Dr. Scott Hahn and “The Fourth Cup”

I’m taking an on-line course on catechesis and the following caught my attention (from Dr. Scott Hahn’s Book, A Father Who Keeps His Promises):

Jesus instituted the Eucharist during the course of a Passover meal. This memorial celebrated God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt. At the first Passover, every firstborn son in Egypt perished except those in Israelite families where a lamb was slain and eaten as a sacrificial meal.

Then Moses led Israel out of Egypt to Sinai, where they became God’s family, the “chosen people,” through what is known as the Old Covenant.

The one time Jesus used the word “covenant” was at the Last Supper. There the firstborn Son and Lamb of God fulfilled the Old Covenant Passover in Himself, as a sacrifice for our sins. On that occasion Jesus announced the establishment of the New Covenant (see Mt. 26:27-28).

The cup of wine that Jesus changed into His blood was the “cup of blessing” (cf. 1 Cor. 10:16). This was the third cup of wine that was served during the Passover liturgy. There was still a fourth cup remaining, the “cup of consummation.”

Yet, instead of proceeding with the fourth cup, Jesus went out to the Mount of Olives (Mk. 14:26). This was a significant omission, and one that Jesus seemed to notice when He said in the preceding verse: “Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mk. 14:25).

It seems that Jesus intended not to drink the cup that His disciples expected Him to drink.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus three times prayed that “this cup” would be taken away. Later, as Jesus was being led to His execution, He was offered wine and did not take it (Mk. 15:23).

Finally, we read: “After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), ‘I thirst.’ A bowl full of vinegar stood there; so they put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, ‘It is finished’; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (Jn. 19:28-30).

The “it” that was now finished or consummated was the Passover that Jesus had begun—but interrupted—in the Upper Room. Its completion was marked by Jesus’ drinking the sour wine, the fourth cup.

In other words, what was finished was Jesus’ fulfillment of the Old Covenant Passover as He transformed it into the New Covenant Passover. Here we see how the Passover, Christ’s sacrifice, and the Eucharist are all intimately related (see generally, Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1362-72).

Now we too are called to receive Jesus in Holy Communion, which unites us with Christ and with one another in the worldwide (“catholic”) family of God.



Thank God the Pope isn’t supposed to be Infallible when he Appoints Bishops

Francis Cardinal George, pray for us.

It appears, according to this, that the Archbishop of Chicago, Blase Cupich, adheres to the notion of “primacy of conscience” with respect to communion for the divorced and remarried, and, for those individuals engaged in a same-sex relationships.

He says, “If people come to a decision in good conscience then our job is to help them move forward and to respect that. The conscience is inviolable and we have to respect that when they make decisions, and I’ve always done that.”

It is a grave injustice for Archbishop Cupich to disregard the fact that for a conscience to be “inviolable”, it must also be well-formed. Without this essential element, which he as a pastor owes a duty to support with clear teaching and example, the moral conscience “…present at the heart of the person,” which enjoins the person “at the appropriate moment to do good and avoid evil,” ceases to be what it is entirely. (CCC 1777).

“Conscience includes the perception of the principles of morality (synderesis)”. (CCC 1780). Where this perception is woefully lacking, conscience is (at best) gravely impaired.

Conscience includes the application of principles of morality “…in the given circumstances by practical discernment of reasons and goods.” (Ibid.). Where one’s (mis)application leads one to directly violate a Commandment, one can objectively conclude that conscience is (at best) gravely impaired.

Where one’s “conscience” fails to lead one to proper “…judgment about concrete acts yet to be performed or already performed, the truth about the moral good, stated in the law of reason,” there is no way to practically recognize the prudence of the individual in question on a particular issue (which is defined as choosing in conformity with this judgment). (Ibid.).

In other words, there is no way to recognize that the “conscience is inviolable” without first recognizing that the Commandments of God are inviolable, and thus, the conscience is inviolable only insofar as it remains within the individual “as the witness to the universal truth of the good.” (CCC 1781).

The person who knowingly violates his conscience by doing evil is arguably on safer ground than the person who refuses to recognize the objective evil of a particular act, because “…the verdict of the judgment of conscience remains a pledge of hope and mercy. In attesting to the fault committed, it calls to mind the forgiveness that must be asked, the good that must still be practiced, and the virtue that must be constantly cultivated with the grace of God.” (CCC 1781).

