QUAERITUR: In mortal sin, but I have to go to Mass. What do I do? Fr. Z rants.

confessionalFrom a reader:

I feel horrible I fell in to mortal sin today and I am supposed to go to Mass, what do I do?

Why is this hard?

You go to Mass anyway.  Just go.  If you shouldn’t receive Holy Communion, then don’t.

Go to confession as soon as possible.

Part of the confusion comes from the mistaken notion that people should or can receive Holy Communion every time they go to Mass without any consideration of the state of their souls.   People go forward automatically these days. They connect going to Mass with going to Communion automatically.  Therefore, if they go to Mass they must receive.

Folks, if you know you can’t receive, go to Mass anyway!  You still have your Sunday or Holy Day obligation to fulfill.  You fulfill it by going to Mass, not by going to Communion.  Catholics are obliged to receive Communion once a year, which also implies confession before that Communion.  Let’s leave aside here the issue of making a “perfect act of contrition” and then receiving Communion and stick to the obvious.

Who knows how long it has been since 95% of some congregations have been to confession?  And yet they blithely troop up and stick out their hands.

We have a disastrous situation these days with the use/availability of the sacrament of penance.

Many people have no idea what is required to be properly disposed to receive Holy Communion.

Bishops and priests are to blame for this disastrous state of affairs.  Through their neglect of teaching about and preaching about and trying to build up the sacrament of penance they have placed the souls of their flocks in danger of eternal separation from God in hell.  They have endangered their own souls as well, because they will be held responsible for this before the King of Dreadful Majesty at their judgment.

And some of them – some of you, Fathers – are a lot closer to the end than the beginning.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Supertradmum says:

    One of the problems is that in the old days, and at some of our EF Masses, there was/is a priest available for Confessions before Mass. This is a wonderful custom and allows all of us to go to Confession before Sunday Mass. I wish this happened everywhere.

  2. Patikins says:

    I am so blessed to belong to a parish :

    — that typically offers confessions seven days a week
    — that preaches about the need for sacramental confession
    — where it’s normal to see people remain in theirs seats during communion.

    (This is, by the way, NOT a TLM parish.)

    I myself refrain from receiving Our Lord from time to time even when I don’t necessarily need to because of mortal sin. I get so upset because of liturgical abuses when visiting family that I almost always refrain at one particular parish. It doesn’t seem right to receive him when I am so angry. I am almost always the only one out of the whole congregation at that church (250-300 or so) not to receive. I guess they’re all holy people.

  3. Father… you’re killing my first post for “posting too fast”!

    Just stay in the pew. Or rather, just file out when everybody else does, stand at the side, and then file right back into the pew; and then, when people come back, stand at the other side until the people in front of you have filed back in. Look for the in-process converts or non-Catholics who attend Mass; they know how to do it.

    Nobody had better stare or say an inquiring word to you, because that’s shockingly rude as well as a breach of your sacramental rights. But if they do, bring along a cough drop and eat it in front of them while blowing your nose. Or stare hard at them. Or just close your eyes and pray, ignoring such a rudesby.

  4. danphunter1 says:

    Most FSSP and SSPX Masses have priests hearing confessions 30-40 minutes before every Mass.
    It is usually the same priest[that hears confessions] that offers the Mass.
    Though I have seen this at one diocesan parish I have been to, this seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Most confessions are offered on Sat. or during the week, leaving at least all of Saturday night to commit a grave sin. Hopefully this will change soon.
    Having regularly scheduled Confessions before every Mass would solve every case of not being able to recieve at Sunday and weekday Mass if mortal sin is present.

  5. JaneC says:

    I am pleased to say that at my former parish, St. Victor in Hollywood, confessions are always available before Mass (it is an OF parish–it is not only EF parishes that understand the importance of this!).

    Unfortunately, the only scheduled confession time at my current parish, like many others, is on Saturday afternoon. The good news is that both of our priests are in the confessionals for a full hour and a half, and whichever one is not saying Mass will continue to hear confessions until there’s no one else in line. It’s a better situation than at the other parish in our town, where confessions are only heard for half an hour.

