ASK FATHER: What about confession if the virus gets really bad and we are all locked down?

From a reader…


I just read that Italy is taking the measure of locking down the entire country, 60 million people, until 3 April.  I don’t know if this is irrational panic or not.  Let’s say that it is.  Let’s say this coronavirus or another disease gets really bad.

If the country is on lockdown I suppose we won’t have the obligation to go to Mass on Sundays.

However, how would we get Last Rites or make a confession?  If priests have the right or permission to move around for pastoral emergencies, how would they hear our confessions if we can’t let them in or go out?

If things get really really really bad, there is the option of General Absolution.  A priest, even from a bit of a distance, could absolve a group of people of their sins.  That said, when the emergency abated, everyone who had received that absolution would have to go to regular auricular confession as soon as possible, except in the case of danger of death.

But, sticking to the scenario as presented…

Last Rites, which means (possibly) confession, with anointing and administration of Viaticum.   That would require that the priest by physically present to the person.  A priest could use a tong to administer the anointing and even the Host for Communion.  But he has to be within reach physically to anoint the person on the skin.

Confession.   This is a little more flexible.   I am running scenarios through my mind.

For absolution to be valid, the priest and the penitent must be present to each other physically.  They don’t have to be close.  I think that present means within hearing distance.  If the priest and penitent are far enough apart that they have to shout and other people could hear them, in that case, General Absolution can be used.

But wait!  Perhaps you have seen that in some older confessionals there were electronic devices like telephones in a jail visiting room for penitents (or priests!) who were hard of hearing.  Therefore, the penitent, on the other side of the grate, could use an electronic means to make himself heard.

If that is the case, I think that the priest, on one side of the door, and the penitent, on the other side of the door, could communicate the matter of the confession (the sins) and subsequent counsel and penance, either by raising their voices (if not using General Absolution) or even by mobile phone, or text.  Yes, there could be a risk that someone might intercept.  However, I don’t see a difference between that and the confessional amplifier other than the fact that the confessional amplifier is an enclosed system.  The priest is physical present, as if on the other side of a confessional grate and the matter of the confession (sins) is communicated.  The priest can validly absolve.

Could that same thing work if, for example, the priest were in a car on the street, and the penitent were at the door or window of a house or apartment.  Within sight and hearing, but at a distance and where people might hear?   I think so, provided they are within sight and hearing.  In that case, perhaps, a mobile phone could be used and absolution could be given with a raised voice.

Let’s have another futuristic scenario.  Remember that I am character in a sci-fi book series!  I know what I am talking about.

Let’s say that I am chaplain in the SpaceForce and we are deployed in our space wing.  If you, an attack vehicle door gunner get grazed with a chemical oxygen iodine laser and you are, so to speak, toast, you could key me via comms (“CHAPS! I’m HIT!”). I, from another ship, would activate my jetpack, get eyes on you in your red shirt/space armor and absolve you, dodging the debris and force beams.  I could probably validly absolve you over comms if I can get into moral physical contact even though the sound of my voice cannot travel through the void of space!

Alternatively, since I have been doing some reading around the topic of the administration of sacraments by the deaf or by the mute priest, and there are evolving views of what “language” means, I might, might, if comms were down, when you are trapped behind a bulkhead and losing oxygen, I might be able to absolve you by tapping and scraping (dits and longer dahs) in Morse code with a specially blessed titanium hammer I could have for that purpose (provided you know Morse!!).  Yes, you would have to know Morse code.   But I couldn’t absolve in Morse from another ship.  I’d have to be on the other side of that bulkhead doing it physically with my Titanium Absolution Form Hammer (officially designated TITFAB-RC or as my Space Marines have lovingly dubbed it, the “Tap Out”).  Given that this is a thick bulkhead and I am using a hammer to scrape and tap, I might be able to tap/scrape either in zero-G (ZIGEE) or compromised artificial-G (ARTGEE), what? 10 WPM?