God does not force us to repent. In that sense, a “conscience” is inviolable. But without a conscience that properly “attests to the fault committed”, forgiveness is never sought, and thus, the soul remains in peril.

Let’s pray for the Archbishop’s conversion of heart on this issue. The Year of Mercy begins soon.

Greene’s “Power and the Glory”: Catholic Priesthood is Vocational Sacrifice

powergloryWe just finished reading Graham Greene’s masterpiece entitled The Power and the Glory. In it, the reader follows an unnamed cleric, identified only as the “Whisky Priest”, who clutches to life in the Mexican state of Tabasco around the 1930’s, when the Mexican government was actively suppressing the Catholic Church there.

The story is true to its title, and without revealing anything about the ending, I want to share a theme from the book and discuss its centrality to the vocational aspects of the Catholic priesthood.

Today there is much discussion concerning the question of clerical celibacy. We Catholics within the Latin Rite are aware that nearly all of our priests have taken a vow of celibacy. In fact, for most of the Church, clerical celibacy is the rule, while there are a few exceptions (the most notable example of which is the Anglican Ordinariate).

Clerical celibacy is a long-held tradition of the Church, but admittedly there is nothing that prevents the Church from ordaining married men. Pope Francis has confirmed this recently, indicating that the “door is always open” to the possibility of a larger number of married men being ordained to the priesthood.

But while many of us would like to see more married men a part of the priesthood, I still think that a celibate priest is the best kind, because of what priesthood is.

In The Power and the Glory, the Whisky Priest is on the lam. He must evade “The Lieutenant” — the archetype of the rigid, ruthless socialist ideologue — and his police minions, whose charge it is to rid all of Mexico of every last priest.

As the circle tightens around the Whisky Priest, his options run thin when it comes to where he can run. The Whisky Priest’s friends and former parishioners risk their own death by assisting him, forcing the Whisky Priest further and further into the wilderness without anything at all to sustain him.

14751039802_20759b1852_oThe Whisky Priest sees himself not as a good priest, but an exquisitely bad one, in part due to his addiction to alcohol, among other things. He does not consider himself worthy to even be a priest; he is an errant and disobedient servant.

And yet, he is a priest, and there’s nothing he can do with the indelible mark placed upon his soul in ordination, other than to continue to follow where God leads, however imperfectly he does so. The circumstances that the Whisky Priest finds himself in, and the things that separate him from his own escape, are signs of the sacramentality and sacrifice of the priesthood.

When, at the beginning of the book, the Whisky Priest has an opportunity to board a ship at port and sail away, he is called (by a little child) to another village in the opposite direction so that he can bring Last Rites to a dying person:

He said sadly, ‘It always seems to happen. Like this.’

‘You’ll have a job not to miss the boat.’

‘I shall miss it,’ he said. ‘I am meant to miss it.’ He was shaken by a tiny rage. ‘Give me my brandy.’ He took a long pull at it, with his eyes in the impassive child, the baked street, the vultures moving in the sky like indigestion spots.’


‘Vamos,’ the man said to the child.

Similarly, toward the end of the book, the Whisky Priest is once again presented with a situation that could be avoided by anyone other than a priest: another terrible sinner, near death, who needs to confess his sins before he dies.

If he ignores the call, the Whisky Priest will carry another sin to his own grave: potentially denying a man his salvation. And, since all the other priests have been wiped out, he is denied what he himself carries; there is no way for him to absolve his own mortal sins.

But the Whisky Priest is not so hollowed out by his own sins that he would look the other way when there is a person who needs the sacraments. Throughout the book, he recognizes the power of what he carries, which also leads him to so much guilt and despair. He is so unworthy, and yet, time and again there is no one else.

It is in the Whisky Priest’s promised celibacy that he is free to carry out his vocational calling of sacrifice. He is free to respond to the call which may ultimately lead to his own personal mortality. He is free to bring what he brings, however imperfectly he does so. He is free to be a true Father to his people, in the same way that a father is free to be present to his own natural family.

If the Church were composed primarily of married priests, we would lose some of this vocation of sacrifice. A married man is called to sacrifice for the good of his own family, but how does a married priest bring this conflict — between his parish/flock and his family — into resolution? How does a married Whisky Priest, aware that his wife and children wait for him at home, or within the safe boundaries of a more friendly country, resolve a response to a desperate call for mercy?

