How often do priests go to confession? Sign of cross when passing a church?

| Father Kenneth Doyle | March 27, 2014 | 0 Comments

Q. I have often heard priests encouraging Catholics to go to confession more regularly, and I’m wondering how often priests themselves go to confession. Is there a rule on this? And if there is no rule, what is the general practice?

A. The Church’s Code of Canon Law in No. 989 notes the obligation of Catholics to confess grave sins at least once a year. (Of course, if you are conscious of having committed a grave sin, you should not wait for an annual confession but instead confess as soon as reasonably possible in order to reopen your pathway to God and render yourself eligible to receive the Eucharist.)

Beyond that general norm, there is no specific requirement as to how often priests must confess, although Canon No. 276.5 urges the clergy “to approach the sacrament of penance frequently.”

At a weekly audience in November 2013, Pope Francis revealed that he receives the sacrament of penance every two weeks and considers confession to be the best path to spiritual healing and health. “My confessor hears what I say, offers me advice and forgives me,” said the pope. “We all need this.”

I’ve not seen any studies on this, but it’s safe to say that most priests do not confess their sins nearly as often as the Holy Father. Probably, several times a year would be a reasonable estimate, generally on their annual retreat, sometimes at clergy days of recollection or gatherings of priest support groups, or when time allows.

One of the sad consequences of the shortage of priests is that the frenzied pace of pastoral duties can induce us to ignore our spiritual growth. In this, as in many things, we would do well to look to Pope Francis as a model.

Q. I have some questions regarding a practice I observed as a child (in the 1970s). While they were passing in front of a church (either walking or in a car), I used to notice some people making the sign of the cross. I’m not sure whether this was just a personal custom or one endorsed by the Church. Are you familiar with this practice and, if so, how did it originate? Is it an appropriate sign of reverence?

A. Yes, I am familiar with this practice. I’m not sure whether it was taught to me by my mother or by the nuns in school. Ever since I was a child, whenever I pass a Catholic church I make the sign of the cross with my thumb on my forehead, as a priest does to a child at baptism.

I do this as a sign of reverence for Jesus, present in the tabernacle. I’m not aware of any official “endorsement” of this practice by the church, but such a gesture of faith is a long-standing custom — particularly in Ireland, but also in Italy and the Philippines.

The theologian Tertullian, in the year 211 A.D., in a work called “The Chaplet,” wrote: “In all our actions, when we come in or go out, when we dress, when we wash, at our meals, before resting to sleep, we make on our forehead the sign of the cross. These practices are not commended to us by a formal law of Scripture, but tradition teaches them, custom confirms them and faith observes them.”

Father Doyle writes for Catholic News Service. A priest of the Diocese of Albany, N.Y., he previously served as director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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