I have sometimes attended Masses where confessions were being heard in the church at the same time. Is this allowed?
Before I give the Church’s official position on the question, let me say that priests can be quite divided on this issue. Some, moved by love for the Mass, say the faithful should not be distracted from the Mass by going to confession.
Others say that if there is a large congregation and many people wish to go to confession, this sacrament should be facilitated for them. It is clear that the arguments on both sides have merit.
To resolve the issue, in October 2001 the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments gave an official Response to the question: “Can the faithful have recourse to the sacrament of Penance during Mass?” It appeared in Notitiae, the official bulletin of the Congregation (37 (2001) 259-260).
The Response began by quoting from the Instruction Eucharisticum mysterium (25 May 1967), which states: “The faithful are to be constantly encouraged to accustom themselves to going to confession outside the celebration of Mass, and especially at the prescribed times. In this way, the sacrament of Penance will be administered calmly and with genuine profit, and will not interfere with active participation in the Mass” (n. 35).
This general norm encouraging the celebration of the sacrament of Penance outside of Mass is balanced by the introduction to the Ordo Paenitentiae, which says that the reconciliation of penitents can be celebrated “at any time and day” (n. 13).
The Response goes on to say that “this does not in any way prohibit priests, except the one who is celebrating Mass, from hearing confessions of the faithful who so desire, including during the celebration of Mass.
Above all nowadays, when the ecclesial significance of sin and the sacrament of Penance is obscured in many people, and the desire to receive the sacrament of Penance has diminished markedly, pastors ought to do all in their power to foster frequent participation in this sacrament.”
After quoting several canons of the Code of Canon Law regarding the obligation of pastors to provide for hearing the confessions of their people (Can. 986 §1), and the obligation of the faithful to confess their sins (Can. 989), the Response states, “Consequently, it is clearly lawful, even during the celebration of Mass, to hear confessions when one foresees that the faithful are going to ask for this ministry.
In the case of concelebrations, it is earnestly to be desired that some priests would abstain from concelebrating so as to be available to attend to the faithful who wish to receive the sacrament of Penance.”
Thus, it is not only lawful but “earnestly to be desired” that some priests would make themselves available to hear confessions during the celebration of Mass.
Often, for example in large Masses on special feast days, there are people in attendance who have not been to Mass or confession for a long time, and they will appreciate very much the opportunity to go to confession during the Mass.
If the Mass is being celebrated on a Sunday or holy day of obligation, those who take advantage of the opportunity to go to confession can consider that they are still fulfilling their obligation to attend Mass, since ordinarily their confession will not take a long time and, in any case, they are in the church where the Mass is being celebrated.
Another situation where confessions are often heard during the celebration of Mass is in city churches where priests are available to hear confessions for many hours each day.
There is no reason why they should interrupt hearing confessions simply because a Mass is beginning.
Apart from other considerations, in those churches some of the faithful going to confession may not wish to attend the Mass and they should not be deprived of the opportunity to receive the sacrament of Penance.
Pope John Paul II made reference to this Response in his Apostolic Letter Misericordia Dei on the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance in 2002.
In urging that the greatest possible provision be made for the faithful to confess their sins, he said, “It is particularly recommended that in places of worship confessors be visibly present at the advertised times, that these time be adapted to the real circumstances of penitents, and that confessions be especially available before Masses, and even during Mass if there are other priests available, in order to meet the needs of the faithful” (n. 2).