A priest is a pastor, but he is not merely that. A priest is a visible sign of the sacramental nature of the Church. He is concerned, first and foremost, with delivering the superabundant graces poured out from the sacraments to the faithful. He does this in a sacrificial way; he recognizes, this is a good, not just for me, but also (and even primarily) for the people entrusted to me.

Which is why we should not be so quick to suggest — in response to the repeated claims of the “vocations crisis” — that a married priesthood is capable of replacing a celibate one. Doing so overlooks the great gift borne to us out of a millennia or more of sacrifice.

We should first consider the great gift from God to us in the celibate priesthood, and look for ways to encourage other men who are discerning their vocations. And finally, we must support the many wonderful, excellent, celibate priests that grace God’s Church.

Souls are saved even at the hands of the Whisky Priest.

Why an “Octave” of Easter?

Baptistry and Font, Basilica of St. John Lateran, Rome

Octagonal Baptistry with Baptismal Font in Center, Basilica of St. John Lateran, Rome

Alleluia! Happy Easter! Today is Easter “Monday”, the second day in the “Octave” of Easter.

In our family, we struggle a little bit against the trend of front-loading the celebration of holidays that secular culture “shares” with Christianity.

Surely you’ve heard the historical myth that Easter and Christmas aren’t actually Christian, but rather pagan celebrations that were co-opted by the early Church. Insert Yada-yadda and Something-something about the Church consolidating power and misleading the ignorant tribals of pre-Enlightenment Europe.

Without explicitly saying so, the Something-something crowdset aims to re-paganize the holidays, so that if they were ever not Christian, they may be so once again. The result is empty: today’s age celebrates buying and consumption while past gnosis plumbed to the shallow depths of the day’s length or season’s climate.

The Church reminds that what God desires from us is our free choice to follow and serve Him. We are all the unworthy servants of Luke’s gospel — doing what we are obliged to do does not carry the expectation of favor from God. (17:10). We can’t repay God anything. It’s not for Him that Jesus hangs upon the wood of the cross. Thank goodness, we can take joy in this fact!

When we truly value a relationship, we take action. God values the relationship — He gave His only begotten Son. We show how much we truly value a relationship according to what we will give up for it. On Good Friday, our brother suffers. How do we show God how much we value His friendship and love?

The Christian who pretends that the journey to Heaven is possible without some measure of sacrifice seeks not a literal baptism by sprinkling, but a figurative one: “Jesus, make me damp, make me a little bit wet, let me dip my toe! Give me just one iota of salvation! But do not immerse me in the waters of your mercy! Do not drown me in faith! Do not drench me in the graces pouring from your side!” If someone knows true joy, why would they ask for just a little bit of it?

The point of Lent cannot be reduced to causing ourselves pain so that it feels good when we stop. Any sacrifice that we offer for the good of relationship with Jesus isn’t for Him, but rather, for us. We benefit not from the pain, but from the discovery that the thing being sacrificed has no real value compared to Jesus. It is this discovery that makes the Christian free.

The spiritual fruits of Easter — like Christmas — come through the removal of obstacles that block pathways to deep Mystery. There is no limit to how far God will draw us up into meditation upon the Mysteries of Incarnation and Resurrection, but ourselves.

Today we can take joy that Easter has only begun. The Resurrection is the “Eighth Day” — the day after creation, the beginning of the new creation. Baptism is directly tied to the new life of Easter as the Eighth Day. Baptistries or baptismal fonts are frequently found to be octagonal in form, symbolizing that the New Creation comes to us through Jesus, to whom we respond in baptism.

Easter is the bridge between the old creation and new, given by God for us! Alleluia! 

52 “Catholic Groups” Self-Identify as Desperately Needing Good Catechesis

The Irish Times recently reported a story about 52 “Catholic groups” who wrote Pope Francis a letter to request a meeting and urging the Holy Father “to take immediate steps” to appoint more women to leadership positions and “to end the practice of banning people from Communion.”

The press release and full text of the letter are here. Just to give you a flavor, some of the signing “Catholic groups” include: Call to Action, Catholics for Choice, Chicago Women-Church, Dignity USA, Roman Catholic Womenpriests, Women’s Ordination Conference, etc., etc.

So, these are not really Catholic groups in the sense of speaking for or promoting the actual moral teachings of the Church. These are Catholic groups in the sense of being composed of individuals who were possibly baptized as Catholics and may or may not actually practice the faith in some form, but hold what are essentially schismatic and/or heretical beliefs contrary to the Magisterial teachings of the Church.

