Question by Christian Dugan:
My Lord, why is it that a newly ordained priest is not given the full office of the priesthood immediately after ordination? A newly ordained priest can celebrate the Holy Eucharist after ordination but cannot hear confessions until later after he is given that faculty? Why that delay?
Answer by Bishop Joseph Osei-Bonsu:
Some sacraments can always be validly administered by every priest, simply by virtue of his priesthood. But others can be administered validly only if a priest also has the necessary permission to do so.
By virtue of his priestly ordination, every priest has the power to celebrate a valid Mass. Strictly speaking, this power can never be taken away from him, even though there can arise specific situations when he is ordered by his bishop or superior not to do so. For example, a priest who has been suspended may have been ordered by his bishop not to celebrate Mass for the faithful; but if he were to disobey this command, his Mass would still be valid and he would, therefore, truly consecrate the Eucharist.
As far as the sacrament of marriage is concerned, it is not the case that every priest, simply because he is a priest, can validly marry any Catholics who request it. Rather, the ability of a cleric to validly assist at a Catholic marriage is fundamentally territorial. This means that a Catholic couple is to be married by a cleric who is responsible for their spiritual care – normally their parish priest (although of course the diocesan bishop can always validly marry Catholics from his diocese too; see cc. 1108-1111).
A priest from outside the territory, however, can be delegated to assist at a wedding there; in this case, he is being given the faculty to assist at the celebration. If a visiting priest were to assist at a wedding without the proper faculty, the wedding would be invalid. It is clear that when it comes to the sacrament of matrimony, the mere fact that a man has been ordained a Catholic priest is not enough!
So what is the situation with the sacrament of penance, which is our concern here? Catholics understand that the minister of this sacrament must be a priest (c. 965: “A priest alone is the minister of the sacrament of penance”), but most probably do not realize that, under normal circumstances, simply being a priest is not enough. He must also possess the faculty to grant absolution to the persons who come to him for confession (c. 966). Without this faculty, he does not have the power to absolve them validly.
There are serious theological and pastoral reasons for this limitation. In the confessional, a priest ordinarily does much more than just pronounce the words of absolution over a penitent. A important part of his work in the confessional involves counselling, which may mean advising a person on how to avoid such sins in the future, or perhaps explaining to the penitent that the actions he has confessed are not necessarily sinful.
A priest must often sort through a person’s complicated story in order to identify what exactly the sinful action was. Hearing confessions, in other words, requires a high level of theological knowledge, some strong logical skills and a lot of common sense.
In view of this, we can easily imagine the damage that could be done in the confessional by a man who is validly ordained a priest, but who nevertheless does not have a sound background in theology and/or an ability to assess accurately the moral implications of the scenario which a penitent may present to him. A confessor who wrongly advises a penitent that his action was not sinful, or who erroneously gives his approval to activity that is morally wrong, is giving the Christian faithful who go to his confessional misinformation that will put them in spiritual danger!
This is where the diocesan bishop comes into the picture. The spiritual welfare of the people of his territory has been entrusted to his care, and he is answerable for it (c. 383). More specifically, canon 392.2 notes that he is to guard against abuses in the celebration of the sacraments – which obviously includes the sacrament of penance. It follows that the diocesan bishop needs to be sure that those priests who are hearing the confessions of the faithful of his diocese are giving them sound Catholic moral direction. And if he somehow comes to realize that they are not, he has the power, by virtue of his office, to protect the faithful by preventing these priests from administering the sacrament of penance.
So how do priests get the faculty to hear confessions? To begin with, all priests have the faculty to hear confessions of Catholics in danger of death, and are in fact obliged to do so (c. 986.2). The urgent need of a dying Catholic supersedes all other laws on this matter because the Church’s primary concern in such a situation is to ensure that the Christian faithful can be absolved of their sins at this critical time. Even a priest who has been laicized, suspended or excommunicated and who is forbidden to administer the sacraments has both the power and the duty to hear the confession of a dying Catholic!
But this emergency situation is ordinarily not the norm. In order to hear the routine confessions of Catholics who seek the sacrament under ordinary circumstances, a diocesan priest is generally given the faculty by his bishop at the time of his ordination. The rules about confessional faculties for religious priests can be a little trickier, but the general concept is the same. The diocesan bishop has the ultimate say in which priests can, and cannot, hear confessions of the faithful in his diocese.
Canon 970 states: “The faculty to hear confessions is not to be granted except to presbyters who are found to be suitable through an examination or whose suitability is otherwise evident”. Nowadays, the general practice is that when a seminarian successfully completes all his seminary studies, and is established to be sufficiently prepared for priestly ordination, his bishop accepts this as adequate indication that he is knowledgeable enough about moral theology to begin hearing confessions in the diocese.
This acceptance is based on the second part of Canon 970 which says, “…or whose suitability is otherwise evident”. The rationale is that if the seminarian were unqualified to be a confessor, he would not have made it through his seminary courses in the first place.
Following this reasoning, I, as the Bishop of Konongo-Mampong Diocese, grant the faculty to hear confessions to all diocesan and religious priests at their ordination. We should also note that in countries like the United States it is usual that all priests are given the faculty upon ordination or upon undertaking any pastoral responsibility, without restriction as to the persons to be absolved or as to the occasions for the celebration of the sacrament.
In such cases, the evidence of qualification for priestly ordination may serve the same purpose as the examination referred to in the first part of Canon 970. Let me add that if a bishop is not satisfied with the recommendation from the seminary authorities concerning the suitability of newly-ordained priests to hear confession, it is his right to organize the examination mentioned in Canon 970.
For further explanations or enquiries, you may contact the author, Most Rev. Joseph Osei-Bonsu, Catholic Bishop of Konongo-Mampong, on this number: 0244488904, or on WhatsApp (with the same number).