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Liturgy: Anonymity in the Confessional

4/7/2004 - 6:00 AM PST

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And More on the Rite of Washing of the Feet

ROME, APRIL 7, 2004 (Zenit) - Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

Q: Is it permissible, and/or is there any good reason for a confessor to ask the identity of a penitent when the confession is anonymous; that is, it is not "face to face"? -- L.L., Washington, D.C.

A: Anonymous confession, along with the confessional as we know it today, is generally attributed to an initiative of St. Charles Borromeo (1538-1584), the archbishop of Milan, Italy. Previously, the confessor would sit in a chair and the penitent, who usually was kneeling, was clearly visible to him.

In order to ensure modesty and discretion, Cardinal Borromeo mandated in 1564 that the confessionals in his diocese be closed on both sides with a grill between penitent and priest. Pope Paul V's Roman Ritual adopted this provision, which helped spread its use, although it did not become a universal practice until the 17th century.

Anonymous confession remains the norm although current dispositions allow for the penitent who so desires to request face-to-face confession. And confessionals may be designed to allow for both options.

Although the penitent may request face-to-face confession, the priest is not obliged to accede to the request and may insist on the use of the grill.

If a penitent desires anonymity, the priest should respect this desire and in the vast majority of situations he should never have any need or right to inquire as to the identity of the penitent.

Even if the priest recognizes the penitent it is usually more prudent not to make personal references unless the penitent makes some form of self-identification or the circumstances warrant it, such as could be the case of a regular penitent well known to the priest.

More frequently there may be situations when, in order to determine the exact nature and gravity of the sin involved, the priest may make a general inquiry as to the penitent's state in life, for example, if he or she is married, or a vowed religious, etc.

In some confessionals, where the penitent is almost invisible, it can happen that a priest may have to ask some detail of age, or even sex, in order to tailor his counsel to the penitent's specific characteristics.

Some very grave sins, such as abortion, also might incur excommunication reserved to the bishop or in some special cases, such as the deliberate profanation of the Eucharist, to the Holy See.

In such cases the confessor may not be able to grant absolution immediately, or only on condition that the penitent requests the lifting of the canonical penalty within a month from the competent authority.

As most penitents would be unaware of how to go about this process, the priest may offer to help by contacting either the bishop or the Holy See as the case may be. This is always done without revealing any personal data or identifying circumstances (see Canon 1357).

If the penitent wishes to remain anonymous then he or she may make an appointment to return to confession to the same priest after a certain time in order to have the sanction formally lifted. But in some cases it may be necessary to reveal some personal data so that the priest can inform the penitent of the arrival of the proper authorization.

* * *

Follow-up: Washing of the Feet

Our replies regarding feet washing and the use of the crucifix rather than a cross (March 23) generated a high level of correspondence some of which was very informative and which also leads me to review some of my previous statements.

Regarding washing only men's feet on Holy Thursday, several readers asked about a statement published by the U.S. bishops' liturgy committee in 1987 (see www.usccb.org/liturgy/q&a/general/feet.htm).

Paragraphs 4 and 5 read:

"Because the gospel of the mandatum read on Holy Thursday also depicts Jesus as the 'Teacher and Lord' who humbly serves his disciples by performing this extraordinary gesture which goes beyond the laws of hospitality, the element of humble service has accentuated the celebration of the foot washing rite in the United States over the last decade or more. In this regard, it has become customary in many places to invite that both men and women to be participants in this rite in recognition of the service that should be given by all the faithful to the Church and to the world. Thus, in the United States, a variation in the rite developed in which not only charity is signified but also humble service.

"While this variation may differ from the rubric of the Sacramentary which mentions only men ('viri selecti'), it may nevertheless be said that the intention to emphasize ...

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