These purported Catholic groups open their letter by addressing the Holy Father, “Dear Bishop Francis…” Even for one so humble as Pope Francis, who has referred to himself several times as the Bishop of Rome, this form of address is simply not appropriate for the Supreme Pontiff. I quibble.

The more troubling aspect, however:

With regard to pastoral care of God’s people, we hope to experience an end to the use of Communion as a reward for doctrinal orthodoxy. Communion is a sacrament of love and peace, of mercy and forgiveness offered by Jesus to all on the night before he died. It does not imply conformity with Church teachings in all instances and it does not endorse all aspects of moral choice made by the recipient. It does, however, offer love and healing to Catholics who experience alienation and rejection. Communion gives a place at the table to those who have been made to feel they were not worthy. This includes many who have felt alienated from our Church and its sacramental life for many years, including divorced and remarried Catholics, Catholics in same-sex relationships, and others.

Okay….. just a brief primer here. Contained in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is perhaps the earliest description of the institution of the Eucharist — one that pre-dates the Gospels. It’s interesting, because as we all know, St. Paul wasn’t actually present at the Last Supper, and so it tells us something about the significance of the Eucharist generally in the early Church. But following the description itself, Paul writes:

26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes. 27 Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. 28 A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying. (1 Cor. 11).

The official Catholic translation at the USCCB website offers the following relevant footnote:

* [11:28] Examine himself: the Greek word is similar to that for “approved” in 1 Cor 11:19, which means “having been tested and found true.” The self-testing required for proper eating involves discerning the body (1 Cor 11:29), which, from the context, must mean understanding the sense of Jesus’ death (1 Cor 11:26), perceiving the imperative to unity that follows from the fact that Jesus gives himself to all and requires us to repeat his sacrifice in the same spirit (1 Cor 11:1825).

Communion is not about good feelings or giving a place at the table to those who “have been made to feel unworthy.” Regardless of feeling, we are all unworthy. We only become worthy when we conform ourselves to Christ. Thus, Communion is about unity. There can be no unity while certain members hold to teachings about Jesus’ very nature which are untrue. It most certainly does imply, and require, conformity with the Church’s teachings on matters of faith and morals, because without a fundamental level of conformity, there can be no actual unity among the Body of Christ. Jesus cannot both be and not be something. He is. If I seek to receive Jesus while obstinately rejecting His Word, then I receive unworthily.

So, if the Holy Father grants a meeting, he may first attend to the principal issue among these “Catholic” groups: catechesis.

Visit to New Clairvaux: Sacred Stones and Altar Wine with Brandy

IMG_5361A couple of weeks ago we went up to the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina for a little field trip. The Sacred Stones project is ongoing, and is a reconstruction of an actual 12th-century Cistercian Chapter House that was originally built in Spain. It’s a fascinating story how it was purchased by William Randolph Hearst, transported to California in the 1930s, and then forgotten for decades, before it came to belong to New Clairvaux. The monks hope to actually use the Chapter House when construction is completed.

The Chapter House was a very important structure for medieval monastic communities, second in importance only to the abbey church. While most liturgical celebrations occurred in the church, the Chapter House would be a meeting place for the community, used in some places and situations for the Liturgy of the Hours, and also for voting and elections, such as selection of a new abbot.



Detail of Column: notice the “old” original stone column base on the left versus the newly cut on the right


Detail of stone wall: notice the rough ancient stones intermixed with newly cut stones

Another major project at New Clairvaux is the vineyard and production of high quality table wines. The climate at the Abbey is not as temperate as Napa Valley or the coastal areas. It gets quite hot, well into the 100s in the summertime, and conventional wisdom held that growing grapes in such climate would not produce excellent wine. The monks, with the help of a third-generation Napa winemaker, have wisely chosen grape varietals that do well in the Mediterranean, and can tolerate the extreme Northern Californian heat.

Screen Shot 2014-01-30 at 4.33.46 PMWe went to the tasting room, and tried the Abbey Angelica, which is being marketed as a dessert wine. Angelica is billed as “the oldest wine of America,” which “was first made by Franciscan monks in the 1700’s.” The Abbey Angelica is made from “100% Muscat grapes and is fortified with pure grape brandy. It’s aroma are of sweet baked figs with similar flavors plus honey. The wine has a warm alcohol feel with a sweet, lingering finish.”

