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Hearing the Pope’s Confession: Vatican Confessor Reflects on Sacrament

December 10, 2023 Catholic News Agency 1
Pope Francis confessing in St. Peter’s Basilica. / L’Osservatore Romano

CNA Newsroom, Dec 10, 2023 / 11:15 am (CNA).

A 91-year-old Franciscan has spoken about his time as confessor to Pope Francis and stressed the enduring and essential role of the sacrament of reconciliation.

Brother Otmar Egloff served for several years as chief confessor at the Lateran — the storied cathedral of the bishop of Rome — according to CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language partner agency.

He recalled being asked to move from his native Switzerland to serve at the basilica in 2004, towards the end of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate. “It was probably my talent for languages that was decisive, as I speak Italian, German and French,” the priest said in an interview published Dec 7. 

The friar recalled being told, “tomorrow the pope is coming for confession!” — but that the experience was not so different from hearing confessions from other Catholics.  

“The only difference was that my confessional was cleaned very thoroughly beforehand,” the Franciscan said. 

“When you come to the confessional in the morning and see a whole team cleaning and scrubbing your confessional, that’s really something else. I used to go and dust it myself with a cloth.”

Brother Otmar said, “it was also special that Pope Francis confessed kneeling in public and used my confessional afterwards to hear confessions from other priests.”

Penance for the Pope

Upholding both the sacred seal of confession and his sense of humour, when asked by the Swiss interviewer what penance Pope Francis would receive from him today, the Franciscan answered with a laugh: “Today, I would give the pope a different penance. A penance of the tongue. His tongue is sometimes too quick.”

Asked by the Swiss journalist where priests live when appointed a confessor at the Lateran, the priest replied: “Above the roof of the church are the apartments of the eight Franciscan friars who sit in the eight confessionals during the day.” 

Brother Otmar added Franciscans from all over the world had always been assigned to this service in the Lateran, “that has always been the case and will remain so.”

Celibacy and Vocation

From his long experience as a confessor, Brother Otmar stressed that the sacrament “remains important”.

Noting “a decline of the practice in German-speaking countries,” the Swiss religious added: “This is a human need and gives you the chance of a real new beginning. Your conscience shows you what was wrong. God forgives.”

Pope Francis, who has encouraged Catholics to go to confession, recently reiterated his call on German Catholics to remember “the importance of prayer, penance, and adoration.”

In his interview, Brother Otmar also said that celibacy and abuse have nothing to do with each other: “It’s more because unsuitable candidates were accepted due to a shortage of priests. Paedophilia is a serious disorder and an atrocity.”

Asked whether you can already know in your mid-20s whether you can spend your whole life celibate, the Franciscan said: “You do know. You know whether you’ve had relationships, whether you long for a partnership or not. You have to deal with these issues. That was probably not discussed enough [in the past]. For me, it was always important to help the respective priests and candidates to the priesthood — and, if necessary, to advise them against it.”


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Catholics, are you going to confession? Watch for these changes

February 23, 2023 Catholic News Agency 3
null / L’Osservatore Romano.

Denver, Colo., Feb 23, 2023 / 16:00 pm (CNA).

Lent is supposed to be a time of penance in the Catholic Church. This year, it’s a time when priests in the confessional will use a revised translation of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation to forgive the sins of Catholic penitents.

The changes are noticeable in the formula of absolution, when the priest speaks in the person of Jesus Christ to absolve a Catholic from his or her sins. The “essential words” of the priest’s absolution formula have not been changed, but there are “two minor modifications to the preliminary part of the prayer,” according to the April 2022 newsletter of the Committee on Divine Worship of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

Here’s the new approved text, with changes in bold:

God, the Father of mercies,

through the Death and Resurrection of his Son

has reconciled the world to himself

and poured out the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins;

through the ministry of the Church may God grant you pardon and peace,

and I absolve you from your sins

in the name of the Father, and of the Son, [sign of the cross] 

and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

The line “poured out the Holy Spirit” previously read “sent the Holy Spirit among us.” The phrase “may God grant you pardon and peace” is only a one-word change: It previously read “may God give you pardon and peace.”

The changes add “a little bit more richness to the language,” according to Monsignor Richard Hilgartner, a former executive director of the USCCB’s Secretariat of Divine Worship who is now pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Cockeysville, Maryland.

“God’s granting something that we don’t deserve, and that’s what forgiveness is. It’s something that we don’t earn or deserve,” Hilgartner told the Archdiocese of Baltimore newspaper The Catholic Review.

The sacrament of penance, also called reconciliation or confession, is the means through which God grants pardon for sins through the priest’s ministry. In the sacrament, the contrite penitent discloses his or her sins to a Catholic priest who grants sacramental absolution. The penitent makes an act of contrition in which he or she resolves to not sin again. The priest generally instructs the penitent to perform an act of satisfaction, usually called a penance. This can take the form of prayer, such as praying three Hail Marys, for example.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2021 fall general assembly voted in favor of the new translation of the prayer, with 182 votes in favor, 6 against, and 2 abstentions. The Vatican’s Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments approved the translation in April 2022.