  6. Patikins says:

    Suburbanbanshee: at the parish I mentioned above (where I usually refrain from receiving our Lord) they have ushers who stand right at the end of each row as everyone files out for communion making it awkward and even more obvious when someone (me!) chooses not to receive Holy Communion. Some of the ushers seem genuinely confused.

    I don’t know what the RCIA candidates are taught at that parish and I’m not sure I want to know.

  7. Kate says:

    In my Catholic high school, the religion teacher told us that if we were in mortal sin, we were not to receive Commnuion; he also said it was a mortal sin to miss Sunday Mass. This seemed to me to be some sort of oxymoron because the two (receiving Communion and attending Mass) were one in the same for me. When I questioned him about this apparent riddle, he explained as you do here, Fr. Z.

    I was shocked by the idea that a person would go to Mass and not recieve Communion – it was a totally new concept for me.

  8. spschultz says:

    Coincidentally, I just posted a piece on my blog regarding the lack of access to and lack of participation in the Sacrament of Penance in most “Catholic” parishes (now more often described as “communities” or “worship spaces”) today: http://tutorfidelis.wordpress.com/2010/11/03/father-will-forgive-you-%E2%80%93-between-3-and-330-on-saturday/

  9. Taquoriaan says:

    I have to vent here as well, after reading some comments. For some reason the ER seems almost to ‘guarantee’ that priests are available before Mass to hear confession, that Mass is said the proper way and that there are no liturgical abuses.
    The ER is a way in which Mass is said. The OR was introduced because there were many things going wrong, for example people were scared for eternal condemnation and pushed to go to Confession often, even when they had no clue what to confess. So what happened after Vatican II? Things that were covered up because of the rules en regulations were exposed. The mess we see nowadays existed long before Vatican II because it was hidden. Like Jesus says in the Gospel: people were like graves, nicely plastered white from the outside but disgusting to see from the inside.

    My priest was raised in the ER and doesn’t want to perform the ER because of all the hypocrisy he encountered during that time. At the same time, our OR parish has daily Mass (and daily Confession), sometimes you have to wait in line before you can receive the sacrament of Confession.

    In other words: this is not an ER / OR thing, but a lack of education thing that started WAY before Vaticanum II.

    /ends rant.

  10. MJ says:

    Taquoriaan, I think you mean EF and OF?

    “ER seems almost to ‘guarantee’ that priests are available before Mass to hear confession, that Mass is said the proper way and that there are no liturgical abuses.”

    Yup. :)

    “The OR was introduced because there were many things going wrong, for example people were scared for eternal condemnation and pushed to go to Confession often, even when they had no clue what to confess.”

    This isn’t why the OF was introduced.

    “The mess we see nowadays existed long before Vatican II because it was hidden.”

    I don’t think so…

    “…our OR [OF?] parish has daily Mass (and daily Confession), sometimes you have to wait in line before you can receive the sacrament of Confession.”

    This is excellent!

    “this is not an ER / OR thing, but a lack of education thing that started WAY before Vaticanum II.”

    I think that indirectly this is an EF / OF thing. Not all the time, not everywhere, but I think it’s too much of a coincidence that at almost every EF parish you go to there are confessions every day and always before Mass, while at most OF parishes there are confessions once a week or twice a week and usually never on Sundays.

  11. MJ says:

    One more thought, Taquoriaan (for now at least ;). I was raised in the EF, so was my mom, and so were her parents, so were their parents, etc (my dad converted to the EF from Lutheranism as an adult). No hypocrisy has ever been experienced by any of us.

    If your priest experienced hypocrisy back before the OF was around, I am sorry to hear that — however, I am sure it was an isolated case, perhaps specific to his parish or his diocese, and it would not have had anything to do with Catholic dogma, the liturgies, or the EF form.

  12. Lirioroja says:

    It seems to me that experience and catechesis has a lot to do with the confusion. It doesn’t matter if a person attends the EF or the OF – they learn from the example of their parents, teachers, priests, and peers. Catechesis, or a lack of it, shores up or breaks down the lived example. A lot of people of my generation and the one after mine (Gen-Xers an Millenials) are genuinely surprised by things that I consider to be no-brainers (such as the example in this post.) Fortunately it seems that a lot of these young people, at least the ones I meet, are willing to learn.