I looked at the label, and noticed some other very interesting information: Abbey Angelica was originally created as an altar wine for use by the monks at New Clairvaux, and is claimed to be licit for use in the Eucharistic Liturgy pursuant to the Code of Canon Law.

But, the label also indicates that Abbey Angelica is fortified with brandy, and I was under the impression that only the fermented juice of grapes (i.e., wine) can be used for the Eucharistic celebration, while brandy is a distilled spirit. 

How is it that Abbey Angelica — or wine fortified with “pure grape brandy” — can be used at Mass?

Section 3 of Canon 924 of the Code of Canon Law, states that the wine used for Mass must be “natural, made from grapes of the vine, and not corrupt.” This, standing alone, would seem to indicate that wine fortified with brandy, even a pure grape brandy, could not be used.

In 2004, the Congregation for Divine Worship issued an Instruction entitled Redemptionis Sacramentum, “on certain matters to be observed or to be avoided regarding the Most Holy Eucharist”. Paragraph 50 of the Instruction deals with the wine that can be used:

[50.] The wine that is used in the most sacred celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice must be natural, from the fruit of the grape, pure and incorrupt, not mixed with other substances. During the celebration itself, a small quantity of water is to be mixed with it. Great care should be taken so that the wine intended for the celebration of the Eucharist is well conserved and has not soured. It is altogether forbidden to use wine of doubtful authenticity or provenance, for the Church requires certainty regarding the conditions necessary for the validity of the sacraments. Nor are other drinks of any kind to be admitted for any reason, as they do not constitute valid matter.

This does not appear to explicitly deal with the addition of grape brandy to wine, but does generally regard the need for the wine used at Mass to be “from the grape, pure and incorrupt, not mixed with other substances.”

However, in 1896 the Congregation of the Inquisition (now the Congregation for the Defense of Faith) issued a directive on additives to sacramental wine, published in Acta Sanctae Sedis (see the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Altar Wine for translation):

To conserve weak and feeble wines, and in order to keep them from souring or spoiling during transportation, a small quantity of spirits of wine (grape brandy or alcohol) may be added, provided the following conditions are observed (1) The added spirit (alcohol) must have been distilled from the grape (ex genimime vitis); (2) the quantity of alcohol added, together with that which the wine contained naturally after fermentation, must not exceed eighteen per cent of the whole; (3) the addition must be made during the process of fermentation.

Thus, altar wine such as Abbey Angelica may contain a measure of “pure grape brandy” so long as the brandy is added during the fermentation process, made from grapes and the total alcohol content does not exceed 18% (the alcohol content of Angelica is “18.0%”).

Apart from use at the altar, it would be quite delicious at dessert, especially if paired with berries or fruit, or — even better — a cheese course.

It’s Possible Pope Francis agrees: Children Don’t Belong in Cry Rooms, and Neither do You

[NOTE OF CLARIFICATION: While the Holy Father has expressed a fairly clear opinion regarding nursing in church, he has not opined (so far as I know) on the appropriate use of a cry room. He’s only stated that “the most beautiful choir of all is the choir of the infants who will make a noise.”]

One of the most commented posts on this blog was from last September entitled, “Children don’t Belong in a Cry Room, and Neither do You,” in which I stated:

Children belong at Mass. Period. Efforts to remove children for “special liturgies,” “CCD”, “religious ed”, “nursery care” — or whatever else — is not in keeping with the traditions of the Church or its precepts. Loud children and their parents (whose sin is that they have dutifully brought their kids to Mass) should not be relegated to segregated, soundproofed rooms for the convenience and comfort of people who complain about the noise or distraction at the expense of the good of the whole community.


Children have always been, and should always be present at liturgical celebrations. Their presence, especially in overwhelming numbers, is a sign of the great blessings showered by God upon His people. The most joy-filled, spiritually enriching celebrations of the Eucharist that you can find often involve the prominent presence and participation of young people and children. It does not matter if you attend the Mass in the Novus Ordo or the Extraordinary Form, when young people are present, Jesus is happy, because the growth and life of the Church is something that ensures a healthy, dynamic and living faith for future generations.

When our Holy Father told our young people at World Youth Day to go make some noise, he did not also say, “but only in the cry room.”

In response to one commenter who accused me of manipulation, deception and conflation of the topic, I wrote: “Ok, it’s a conflation. Let’s ask Pope Francis where babies belong.”

francisbaptNow we’re closer to knowing, because this past Sunday, in connection with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Pope Francis repeated the tradition of baptizing babies in the Sistine Chapel. The Pope invited 32 babies to be baptized in one of the holiest places in all of Christendom, in the very room (frescoed by Renaissance master Michaelangelo) where the Pope himself was elected.