The new language for the priest’s absolution is allowed as of Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. Priests must use the new language starting on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 16, the first Sunday after Easter 2023.

Hilgartner noted that the liturgical season of Lent is a penitential time when many Catholics especially seek out the sacrament of reconciliation. He told the Catholic Review that many Catholics feel peace and relief after going to confession, especially if they have been away from the sacrament for a long time.

“Inevitably, people say, ‘I feel so much better. I feel like a burden has been lifted,’ because that’s what’s happening. God is casting behind his back all our sins, taking them away from us in a way that we don’t know how to do for ourselves,” he said. “I hear often about how people feel literally unburdened by this happening. And it’s the great gift — that the Lord’s taking this upon himself. For us, this is what the cross is all about, that he takes all of our sins to the cross so that we don’t have to.”

Under Church law, every Catholic has the right to an anonymous sacramental confession. In practice, priests often do not even know the identity of a penitent. In the Catholic understanding of the “seal of confession,” the contents are “inviolable.” Any priest who discloses the contents of a confession faces among the harshest penalties of the Church, an automatic excommunication.

Pope Francis has frequently encouraged Catholics to receive God’s forgiveness in the sacrament of penance.


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Pope Francis: In confession, the priest should guide penitent to holiness

March 26, 2022 Catholic News Agency 1
Pope Francis goes to confession during a penance service in St. Peter’s Basilica on March 25, 2022. / Vatican Media.

Vatican City, Mar 26, 2022 / 05:30 am (CNA).

Pope Francis told hundreds of priests and seminarians on Friday that when they are hearing confessions, they should strive to accompany penitents along the path to greater holiness.

“The confessor always has as his goal the universal call to holiness, and to accompany discreetly to it,” the pope said on March 25, speaking about the Sacrament of Reconciliation, when a penitent Catholic discloses his or her sins to a priest or bishop, who acts in persona Christi, Latin for “in the person of Christ,” to grant God’s pardon and forgiveness.

“To accompany means to take care of the other person, walking together with him or her,” he continued. “It is not enough to indicate a goal, if you are not willing to walk even a stretch of road together.”

“However brief the confessional interview may be, from a few details you can understand the needs of the brother or sister: we are called to respond to them, accompanying them above all to the understanding and acceptance of God’s will, which is always the way of the greatest good, the way of joy and peace,” the pope stated.

Francis addressed around 800 priests and seminarians at the end of an annual course on the seal of confession and the internal forum, which is an extra-sacramental form of secrecy, or confidentiality, applied to spiritual direction.

The course, in its 32nd edition, was held in person and online. It was organized by the Apostolic Penitentiary, the office of the Roman Curia responsible for issues related to the sacrament of confession, indulgences, and the internal forum.

“Dear brothers, I thank the Lord with you for the ministry which you carry out, or which will soon be entrusted to you — for there are [transitional] deacons here — a ministry at the service of the sanctification of the faithful People of God,” Pope Francis said.

He reminded priests that though they are ministers of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, they should also receive the graces of the sacrament themselves.

“You go to ask forgiveness for your sins, do you not? This is very healthy. It is good for us confessors to do so,” he said.

Francis also advised priests to “inhabit” the confessional, always being ready to welcome, listen, and accompany those who come to seek God’s forgiveness. Everyone needs forgiveness, he said, “that is, to feel that they are loved as children by God the Father.”

“The words we say: ‘I absolve you of your sins’ also mean ‘you, brother, sister, are precious, you are precious to God; it is good that you are there.’ And this is a most powerful medicine for the soul, and also for the psyche of everyone,” he said.


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Confession must be part of talks on worthiness to receive Communion, Nuncio says

July 28, 2021 Catholic News Agency 2
Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States, addresses the July 28 online panel hosted by Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life / Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life

Washington D.C., Jul 28, 2021 / 17:05 pm (CNA).

The sacrament of confession must be part of the U.S. bishops’ discussions on worthiness to receive Communion, the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States said on Wednesday.

Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, said at an online panel that the conversion of souls should be the bishops’ primary aim when teaching about reception of Holy Communion.

“The starting point cannot be to shame the weak, but to propose the One Who can strengthen us to overcome our weaknesses, especially through the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist,” Archbishop Pierre said at an online panel discussion on Wednesday.

“By the way, there is a link between the two [sacraments],” the nuncio added.

Archbishop Pierre addressed a July 28 online panel discussion of “Communion, Catholics, and Public Life,” which focused largely on a draft Eucharistic document of the U.S. bishops’ conference.

At their recent spring meeting, held virtually this year due to the pandemic, the U.S. bishops voted decisively to begin drafting a teaching document on the Eucharist. The meeting featured extensive debate both for and against moving ahead with the document at the time.