  13. Tina in Ashburn says:

    Taq, I agree with you that the roots of our problems today go back before Vatican II. While I see more reverential behavior surrounding the EF, good behavior is not entirely absent at OF-only parishes.

    The less-faithful bishops today were priests in the 50s. If certain folks hadn’t been ‘asleep at the wheel’, the confusion of the 60s would have been mitigated. My 90-year old mother remembers well the excitement over the looming Council – all Catholics were well-aware of the needed re-invigoration of the Church that was being predicted. Many were aware of problems in the Church of the 50s and thought the Council was going to fix everything.

    Exiting out of the rabbit-hole and back to Father’s thread – I’ll add that it seems to be true that today’s Catholics seem to think they are ‘owed’ Communion if they attend Mass. I know so many non-practicing Catholics who stay away from Mass because they are in unlawful or unhealthy relationships for instance. When given the opportunity, I encourage such folks to attend Mass anyway, not to receive, but just attend. So many prefer to believe there’s no reason to attend Mass if they can’t receive. But there are graces to be had by just going to Mass and just being there.

    “Lord I am not worthy that thou shouldst come under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed”. Of the many interpretations of Centurion’s phrase, is the following: Lord, you can heal me from over there…you don’t have to come near my unworthiness to do so!

  14. Gail F says:

    I know from experience that it can be very, very difficult for some people to stay in their seats during communion, and not just people who have ushers directing them. When everyone in the entire church is going up, a person can feel tremendous pressure to do the same, and a lot of anxiety that everyone will look at him/her and wonder what horrible sin he/she committed. Of course this is not true (most people are thinking about themselves, not the other people in the pews), but it can feel that way. The person who asked this question may be feeling this pressure, or others. It would be nice if confession were offered at reasonable times in most parishes, and if priests would tell people in what circumstances that they should not come forward. Many people have been catechised to search their consciences for anything that they’ve done that makes them feel cut off from God — which is a laughable simplification of a complicated theological concept, and which pretty much guarantees that most people don’t think they’ve sinned unless they killed someone or, perhaps, committed adultery — and not even then, given their particular circumstances! I don’t know more than a handful of people at my parish, for instance, who think that missing mass is something they need to confess (although staying away from mass is, indeed, a sin that cuts one off from God). This poor person needs to be assured that no one will notice his/her staying seated. After you’ve done it a few times it’s no big deal. But if, for instance, you miss mass and you find it hard to make it to the few minutes for confession available at your parish, you may be sitting out for a while. Again, speaking from experience.

  15. priests wife says:

    great post! Sometimes I don’t receive because the kids were just driving me crazy- I feel like I need to make peace before I receive.

    And yes- don’t ask random people super-private questions like – Why didn’t you go up to communion.

    Father- what is the justification for receiving Eucharist in the hand? Then, it is like you are giving it to yourself???

  16. Tewkes says:

    This is the first time I find myself disagreeing with you, Fr. Z. As I understand it, for a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent” (copied from the catechism). So that may put your statement about the bishops responsibilities “… they have placed the souls of their flocks in danger of eternal separation from God in hell” a bit at odds with that part from the catechism. If the people don’t know it is a mortal sin to receive Communion while in a state of mortal sin, then they are not meeting all three conditions. When I went through RCIA, I don’t recall that ever being mentioned, I learned about it on my own. My point being that if people are not aware something is a mortal sin, then the Church doesn’t hold them responsible. If I am wrong in any of this, please let me know, I need to be an informed Catholic!

  17. dad29 says:


    Although it would be nice, pre-Mass confessions simply are not available everywhere, and are not likely to spring up in most parishes.

    So–for those in the situation at the post-header–perhaps Fr. Z. and other like-minded priests can effect a switch back to the “three hours’ fast” (or midnight!! fast), which allows people to NOT ‘be embarrassed’ at Communion.

  18. Loved Sinner says:

    Love this blog! Thank Father.