Another reason to learn Morse code.

Now, if we were time travelling, and the the polarity was suddenly reversed… which I don’t rule out…

Leave that for another day.

Just to be clear, anyone can make a confession via megaphone, telephone, semaphore flags, or ham radio.  A priest cannot validly absolve solely by those means.    He must be physically present to you, at least morally.  There must be adequate proximity to use an electronic intermediary.  You can’t be absolved if you are in, say, Columbia Heights, and I am here in the Cupboard Under The Stairs.

All the more reason to GO TO CONFESSION while you can do so easily!

And, in case you were wondering, I am way cooler than Dan Dare in Kennedy’s books.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Fr. Kelly says:

    It is said of Fr. Damian of Molokai that after he had contracted leprosy, he made his confession regularly by shouting back and forth to the priest on the supply ship when it came in to leave off supplies.

  2. acardnal says:

    If I remember correctly, the leper, Fr Damien of Molakai, would give his confession to another priest on a boat by yelling his sins from his boat to the priest’s boat while on the sea.

  3. acardnal says:

    Fr Kelly, we think alike. LOL

  4. Fr_Andrew says:

    I’ll play the ossified manualist card and cite Fr Jone :

    Whoever had the care of souls must, by reason of his office, administer the Sacraments not only in charity, but also in strict justice, at the reasonable request of his charges … Pastors, etc. must administer the Sacraments even at risk of their lives to those under their car who, without the Sacraments, could only with great difficulty avoid losing their souls … He was is not obliged to do so by virtue of his office must administer the Sacraments out of charity … since charity generally does not oblige under great inconvenience, an ordinary priest must risk his life to administer the Sacraments only in cause it is certain that the petitioner can otherwise scarcely save his soul and that the hope of saving him by conferring the Sacraments at least counterbalances the danger to which the priest must expose himself in administering them.

    I think given St Damien’s example, we priests need to man up and do our duty. While the closing of churches for public worship may be necessary to prevent the spread of disease, the giving of Viaticum, Extreme Unction and Absolution (by means of auricular confession or in case of dire emergencies a general absolution) is due to the faithful at least in Charity if we be priests if not in Justice, if we be pastors.

    Better to contract the disease and perhaps suffer and even die as a result, saving as many souls as possible along the way by the Sacraments, than live a bit longer with the damnation of many hanging over our heads because we were unwilling to be alter Christi and lay down our lives for our friends.

  5. Filiolus says:

    Maybe this is a dumb question, but if one were in self- or government-imposed quarantine and one’s confession could not be done privately (i.e., others would certainly hear one’s sins), would it be licit to confess in a language the priest didn’t know, or didn’t know well? Would there be any benefit derived, or would it be just as well to receive a general absolution as you said above?

  6. iamlucky13 says:

    Our governor hinted over the weekend that he will consider enacting mandatory restrictions. The state health department has confirmed considerations are being held whether to implement level 3 of their 5 level response plan: issuing emergency detention orders for the sick and those who have had close contact with them. However, they do note that so far, the people they have contacted have been compliant with isolation requests.

    They also stated they expect to provide more information this week about the potential for level 4: cancelling public events and mandating closure of schools, workplaces, and public buildings.

    This would potentially prohibit Mass attendance, as has already been reported in Italy, so I have been thinking about how I should respond in case that happens. In particular I’m concerned about whether they may implement unequal restrictions, such as banning religious services, but allowing some other public gatherings.

    If that happened, I’m not sure what to do. I think I would still show up for Mass on Sunday, regardless of whether it is offered.

    Obviously, there’s other factors to consider, too. If the bishop issues a general dispensation, that changes the considerations, as would me or a close contact of mine developing matching symptoms.