A proposed outline of the document covered various teachings on the Eucharist, including a subsection on worthiness to receive Communion – “Eucharistic consistency.”

That subsection received most of the attention at the bishops’ meeting. Some bishops opposed to drafting the document at the time argued that in addressing worthiness to receive Communion, the bishops would be seen as partisan players, rebuking Catholic politicians who oppose the Church’s teachings on abortion laws.

Some bishops critical of the motion also said that to pronounce who should and should not receive Communion would drive Catholics away from the Eucharist at a time when unity in the Church is needed.

Archbishop Pierre was asked about the episcopal deliberations on Wednesday. He admitted the difficulty the bishops faced in “discerning” what to do on the teaching document.

“The discernment is quite difficult, because there is always the danger to be overwhelmed by the tensions. And we know these tensions are quite often ideological tensions which may divide us,” he said.

“This is why we have heard about the risk of instrumentalization of the sacraments, and indeed, of the Eucharist,” he continued, noting “how to remain firm, faithful to the message of the Gospel and avoid any kind of ideological war.”

After the Nuncio spoke on Wednesday, two U.S. bishops participated in the online dialogue on Communion – Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, chair of the doctrine committee at the U.S. bishops’ conference (USCCB), and Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark.

As current chair of USCCB doctrine committee, Bishop Rhoades is currently in charge of drafting the teaching document on the Eucharist.

The idea for the document surfaced shortly after the election of President Joe Biden. A USCCB working group was established in November 2020 to deal with challenges of a Catholic in the White House – Biden – who contradicted Church teaching on life and marriage issues. Biden supports taxpayer-funded abortion and the redefinition of marriage, among other policies contrary to Church teaching.

The bishops’ working group recommended a teaching document on the Eucharist, to inform Catholics – especially Catholic politicians – of the need to conform their lives to Church teaching in order to receive the Eucharist worthily and avoid giving scandal.

Bishop Rhoades on Wednesday said the Eucharistic document is meant to be “a teaching document,” one “that would focus more broadly on the Eucharist as the source and summit of our identity as Catholics.” It is addressed to all Catholics and is not a political statement, he said.

Regarding worthiness to receive Communion, the Church already has taught that discipline in canons 915 and 916 of the Code of Canon Law, he said on Wednesday. Canon 915 states that those “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.”

The document, Rhoades emphasized, “will not be establishing national norms or a national policy” on admittance to Communion.

Bishop Rhoades added that it is the teaching of the Church that, in order to be properly disposed to receive Communion, a Catholic must “assent to the deposit of faith that’s contained in Scripture and Tradition that the Apostles entrusted to the Church.”

Meanwhile, Cardinal Tobin on Wednesday expressed some criticism about the decision to draft the document at the current moment. “This document was born in some confusion,” he said, warning that it would be received by many Catholics as a partisan gesture.

Cardinal Tobin noted that the USCCB established a working group and drafted a document on worthiness to receive Communion after the election of Joe Biden. They did not do so right after the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016, he said, taking more than a year to set up any such working group during Trump’s presidency.

Part of the USCCB’s reason for setting up the working group in 2020 was Biden’s professed Catholic faith, and the added possibility of scandal with a Catholic in the White House contradicting Church teaching on grave moral issues.

Bishops should be consulting not only among themselves, but with the lay faithful on the Eucharistic document, Tobin said.

“I think what we need is a broader consultation with the American church on the mystery of the Eucharist,” Cardinal Tobin said, “not one that, like it or not, is perceived as a political action.”

Cardinal Tobin was also asked about recent reports on the use of the gay dating and “hookup” app Grindr by clergy and seminarians.

The Catholic news website The Pillar on July 20 published its investigation claiming that, according to records of app signal data, the cell phone of the USCCB’s associate general secretary regularly emitted Grindr data signals during parts of the years 2018-2020. The secretary in question, Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, became USCCB general secretary after the bishops’ November 2020 meeting. He resigned his post shortly before The Pillar published its investigation.

The Pillar has since published stories saying it reviewed data of Grindr app usage at rectories in the Newark archdiocese, and at the Vatican. The Archdiocese of Newark responded last week that it would investigate the allegations.

Cardinal Tobin on Wednesday said that priests could not be using the apps after having taken vows of celibacy, but also noted the “ethics” surrounding the gathering of the phone app data.

“All of us as Catholics take promises,” he said, noting vows made related to the sacraments of Baptism, Matrimony, and Holy Orders. “We should keep our promises, and we should repent when we don’t keep our promises,” he said.

For priests who have taken vows of celibacy, having a dating app on their phone “is asking for trouble,” Tobin said.

He also noted the “very questionable ethics around the” gathering of phone app data, and added that the information The Pillar shared with the Newark archdiocese “is very general.” Tobin would not comment further on the story.