    I was fallen away from Holy Mother church for many many years…and prior to that was never really catechised correctly. So can you please help me with some of the initials:
    EF/OR, etc…..my thoughts are Early Form? But not 100% sure.

    Thanks…God Bless!

  19. Dr. Sebastianna says:

    I would like some priests to address this related question: Do you feel imposed upon/annoyed at people who come up to you before or after Mass to ask if you would hear their confession? With the lack of available confession times nowadays, it can be difficult to find confession at a time when you can go… particularly if you work on Saturday afternoons.

  20. polycarped says:

    Thanks for this Fr Z. This clarity regarding receiving the Eucharist needs to be shouted from the rooftops – including the importance and value of making a spiritual communion in times when we are not in the right state to receive. Teaching has become so vague in so many places (especially here in the UK!) and the link to lack of faith in the Real Presence (and Mass rarely being taught/understood as sacrifice) is scarily obvious. There has been quite a lot of publicity relating to Bishop Athanasius Schneider’s short but sweet book ‘Dominus Est’ lately – I think you also mentioned it. It’s worth the read when considering this whole issue and ought to be a wake up call for us. God Bless.

  21. Patikins says:

    I agree, dad29, that a three hour fast would help a lot! I would have to eat something immediately before leaving the house on Sunday morning in order to break the current fasting rules. (It would be easier to to for daily mass.)

    A good, holy priest once told our RCIA class* to say to anyone who might ask, “I didn’t fast well.” If said with the right tone I think it will imply “it’s non of your business. I’ve never been asked though.

    *I wasn’t a convert, I just sat in to learn/re-learn the faith

  22. Sliwka says:

    Recently I attended Mass at a parish that is not my usual. I had attended her ein the past, with my wife while we were dating especially prior to my conversion. I left during my RCIA to where we curently worship out of what seemed to be a “Jesus the Warm Fuzzy” (to take a phrase from Fr. William O’Maley) atmosphere permeating throughout the parish. For the first number of my RCIA meetings, we did activities like thinking about our life and where we felt close to and far from God. No discussion about God being with us through our struggles, references to harships (such as from the Psalms), or about praying for God’s help and the power of prayer. It was very touchy-feely. The lay leaders just seemed ignorant and unprepared.

    I use this background to finally say that while I attended this Mass, Father closed his sermon with statements about the need for Sacramental Confession (unfortunately it is only offered at this parish for a half hour Saturday mornings).

    I guess my question would be to those in the know, why is Confession often in many parishes offered solely on Saturday? Is it more diffucult to offer on Sunday mornings (especially in a large parish where people expect Mass to begin “on time”)?

  23. Joan M says:

    In a thread in the Liturgical and Sacramental Forum at Catholic Answers that addressed a person receiving Communion in a state or mortal sin, someone posted that it is acceptable to make an act of perfect contrition before receiving Communion but those who do are urged to go to confession ASAP.

    There was another comment that referred to Canon #916 and suggested that it was being misinterpreted.

    I also commented that this canon applies only to priests (and bishops). A responding comment stated that this is not true – stating “Canon 916 is not limited only to priests.”

    After carefully reading the Canon in question, I posted the following:

    “It might appear so, however we, the laity, do not celebrate Mass, only the priest does this, and it is stated “Anyone who is conscious of grave sin may not celebrate Mass or receive the Body of the Lord without previously having been to sacramental confession…”. We, the laity, are bound to go to Mass regardless of whether we may receive Communion or not, therefore it is not addressed to us.

    “And there does not appear to be any occasion that there would be a grave reason while there being no opportunity to confess for a lay person – if there is a priest to celebrate Mass, there is opportunity for a lay person to confess, even if the confession needed to be after Mass as the priest could then give the penitent Communion, if requested.

    “In face of this, it seems clear that this only applies to a priest (and probably only one who finds himself in an area where (a) he is in a state of mortal sin, (b) there is no other priest within hundreds of miles and (c) he must celebrate Mass for the people of the area he is in.

    “Perhaps a Canon Lawyer could advise on this. ”

    No one has come back to either confirm or refute what I have written, whether Canon Lawyer or not. I would like to know whether I was correct in my understanding of the particular Canon.