Did Pope Francis suggest that babies who were loud or disruptive should be removed to the Sistine Chapel Cry Room? [Hint: there isn’t one.]


Instead, he invited mothers to nurse their babies. In the Sistine Chapel! The Pope told mothers to have “no qualms about breast-feeding them there.” (These words in quotes are not attributed to Pope Francis, but the writer of the linked article). In his 300-word homily, the Holy Father was quoted: “Today the choir will sing but the most beautiful choir of all is the choir of the infants who will make a noise. Some will cry because they are not comfortable or because they are hungry,” he said. “If they are hungry, mothers, feed them, without thinking twice. Because they are the most important people here…

According to the Vicar of Christ, Supreme Pontiff, Servant of the Servants of God, His Holiness Pope Francis, the most beautiful choir of all is the choir of infants who make noise. Of course, this should not be a surprise, in light of Our Lord’s own words, to “Let the children come to me, do not prevent them.” 

Case closed, says Quartermaster (and those who agree). Children don’t belong in Cry Rooms, and neither do you!

Pastors, in light of the Holy Father’s words, perhaps if you have a Cry Room but not an Adoration Chapel, you should make the change to something more… Catholic!

[RELATED FOLLOWUP POST: For Anyone who objects to Nursing Mothers in Church…]

The Nuptial Blessing (Pre-Vatican II)

IMG_7415For Christmas, from a very good friend, I received a copy of The Visible Church: Her Government, Ceremonies, Sacramentals, Festivals and Devotions, which is “A Compendium of the Externals of the Catholic Church” and “A Text Book for Catholic Schools”. The book is by Rev. John F. Sullivan, printed 1921. It contains 70 “lessons” in various categories including Church government, the religious state, the Sacraments, the Mass, Sacramentals, Church calendar, etc.

Lesson 18 is entitled “The Ceremonies of Matrimony” and contains some interesting information:

First, that Matrimony is both a sacrament and a contact. “The making of this contract between certain persons is null and void by the natural law and the revealed law of God.” (p. 75). For example, one diriment impediment (i.e., something that renders a marriage altogether invalid unless dispensation is granted by the Church) to marriage is a spiritual relationship: “The marriage of a sponsor to his or her god-child is invalid…” (p. 80).

Second, “In all other sacraments (except private Baptism given by a layman) the minister of the sacrament is a clergyman. In Matrimony the ministers of the sacrament are the parties who receive it; the priest blesses their union and sanctifies it with the rites of the Church.” However, a priest’s blessing “is not essential to the sacrament, and may be omitted under certain conditions, as follows:”

If a couple wish to marry in a place where for a month there will be no priest qualified to join them in matrimony, they may simply express their mutual consent in the presence of two witnesses, and they are thereby validly and lawfully married… Afterwards, if possible, they shall have the marriage recorded and ritual prayers read… (p. 84).

Third, “The State (the civil government) has no power to nullify marriages. It has the right to regulate them, by requiring the obtaining of a license and the subsequent registering of the marriage; but it has no right and no power to annul a valid marriage or to grant a divorce from it.” (p. 75).

Fourth, under the old rites (pre-Vatican II), the couple would receive a Nuptial Blessing, “…directed rather to the woman than to the man… The woman can receive it only once. If it has been given to her a previous marriage, it is not repeated. It is never given outside of the Mass.” (p. 73).

O God, who by Thine own mighty power, didst make all things out of nothing: who, having set in order the beginnings of the world, didst appoint Woman to be an inseparable helpmeet to Man, made like unto God, so that Thou didst give to woman’s body its beginnings in man’s flesh, thereby teaching that what it pleased Thee to form from one substance, might never be lawfully separated: O God, who, by so excellent a mystery hast consecrated the union of man and wife, as to foreshadow in this nuptial bond the union of Christ with His Church: O God, by whom Woman is joined to Man, and the partnership, ordained from the beginning, is endowed with such blessing that it alone was not withdrawn either by the punishment of original sin, nor by the sentence of the flood: graciously look upon this Thy handmaid, who, about to be joined in wedlock, seeks Thy defense and protection. May it be to her a yoke of love and peace: faithful and chaste, may she be wedded in Christ, and let her ever be the imitator of holy women: let her be dear to her husband, like Rachel: wise, like Rebecca: long-lived and faithful like Sara. Let not the author of deceit work any of his evil deeds in her. May she continue, clinging to the faith and to the commandments. Bound in one union, let her shun all unlawful contact. Let her protect her weakness by the strength of discipline; let her be grave in behavior, respected for modesty, well-instructed in heavenly doctrine. Let her be fruitful in offspring; be approved and innocent; and come to the repose of the blessed and the kingdom of heaven. May they both see their children’s children to the third and fourth generation, and may they reach the old age which they desire. Through the same Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end.

