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Common questions on sacraments amid pandemic

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During this time of unpleasantness, many questions have arisen regarding the reception of sacraments. So, let’s take them one at a time:

What is happening with baptisms and weddings? 


Baptisms and weddings may proceed. However, we need to adhere to Gov. Ralph Northam’s mandate of assembling no more than 10 people. As a pastor, my advice is to have baptism as soon as possible after the birth of the child, no matter what the circumstances may be. Jesus affirmed the necessity of baptism for salvation: “I solemnly assure you, no one can enter into God’s kingdom without being begotten of water and Spirit” (Jn 3:5). The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” teaches, “The church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer baptism shortly after birth” (No. 1250). 


Regarding the postponement of a wedding, that is the couple’s decision. I have been edified to hear a couple say, “Father, what is most important to us is receiving the sacrament, not the reception. We are happy to have just our close family. The celebration with other relatives and friends can wait until later.”   

What is happening to those who were preparing to receive the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and holy Eucharist at Easter Vigil?


Because of the current limitations, Bishop Michael F. Burbidge has directed pastors to postpone the reception of these sacraments to a later date. After Easter, a pastor may administer the sacraments to each candidate individually in the context of a daily Mass. Or, the pastor may decide to administer the sacraments for the whole group that has been preparing once the restrictions are lifted.  

What about confession over the phone or the internet? 


Here we must be mindful of the sacramental seal of confession. When a person unburdens his soul and confesses his sins to a priest, a very sacred trust is formed. While the priest is the minister of the sacrament, Christ is hearing and forgiving the sins. The priest must never reveal to anyone what has been confessed to the Lord. As a priest, I have heard confessions not only in the confessional, but also in the airport, the grocery store and in the parking lot. But, I have always been careful to preserve the sacred seal. Confession via telephone or the internet does not provide the safety for preserving the sacred seal; someone could be listening or recording.


The Code of Canon Law upholds the sanctity of the seal: “ ... It is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason” (983.1). The laity also are bound to uphold the seal of confession: An interpreter needed for someone to make a confession or anyone who gains knowledge of a confession (such as accidentally overhearing someone’s confession) also is obligated to preserve secrecy (983.2). For such a person to violate the secrecy of another person’s confession is a mortal sin and warrants “a just penalty, not excluding excommunication” (1388.2).

What about general absolution?


The Decree on the Rite of Penance (1973) affirmed, “Individual, integral confession and absolution remain the only ordinary way for the faithful to reconcile themselves with God and the church, unless physical or moral impossibility excuses from this kind of confession.” Legitimate, grave circumstances may arise that impede private confession and necessitate the granting of general absolution, such as a time of crisis, danger or imminent death. An example in recent times occurred March 29, 1979, when the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pa., was in danger of exploding; Harrisburg Bishop William H. Keeler granted general absolution to the faithful since every individual person would not have had the chance to go to private confession. Nevertheless, in such cases, the penitent must have sincere contrition and also make a private confession as soon as the crisis is over. In our present circumstances, priests can take extra precaution and hear confessions, so there is no need for the Bishop to grant general absolution.  

What about spiritual communion? 


When a person is impeded from receiving holy Communion, such as when he or she is homebound or sick, or, in our present circumstances, when public Mass has been suspended, he or she may make a spiritual communion. A beautiful prayer recited during the Masses televised on EWTN is as follows: “My Jesus, I believe that you are present in the Most Holy Sacrament. I love you above all things, and I desire to receive you into my soul. Since I cannot at this moment receive you sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace you as if you were already there and unite myself wholly to you. Never permit me to be separated from you. Amen.”


These are a few answers to difficult situations during this time of global pademic. Nevertheless, I believe that our faith will grow stronger and we will be filled with abundant graces if we continue our “hunger and thirst for holiness.” Oftentimes we do not appreciate something and its value until we no longer have it. Let’s us keep our eyes on Christ, and strain forward in faith. 

Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Church in Potomac Falls and episcopal vicar for faith formation and director of the Office of Catechetics.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020