The seal of Confession is a marvel of the Church’s pastoral care of souls. It is the promise on the part of the priest never to reveal the contents of a confession. Sinners are thus reassured that the secrets of their iniquities are forever sealed before God. They leave the confessional forgiven and at peace.
However, the coronavirus crisis has revealed a far different “seal” of Confession. With the lockdown order, Catholics are deprived—and even self-deprived—of the sacrament of Confession. In their concern to appear zealous for public safety, many Church officials go beyond government protocols by banning sacramental access when not needed. In vast areas of the country, Confession is often unavailable due more to the order of the bishop than the governor. In some dioceses, the rule is no Confession save in case of death.
Finding a Way to Confession
Those living who wish to confess must find other means.
Finding alternatives usually happens in conversations with other Catholics, in which the topic of Confession comes up. If you are lucky, someone will mention that Father might be hearing confessions. You ask for details and get an email address or phone number to arrange a meeting. Or a person might invite you to come along. It’s all unofficial. Just don’t tell anyone where you heard this.
That’s how I managed to go to Confession after several weeks. Someone (I will not say who) invited me to come along (I will not say where). I will not even say the state or diocese where it occurred. I don’t know, or want to know, the last name of the priest. He does not know me. I will even avoid giving telltale details of the novel “confessional” that might compromise the priest or his cover. The date is also omitted. These details are all locked up in this second self-imposed seal of Confession. All I will say is that it was far from where I live, and the place was not a church.
A Completely Legal Encounter
The whole affair reminded me of a similar contact I had experienced at another place. On that occasion (I will not say when), I picked up my prescription at Walmart. The time I spent before the cashier was a bit less than my Confession. I was, however, much closer to the person on the other side of the Plexiglas shield than the priest hearing confession. With the shoppers inside, I ran a much higher risk of infection at the superstore than the lonely location of the sacrament.
In the case of the Confession, I made sure that what the priest or I did was completely legal. In many states, religion is still considered an essential activity, even in lockdown. Thus, going to fulfill a religious duty is allowed, while gathering with others to do so is not.
However, from a secular perspective, the event was much like my Walmart encounter. We were two people engaged in an essential activity, talking at the prescribed social distancing. In reality, I was a poor sinner presenting my sins before a tribunal of God. Regardless of how you saw it, we followed all the protocols. I did not fear government action, but church authorities who might chasten the valiant priest and his zeal for souls.
On the morning of my adventure, the person picked me up for the long trip. I will not embellish the narrative by saying I was blindfolded. I wasn’t. We have not reached that point. The trip was calm and uneventful. However, it was surreal. It took a while to realize that you were doing something that used to be so normal. It had an “underground church” feel to it.
Upon arriving at the location, I joined a few others who had wind of the opportunity. We stood in a long, spaced-out line awaiting our turns. When one came out, another went in and confessed. Afterward, priests and penitents departed with no sign of what had taken place. Although it was a creative and ingenious arrangement, I can tell you no more about how it happened. It is now locked under the second seal of Confession.
Impressions of the Experience
However, I can give some general impressions. I had never waited in a confession line like this one. It made me appreciate the sacrament much more. I reflected upon how easily and quickly, we lost access to this cleansing sacrament. Inside the actual “confessional,” I was reminded of those persecuted for the faith who confess under similar circumstances. I wondered what the future has in store for us.
I know there is no formal persecution against the Church. However, the measures taken by the government and approved by Church authorities, have the same effects of a persecution. Rarely has a government been able to shut down all the sacraments and most churches with such ease. Never has the Church seen such a worldwide ban.
The ban is not over. Even with talk of reopening, some states are thinking of extending the religious lockdown for longer periods while opening up similar activities. Thus, we can expect to see the faithful deprived of their spiritual nourishment. Catholics everywhere are longing for a return to sacramental life. Many priests are finding creative ways to minister to the faithful. If we do not defend our vital right to the sacraments, we risk losing them – or receiving them underground under a second seal.