ill and I wanted to visit her, I might find myself without faculties to celebrate Mass publicly, to preach, or to hear confession, depending on how quickly the local bishop reacts to my request for faculties.

    [Having double-checked with a distinguished canonist, I'm not aware of anything that would lead to the conclusion that the bishops of the US and Canada have "stripped faculties from all priests who do not explicitly receive those faculties from each diocese they will be hearing confessions in." I'd be open to correction if there's some evidence of this, but I've not heard of anything. This seems contrary to the norm of can. 974.1 (that restricting the faculty should only be done for grave reasons).

    The local ordinary (diocesan bishop or his equivalent) must grant the faculty to hear confessions of any of the faithful. Religious superiors grant the faculty to hear the confessions of their subjects and "others living day and night in the house." (can. 969.2) Every time a religious priest changes his domicile, he needs a new grant of faculties to hear confessions of those who are other than his confreres.

    Furthermore, unless there is a very serious reason to do so, I think it is a bad idea for a priest to hear the confessions of his parents and probably of his siblings or even close friends. Certainly not of anyone under his authority.]

  18. @mpolo – you say…

    In general, faculties are granted by the diocese where you have residency, but are valid for the whole Church, except for the United States and Canada, which have stripped faculties from all priests who do not explicitly receive those faculties from each diocese they will be hearing confessions in.

    I knew that was the case for the Archdiocese of New York, at least in the mid 1990s, when the policy was that you lost faculties if you failed to report your presence within eight days. But who knows if they don’t tell you?

    Was what you say a decision of the Bishops Conferences? Each bishop would have to ratify that…

    I know of one diocese where this was not ratified…

  19. Victor says:

    When my brother was ordained to the priesthood last year, faculties were given to the newly ordained during compline, which is also when the chalices were consecrated. His ordination was at 3 o’clock, so he was for about 5 hours a priest without faculties.
    Also, the priest that celebrates mass in the extraordinary form in our parish was reconciled from the SSPX only two years ago. At one of his first masses, I asked him to hear my confession, but he had to decline, not having received his faculties yet.

  20. Fr. Thomas says:

    @mpolo
    I am interested to know what canons or particular legislation to which you are referring. My monastery is near the border with an adjacent diocese and we regularly provide Sacramental assistance to the neighboring diocese. We only have faculties from our diocese, and from what I understand of canon law, they are sufficient unless specifically revoked by the local ordinary. Hence my need to know what particular law supercedes the universal law.

  21. I’m no canon lawyer, and I’m happy to be corrected, but it seems to me that particular law trumping universal law doesn’t happen, does it? If that possibility were to be already noted in the universal law, there would be no trumping. Those who posit an administrative act “ultra vires” (beyond one’s powers) do not posit an administrative act.

  22. Fr. Thomas says:

    @Holy Souls Hermitage
    I am not a canon lawyer either, but any particular legislation that supersedes universal law is always approved by the Holy See or a specific permission given in the Universal Law. Two examples: My religious congregation has a constitution that was approved by the Holy See. One of the canons deal with seniority, in the CIC presbyteral seniority is determined by age. That canon is antithetical to monastic life, which has always held that monastic profession (or the determination of the abbot) decided seniority. We, therefore, adopted the change in our constitution and it was duly submitted to the Holy See for ratification. An example based in the law. Priests are not allowed to binate, however, the local ordinary is given the authority – in the CIC – to grant the dispensation. In other words, the law forbids it but it can be allowed for ‘pastoral’ reasons.
    So I am extremely interested in seeing the wording of the particular law and its acceptance by the Holy See or the canons in the CIC that give this authority to a bishops’ conference.

  23. Yes, the wording is everything.

    I do know of a religious congregation which gives parish missions week in, week out. At least for a while they had to have separate letters of stating good standing, that faculties were ratified, and that police checks were up to date, even every week if they moved to another diocese week by week.

