As much of the world faces quarantines, social distancing, and “shelter in place” orders amid the coronavirus pandemic, Catholics have faced unexpected challenges in accessing – and offering – the sacraments of the Church.

Catholics in some places impacted by the pandemic have learned that the sacrament of confession – the remedy for sin and a conduit of God’s mercy – has become rather difficult to find.

The sacrament of penance requires a number of practical conditions. The penitent must make a manifestation of sins to a priest acting in the person of Christ, express true contrition and resolve to sin no more. It also requires the conferral of absolution – forgiveness, from the priest, according to the sacramental formula of the Church. And a valid sacramental confession requires that all of those things happen in one place, the Church has long taught.

But as the pandemic continues, and social prohibitions grow stricter, some Catholics are wondering why they can’t confess their sins virtually – over the phone, via text, or on Skype.

Father James Bradley, assistant professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America, told CNA that the coronavirus epidemic had created a new kind of pastoral urgency which many bishops and priests are trying to meet.

He told CNA on Wednesday that “the pastoral needs of the faithful,” have to be met “especially in this extraordinary time,” and that pastors are seeking new approaches to deliver spiritual care, including the sacraments.

“Canon law is clear: the faithful have a right to the sacraments, and the Church’s ministers should do all they can to provide them.”

Bradley noted the importance of online resources for Catholics. But he cautioned that innovation in ministry must be coupled with an understanding and respect for the nature of the sacraments. Priests in some parts of the world have devised creative ways to offer the sacrament of confession during the pandemic, among them “drive-up” confessionals and confession through a rectory window. While the Church is not going to change the essential elements of the sacrament, Weinandy said, creative pastoral ministry will find new and creative ways to extend the gift of God’s mercy. CNA


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