The Origins of Mandatory Private Confession in the Catholic Church

In the “Stats” for this blog, I can review the search strings typed into engines like Google or Bing that bring visitors here. One such search string recently caught my eye, which surprised me because I’ve never written about the topic before:

Screen Shot 2013-10-30 at 11.13.45 AM

“when did mandatory private confession start in the catholic church?”

When I repeated the search myself, the question was left somewhat unanswered. So, to the person who was looking for an answer to this question, this is for you:

Private Penance is quite old in the Catholic Church; It is an Ancient Practice

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Primary documents are cited from this excellent compendium; click the picture of the cover for more information

In 1551, the Council of Trent, in its Doctrine on the Sacrament of Penance, stated that “…Peter, prince of the apostles, recommended penance to sinners who were about to receive baptism with the words: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you. [Acts 2:38f.]”

The Church teaches that Confession, or Penance (also Reconciliation) is one of the seven sacraments of the Church instituted by Christ. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “During his public life Jesus not only forgave sins, but also made plain the effect of this forgiveness: he reintegrated forgiven sinners into the community of the People of God from which sin had alienated or even excluded them.” (CCC 1443).

According to the Church, the sacrament of Penance is for baptized members who “…have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion… The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as ‘the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace.'” (CCC 1446, citing Tertullian, De Paenit. 4, 2: PL 1, 1343; and Trent).

Regardless of whether penance of a particular time was private or public, “Beneath the changes in discipline and celebration that this sacrament has undergone over the centuries, the same fundamental structure is to be discerned.” (CCC 1447, 1448). That is, whether public or private (or some other potential form), sacramental penance has always comprised “two equally essential elements: …conversion through the action of the Holy Spirit… [and] God’s action through the intervention of the Church.” (CCC 1448).

The Council of Trent in Doctrine stated:

“…the Lord instituted the sacrament of penance, principally when after his Resurrection he breathed upon his disciples and said: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’ [Jn 20:22f.]. The universal consensus of the Fathers has always acknowledged that by so sublime an action and such clear words the power of forgiving and retaining sins was given to the apostles and their lawful successors for reconciling the faithful who have fallen after baptism…” (Chapter 5).

Confessional at Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Confessional at Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

In addition, the Council of Trent noted that “secret” [private] sacramental confession, was used by the Church “from her beginning” and “has always been commended by the most venerable and most ancient Fathers with great and unanimous agreement…” (Ibid., Chapter 5).

That was 1551. We faithful Catholics should trust the Council Fathers at Trent that there were private confessions in the Church “from her beginning.” You can stop reading now, unless you happen to like history.

For those who might not take the Council Fathers at their word, we can look for further proof of the assertion regarding the practice of private confession in the Church “from her beginning”. A handful of centuries to 1551 isn’t very long (unless you’re Protestant. Ooh, burn.). The Council refers to private confession from the “beginning” of the Church, but what is its basis for this claim?

First, we can follow the Council Fathers at Trent back a few hundred more years to 1215 and the [Fourth] Lateran Council [can. 8]: “…for the Church did not establish through the Lateran Council that Christ’s faithful should confess, which she had understood to be a necessary institution of divine law, but that the precept of confession should be discharged by one and all at least once a year on their reaching the age of discretion.” Trent is referring to the declaration of the Fourth Lateran Council which instituted “mandatory” private confession when it stated that “All the faithful… should individually confess all their sins in a faithful manner to their own priest at least once a year…” (Ibid., Chapter 21).

Trent noted that while “mandatory” private confession became the norm from the time of the Fourth Lateran, the general “non-mandatory” practice of private confession was a practice in the Church “from her beginning” by virtue of the Fourth Lateran dealing with confession in such a regulatory way.

