Q. I have often heard priests encouraging Catholics to go to confession more regularly, and I’m wondering how often priests themselves go to confession. Is there a rule on this? And if there is no rule, what is the general practice? (Toms River, N.J.)
A. The church’s Code of Canon Law in No. 989 notes the obligation of Catholics to confess grave sins at least once a year. (Of course, if you are conscious of having committed a grave sin, you should not wait for an annual confession but instead confess as soon as reasonably possible in order to reopen your pathway to God and render yourself eligible to receive the Eucharist.)
Technically, if you are not aware of having sinned gravely (i.e., “mortal sin”), you are not obliged to seek the sacrament of penance. That having been said, it would be foolish to ignore this very helpful means of pardon, spiritual progress and peace. Almost universally, spiritual writers have encouraged Catholics to confess regularly, perhaps monthly.
Beyond that general norm, there is no specific requirement as to how often priests must confess, although Canon No. 276.5 urges the clergy “to approach the sacrament of penance frequently.”
At a weekly audience in November 2013, Pope Francis revealed that he receives the sacrament of penance every two weeks and considers confession to be the best path to spiritual healing and health. “My confessor hears what I say, offers me advice and forgives me,” said the pope. “We all need this.”
I’ve not seen any studies on this, but it’s safe to say that most priests do not confess their sins nearly as often as the Holy Father. Probably, several times a year would be a reasonable estimate, generally on their annual retreat, sometimes at clergy days of recollection or gatherings of priest support groups, or when time allows.
One of the sad consequences of the shortage of priests is that the frenzied pace of pastoral duties can induce us to ignore our spiritual growth. In this, as in many things, we would do well to look to Pope Francis as a model.
Q. In some Catholic churches, I have heard Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Dietrich Bonhoeffer invoked during the chanting of the Litany of the Saints. Are they saints we can pray to? (Grand Island, Neb.)
A. By canonization, the Catholic Church declares with the fullness of its authority that a person is in heaven and worthy of veneration. Theoretically, I suppose that the church could make that judgment of a non-Catholic, but to date it has not done so.
This is not because we believe that heaven is populated only by Catholics; to the contrary, the teaching of the church is that heaven may be granted through God’s grace to people who live morally and follow the promptings of God.
There is a reluctance on the church’s part to usurp another religion’s role in evaluating the life and works of its members. Additionally, classical Protestantism, while it sets up historical figures as worthy of admiration (Martin Luther, for example, or John Wesley), does not invoke their prayerful intercession.
To enroll Dr. King or Pastor Bonhoeffer formally in our own Litany of the Saints could be seen as an ecumenical faux pas — although I would have no problem enlisting such heroes (along with Gandhi) in private prayer, as I do with members of my family who have gone before me.
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at email@example.com and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, N.Y. 12208.