  7. Jeff Logullo says:

    Okay… that was fun! First time copying Latin in CW :-)
    73 de N0?MII

  8. Blaise says:

    Fr Andrew. I agree with your comments on the task of a priest in these times and I think it would be a great gift to a priest to be able to dedicate himself to such work (after all a lock down would presumably cancel many meetings). Ot should also be a great witness to the Truth and what is truly important.
    But I fear you would be seen as spreading the virus by such actions. However incorrectly, after all doctors (and chaplains and nurses) go between sick patients in hospital and it should just be a matter of taking appropriate precautions.

  9. Credoh says:

    “And, in case you were wondering, I am way cooler than Dan Dare in Kennedy’s books.”

    Maybe, but Dan Dare is borne on Eagle’s wings…

    God Bless!

  10. brasscow says:

    I am usually out front on preparedness related issues and so I have been pondering this for a bit over a month.

    The scenario that crossed my mind was a general car waiting line in a empty parking lot some distance from the priest’s car which is parked in a parking space. Then, one by one the cars could pull up leaving one parking space between the confessor and confessee. if privacy is needed you could do it over the phone (like that’s private… but I digress) and he could grant absolution aloud.

    _ _ – – – – – – _ _

    Your flex-in friend

  11. JesusFreak84 says:

    I remember watching a documentary (on EWTN, I think?) about the Soviet persecution of the UGCC and how a nun realized that a priest was in the cell next to her and rapped out her Confession in Morse Code (whatever that looks/sounds like in Ukrainian, I suppose.) I know that the East has its own Canon Law, but it sounds like that could be an option for us Latins, too…if our knuckles could handle it ?

  12. adriennep says:

    Well that reminds me – what do the deaf do for confession?

    I know large dioceses have “deaf ministry” staff but that’s 1-2 people. They are not at all available for the common folk in our geographic area.

  13. capchoirgirl says:

    adriennep, Yeah, I’d be interested in this, too. I’m not completely deaf, but I have a cochlear implant, and thus I can’t go behind the screen. I need to go face to face so I can see the priest’s mouth. No idea what the totally deaf do, but I’d like to know!

  14. Jeff Logullo says:

    When is a Preview *not* a Preview? (grumble, grumble)
    Let’s give this one last shot:
    Jeff N0̸MII

  15. The Masked Chicken says:

    This confession issue has a very simple solution – I call it, The Window Confession™.

    Assume a rectory with windows on the east and west sides (more would be good, but one facing any direction is okay). Post two burly men by each window (there may be more than one priest hearing confessions, after all) to keep people at a distance. The Penitent goes to the window (or door), knocks four times, pauses, knocks four more, as a sign that they are there for confession. The priest has the blinds drawn down and asks if they want face-to-face or anonymous confession. If anonymous, they leave the blinds closed, if not, they raise them. The Penitent speaks their confession (the burly men are wearing earbuds and listening to whatever, so they don’t hear the confession). The priest gives them penance and absolution.

    Next person comes up.

    This is like the box confession, but no danger of contamination (it is open air for the Penitent and the priest is protected by the glass window (and, possibly, door, if the window is a door window)). The outside windows are wiped after each confession by the burly men with a Clorox towel.

    This is similar to brasscow’s approach, above, but doesn’t involve yelling. It is very similar to portable confessionals, but prevents the spread of germs.

    One may add a box of gloves next to the window which Pentitents can put on to prevent contaminating surfaces.

    This should work in most cities.

    Next problem…

    The Chicken

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  18. NYer says:

    Dear Fr. Z and friends. My father was just diagnosed with heart failure and has signed on to hospice care at his nursing home. He has been hospitalized all week and will be discharged today. Both the hospital and nursing home have implemented a “no visitor” policy. I have contacted hospice to inquire if a priest can meet with dad in the short time gap between hospital and transport to the nursing home, to administer the Sacrament of Healing. I have not yet heard back. Dad is a recent convert to the Catholic faith; the response to 50+ years of prayer. Not being able to be with him in the final stages of his life, is a painful cross I have to bear. Please remember dad in your prayers.

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