Confession in the COVID-19 Age

Apr 29, 2020

Credit Pixabay

After celebrating a virtual Easter because of the coronavirus, Roman Catholics are continuing to stay isolated and are using technology to practice the sacraments of their faith.

One of those sacraments – confession – is one of, if not the most personal rituals in the Church. Priests hear the penitent list his or her sins and then assign penance in private, usually in a small booth called the confessional.

“Reconciliation is not only to heal your relationship with Christ – God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit,” said Father Craig Smith, pastor of St. Paul Catholic Church in Pensacola. “But also [your] relationship with the community of faith. Because when you sin, you close yourself off to God’s grace.”

But such close contact is being frowned upon in the fight against coronavirus. That’s leading parishes to make some changes.

“We’ve kind of moved the seats apart from the [confessional] screen; and there’s also a separate chair they can use if they want to go face-to-face, but at a distance,” Smith said. “[When] this thing started kicking off, the facilities manager put six different hand-sanitizing stations within the church itself.”

There are some parishes that offer drive-through penance, so-called “dashboard confessions” while maintaining social distancing and other protective measures. Besides confessions, Smith says churches – including St. Paul’s -- remain open for other sacraments and activities, but in modified ways.

“We’re also doing baptisms, as long as the group is less than 10 people as the bishop said,” said Smith. “We’re doing marriages for the essential – the couple, the witnesses, no more than 10 people at a time.” Weddings, baptisms and reconciliation – those are the three.”

Before the onset of COVID-19, the Church had no real handbook or game plan to handle a pandemic. Smith says they’ve had to make it up as they go along. 

Father Craig Smith, pastor of St. Paul Catholic Church in Pensacola
Credit St. Paul Catholic Church

“The diocese, the bishop and his staff have done a wonderful job in getting those steps out quickly of how we’ll approach it; but levels will take depending on what is demanded by the government,” said Smith. “I think the procedures will certainly be refined, so you do it after the crisis is finished. And during the crisis; how are we handling things? It’s an organic, ongoing perfecting of the procedures.”

Most Catholic churches offer reconciliation by appointment, and that hasn’t really changed in the past weeks when it comes to time spent in the confessional.

“We’re allowing people to come in when they’re able,” said Smith. “We kind of want to make sure that they’ve done a proper examination of conscience. But I haven’t noticed that as far as length of confession.”

As far as any lasting, coronavirus-related changes in church procedure, Fr. Craig Smith says he’s doesn’t expect any – but adds that at this point, it’s really too early to tell.

“It’s still an ongoing process, and how long is this going to last?” said Smith. If they find that COVID-19 is dying out and they found a good medication for it and people are becoming immune to it, things might change a little. But still Mass should be with the community of faith; so we’ll have to see.”

Meanwhile, Pope Francis is saying that general absolution of sin — confessing directly to God as opposed to through a priest — applies worldwide during the pandemic – if all attempts to meet with a priest are exhausted. Italy is one of the hardest-hit nations by the virus, and has been on lockdown since March 10.