The sequence would have been backwards to prescribe a specific action (i.e., mandatory annual, private confession during the season of Lent) if the custom (i.e., private confession) were not already embedded in the Christian life. It’s possible that non-private confession was also in use in some places, but as we’ll see below, it’s not likely, apart from isolated examples. And, these other forms of penance would not have been prescribed as “mandatory” while private confession remained only optional.

Although we can now see that the mandatory practice of privately confessing one’s sins to a priest is documented back to 1215, this is less than half the age of the Church. Does it go back any further? It does, according to James Hitchcock’s History of the Catholic Church (page 136): 

Martyrdom of St. John Nepomuk by Szymon Czechowicz, National Museum in Warsaw

Martyrdom of St. John Nepomuk by Szymon Czechowicz, National Museum in Warsaw

By the ninth century, private confession for lay people was required at least once a year, along with a whole new penitential discipline, including the silence of the confessor (the “seal of confession”) so absolute that if, for example, he learned from a penitent of a plot on his own life, he could do nothing to thwart it. (St. John Nepomucen [d. 1393], confessor to the queen of Bohemia, was drowned by order of the king, for refusing to divulge the contents of her confession.)”

Hitchcock’s summary is factually consistent with the Catechism, which states that “During the seventh century Irish missionaries, inspired by the Eastern monastic tradition, took to continental Europe the ‘private’ practice of penance”. (CCC 1447).

Thus, we can see that private confession was practiced in one form or another, and that it was mandatory in many places in Europe back to the 600s, inspired by an even more ancient practice in the “Eastern monastic tradition”. Having gone this far, we might as well push to the origins of the Church to see if we can find any earlier references to private confession.

20131030-003114.jpgPrivate confession is implied in Canon 13 of the First Council of Nicaea (325). In addition, in the Letter Consulenti tibi to Bishop Exsuperius of Toulouse (405), Pope Innocent I referred to penance being granted for those who need it. In 459, Pope St. Leo I the Great wrote a letter Magna indignatione to All the Bishops of Campania, etc., stating:

With regard to penance, what is demanded of the faithful is clearly not that an acknowledgement of the nature of individual sins written in a little book be read publicly, since it suffices that the states of consciences be made known to the priests alone in secret confession.

Saint Leo Magnus by Francisco Herrera the Younger, in the Prado Museum, Madrid

Saint Leo Magnus by Francisco Herrera the Younger, in the Prado Museum, Madrid

Private confession was a practice in the Church “from her beginning” but may not have been the exclusive practice from the beginning; what has varied over the centuries is the “concrete form in which the Church has exercised this power.” (CCC 1447):

During the first centuries the reconciliation of Christians who had committed particularly grave sins after their Baptism (for example, idolatry, murder, or adultery) was tied to very rigorous discipline, according to which penitents had to do public penance for their sins, often for years, before receiving reconciliation.

According to this article, there is reference to confession in the ancient first-century apostolic writings known as the Didache (Did-uh-kay), which was “lost to history” and only rediscovered in 1873. In Chapter 14, the Didache commands Christians to gather on Sundays for the celebration of the Eucharist, “…after having confessed your transgressions” and establishes that from the very origins of the early Church, the tradition was that confession was a requirement for the worthy reception of Communion.

Tradition developed private confession as a mercy (rather than penalty) to penitents: instead of publicly confessing — which was the norm in the very early centuries of the Church, and where the penances assigned were oftentimes harsh and severe — the Church developed a mechanism for private and anonymous reception of the sacrament, and total secrecy regarding the contents of the confession. Holy priests choose martyrdom over revealing what penitents confess.

Therefore, it is historically myopic when Protestants accuse the Church of creating private confession for some nefarious purpose. Luther correctly noted the prevalence of human abuses with regard to the sacrament at the time of the Reformation, but his failure was in attributing these entirely human abuses to the holiness of the Church, which is an error that has taken a great many earnest Christians away from a source of priceless grace and mercy.

Finally, private confession is regarded as somewhat uncomfortable, particularly for non-Catholics seeking to convert to Catholicism but who are unfamiliar with the practice. The point is that it is the Protestant approach to sin and forgiveness that is without precedent or basis. Penance was a sacrament of the Church from the first centuries. The fact that it developed over the centuries into a “mandatory” private practice was and is a mercy for sinners (i.e., all of us), if you take the historical view.

So, go to confession! Give thanks that our Lord gave penance to us as a sacrament, and give thanks that our Church has seen fit to pour out God’s mercy by giving us the means by which to receive the sacrament privately and confidentially!