  24. acardnal says:

    Good thing you didn’t mention that congregation’s name! Must be something there that needs minding. There are some orders I worry about sorry to say.

  25. Many great saints were originally ordained as sacerdos simplex without faculties to hear confessions. I believe it was once very common in England. Blessed John Duns Scotus is one example of a priest who started out as sacerdos simplex.

  26. It strikes me that the sometimes extreme sloppyness regarding the provision of faculties goes hand in hand with the sometimes extreme sloppyness regarding the provision of confession.

  27. jameshughes1947@hotmail.com says:

    as regards priestly formation in the Latin mass it would appear that ,despite the wishes of the Pope, the archbishop of Westminster thinks that the curriculum of seminaries is too crowded for the students to be learning about the Latin mass and that the can learn about it after ordination. In Scotland we have a bishop who says that having canvassed the priests in his diocese the have the view that it is the least of their pastoral priorities and those who disagree, with the bishop, simply have to learn obedience. What are we to make of bishops who ex facie thumb their noses at the Pope? Do we obey them or the supreme Pontiff ???

  28. Shamrock says:

    Holy Toledo!!! This is so confusing and I am wondering now what I need to know/ask about
    a priest before confessing! Also I graduated in the late 50′s from a well recognized Catholic
    women’s college. In order to matriculate there I needed at least 3 years of Latin as well as
    3 or more of a modern language. To obtain my Bachelor of Arts degree I had to study 18
    hours of theology as well as 18 hours of philosophy including Logic, Cosmology, Epistomology,
    Ontology and Metaphysics. Our theology included a complete semester of studying the Summa
    Theologica by Thomas Aquinas. Sounds like a lot more than what is required in seminaries today if one is to believe what I read here…..no wonder our Liturgy, etc has been in such big trouble as
    well as the sacrament of Penance. In fact, there seems to be even little agreement about what to
    call it: Penance, Reconciliation, Confession, etc. and that is the least of the matter. God have
    mercy on us all!!! No wonder confusion reigns in the pews. It seems no better up in the more
    rarified air of the hierarchy!

  29. dans0622 says:

    I’ve never heard of the restrictions mentioned by “mpolo.” While an attempt at such a thing is not impossible, it seems such an act would be invalid and without any force because the restriction a local ordinary can impose is only allowed in particular cases. In the scenario mentioned by “mpolo,” appears to be a general decree (c. 29 or c. 31), not a singular administrative act (c. 48ff). The presence, or not, of a “grave cause” is open to interpretation so I don’t think the lack of a grave cause would impact validity. A priest could certainly pursue recourse if there is no cause for the revocation. Besides, it seems to me that the topic of c. 974.1 is the revocation of the faculty by the priest’s own ordinary, not one in another place. That revocation means the priest loses the faculty entirely and can no longer hear confessions.

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  31. mpolo says:

    @Fr. Thomas – Two years ago, to visit my home diocese, I had to first contact the priest in any church where I wanted to celebrate. Armed with his permission to celebrate at that parish, I had to send a letter to the provincial administration of our order, which then contacted the bishop. Shortly before my trip, I received a notice from the Bishop of Little Rock (who is now Archbishop Sartain of Seattle) that he had granted me the same faculties that I enjoy in my diocese of residence.

    If I don’t have to do this, it would be great, obviously, but that is what we were told we had to do for all dioceses of the U.S. and Canada.

  32. Fr. Thomas says:

    @mpolo
    My monastery is in Illinois and my parents live in Texas. The only thing that is required of me to offer Mass in a parish in Texas is to present a letter to the pastor from my abbot, which states that I am a priest in good standing and to provide certification that I have completed the Virtus training.
    It might help that I usually offer to take a few Masses on the weekend to help the pastor out. Now when I spent an entire summer at the University of Dallas and was engaged in parochial assistance, it did require permission from the bishop but I did not receive faculties from him. The same applies for my Eastern Catholic parish, I have permission from the eparch but the faculties come directly from the Congregation for Eastern Churches.