  24. MJ says:

    Joan M, the person on the forum at Catholic Answers who said it was acceptable to make an act of perfect contrition before receiving Communion, but those who do are urged to go to confession ASAP, is wrong. If someone is in the state of Mortal Sin, they must must make a good confession to restore Sanctifying Grace to their souls before receiving the Eucharist.

    As you mentioned, if the person cannot get to confession before Mass, they can have their confession said after Mass and the priest can give them communion after Mass as well. As Father Z said, one can go to Mass without receiving the Eucharist.

  25. MJ says:

    To follow up with an example: the “grave reason” phrase in Canon 916 might apply to a priest in mission work, who falls into the state of mortal sin, has no other priest available to confess to, and needs to offer Mass to the faithful.

    Here is a quote from Colin Donovan, EWTN’s canon lawyer, regarding Canon 916:

    “…the laity would almost never be able to take advantage of this [Canon 916], as our opportunities for confession are extensive and the obligation to receive Communion generally not present. Of course, it is a blessing to know that if we face death without the physical possibility of confessing, that our perfect sorrow is sufficient.”

    If Canon 916 applied to any layperson who couldn’t make it to confession at their convenience, or was uncomfortable with confession, why would anyone ever go to confession? If Canon 916 applied like this, it would make confession unnecessary.

    I think that the rule of not receiving if you know yourself to be in the state of Mortal Sin should be followed. There is too much room for error if one acts otherwise.

    It’s probably best if we steer the conversation away from Canon 916. Unless there is a Canon Lawyer here, we laity shouldn’t dive this deeply into issues lest we misinterpret and lead others to a wrong conclusion!

  26. This is a tad off-topic, but not terribly.

    Is it appropriate for a priest to wear a white stole to hear Confessions?

  27. The Cobbler says:

    For what it’s worth: if it’s especially awkward/difficult to be at Mass in the pew and not go up for Communion, try standing in the back or some other mildly irregular nook.

    I know it’s sort of obvious and, on the other hand, still a little awkward, but it’s worth remembering that it can usually be pulled off, at least most places I’ve been.

  28. Ed the Roman says:

    As you mentioned, if the person cannot get to confession before Mass, they can have their confession said after Mass and the priest can give them communion after Mass as well. As Father Z said, one can go to Mass without receiving the Eucharist.

    Done that.

  29. dominic1955 says:

    When I was a seminarian, I “sat out” quite a bit on Sundays because I ended up assisting at often 3+ Masses and I am generally of the opinion to receive only once. Although in some sense you stood out like a sore thumb (or at least I did in my cassock) I suppose its actually easier for someone in my (former) condition because as a “pseudo-priest” no usher or random parishioner would dare give me the “evil eye” like they might be wont to do to a fellow parishioner who sat out for Communion.

    Same thing applied recently, though not in the same way. Our local TLM parish priests were kind enough to offer each on of their three Requiem Masses for All Souls Day publicly and I decided to assist at as many as possible. Of course, I went to more Masses than I received Communion at but in that sort of venue, its not terribly uncommon to sit out and the people realize there are a myriad of reasons why would might not go to Communion but still assist at Mass.

  30. Anne M. says:

    There have been times when I haven’t been able to receive Communion and I try to sit at the end of a pew so I can move out of the way while people get in line. On one occasion I did have a woman loudly ask me in a shocked voice, “Dear, aren’t you going to receive Communion?”

    When I shook my head she paused and stared at me like I was a creature from outer space. This happened in my parish church which is very traditional, so I assumed she was a visitor. Still, it was an unsettling experience.

  31. Athelstan says:

    This problem of – let us call it unworthy – reception of communion will only be addressed adequately when priests preach on it from the pulpit, regularly and in depth. When it’s hammered home in RCIA.

    For the most part, that simply has not been happening.

  32. Patikins says:

    Loved Sinner asked:
    I was fallen away from Holy Mother church for many many years…and prior to that was never really catechised correctly. So can you please help me with some of the initials:
    EF/OR, etc…..my thoughts are Early Form? But not 100% sure.

    I am glad you are back. God is good!

    I see no one has answered your question so I’ll do my best. I assume the original poster who used the abbreviations ER and OR meant Extraordinary Rite and Ordinary Rite. Technically there are two forms of the same Rite so that terminology isn’t accurate. The terminology others used (EF/OF) refers to the extraordinary form and ordinary form of the Roman Catholic mass. This latter pair is the terminology used by Pope Benedict XVI in summorum pontificum which allowed priests to say the older form without bishops approval.

    The Extraordinary Form is the older form of the mass a.k.a. Traditional Latin Mass (TLM)/mass according to the 1962 missal and the Ordinary Form is current mass, sometime known as the novus ordo (NO, literally new order) — the form you will find in the majority of Catholic parishes.

    I hope this helps!

  33. tzard says:

    Regarding getting stares – It’s a good idea to close one’s eyes. I used to do this oftentimes during the Lord’s Prayer, to avoid the grabby hands and the eager looks. Or focus on the tabernacle, the Cross or your prayer book.

    While it’s not a bad idea to file out and file back in, if things were the way they are supposed to be (and the way the used to be long ago), you might have a majority of the pew not going up, in which case, it’s not practical that everyone file out and wait at the end. I will only file out if there’s someone who needs extra room – like the elderly, infirmed, or a mother with Child. Everyone else can scoot-by, unless I’m truly at the end of the row. I’ll sit back, but won’t notice who goes up, I’ll have my eyes closed in prayer. (posession of the eyes, doncha know)

  34. Francis says:

    Great topic!
    I was raised Catholic, made my Sacraments, then promptly Joined the Military, saw the world, Married in the Catholic Church, then committed a Mortal Sin by Divorcing my Wife! Very selfish and prideful decision. I selfishly thought Love was a feeling, and not a Decision. So, now 20+ Years later after remarrying (outside the Church 17 years ago, of course, and probably not helpful but in a Protestant Church in Europe), I was suddenly struck by the Holy Spirit 3 years ago! I became a ‘Catholic’ once again, instantly! I can’t study enough about God, the Catholic Church, reading many books by Pope Benedict, by Arch Bishop Fulton Sheen (Life of Christ is Amazing), etc! My question is that I believe, or feel that I am Always in a State of Mortal Sin! The very Sin of Divorcing my Wife was that Mortal Sin! I shouldn’t have Divorced her. Horribly Selfish Decision! I have repented, received Absolution, but as I am Married a Second time, and have a 6 and 8 years old, so My State of being with the Mystical Body of Christ seems very bad for my soul. I have discussed Annulment with several Priests, however, I truly believe that my Marriage was a ‘Valid’ marriage. That I loved her, wanted to provide for her till Death do us part, had two children with her, then Threw her Away. I don’t truly believe that I can undo the Marriage with an Annulment. Certainly not all requests for Annulment are Granted, some percentage of Marriages must have been valid. So, if that is correct, and not being a “husband” to my second wife (in the eyes of the state, in the eyes of God maybe a girlfriend or a concubine) would cause her to seek Divorce, and thus my second set of Children would be thrown into a Divorce.
    I don’t know what I’m asking, I haven’t received communion in almost 1 year, since I read the CC about being in a State of Grace! Confession doesn’t seem to be the solution (although I go), as I know I’m going to have relations with my new wife at some point, maybe not for several days, or weeks, as this seems to be the Sin that I would be committing (adultery), so I try to live as brother and sister, but she is not willing to try to live as brother and sister, and as It was my Sin… I also don’t feel that I’m worthy of Annulment consideration. Worthy meaning that I was a Stinker in what I did. That I am not Worthy of getting out of my not being able to Receive. An Annulment seems to “let me off the hook”. I receive many Graces from the Holy Spirit! A gift of Learning Scripture beyond my Mortal means, and of being a much better Person. Truly trying to Love one another as Jesus Loved Us! But, it seems I really did a very bad thing, almost like a Murder, after all, we are ‘one flesh’!
    Any CC advice or Admonishment (if I hit a nerve, sorry) is Appreciated!

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