Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

As we celebrate the 175th Anniversary of the Archdiocese, we look back… on July 17, 1891 when Bishop Lawrence S. McMahon dedicated St. Bernard Church, Enfield.
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Q. If a dying person cannot find a priest for confession, could he or she possibly confess to a lay person? I seem to recall reading that such a solution was once accepted practice. I even remember a scene in a significant movie about this. At any rate, what is the answer?

A. The motion picture referred to in the above question could have been the cult Western film, “The Ox-Bow Incident,” which I recall seeing for the first time during the early 1940s. Nominated for an Oscar, and based on a novel, it featured Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn and Harry Morgan, among others. The plot focuses on a mob determined to hang two alleged rustlers. One, prior to the lynching, asks for a priest, but none is available. He then makes his confession to one of the bystanders.

Somehow, such a practice was allegedly rooted in customs followed in various European countries. That such a “confession” is non-sacramental should be obvious.

In the extreme situation outlined in the question above, believers are taught that an Act of Perfect Contrition should be made. Contrition includes three realities: genuine sorrow for sin, hatred for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again. This definition, as well as the truth that contrition occupies the first place among a penitent’s acts for divine pardon, is established perennial Catholic doctrine, set forth in the Ecumenical Council of Trent, and reiterated in the current Catechism (No. 1451). Perfect Contrition is essentially an act of love; it expresses contrition primarily from a motive of love of God, “who is all good and deserving of all… [our] love.” (Cf. Act of Contrition)

Implicit in an authentic act of contrition is the willingness, if and when possible, to approach the Sacrament of Penance, and contritely confess one’s sin.

No one, however, is bound to “confess” one’s sins to a lay person, as depicted in the film, “The Ox-Bow Incident.” On the contrary, such a “confession” can be misunderstood and cause confusion. Hence a custom of this kind has never been recommended by the Church, nor has its possibility ever been seriously discussed in Church doctrine.

(Similar parallels to the custom of “lay confessions” can be seen today in the misleading use of blessed oil for non-sacramental anointings – a practice which some bishops have had to caution against publicly because of abuses in their own dioceses.)

Interestingly, the latest (Spring) issue of the scholarly U.S. Catholic Historian includes a paper about ritual practices in the Colony of Maryland from 1634-1776. Therein the author notes that “it was an accepted practice in Europe at this time for a lay person to hear the confession of someone who was sick and dying when a priest was not available. The non-sacramental confession … was intended to prepare the person for death and bring them comfort during their last hours.” Again, however, the answer to the problem of a dying person’s wanting to confess was provided by the Church from the very beginning; namely, the making of a sincere Act of Perfect Contrition.

That a priest, and only a priest, can confer sacramental absolution is a datum of divine law, as witnessed to by the Council of Trent (when all kinds of challenges to sacramental doctrine were being raised by the Reformers). The powers conferred by Holy Orders are necessary for the priest, acting, of course, “in the person of Christ,” who alone can forgive sins. And the ordinary means of forgiveness, in accordance with the Savior’s will, is through the sanctuary of the Confessional – a precious gift Catholics have learned to value in reverence and love.


alertAt the Spring Assembly of the U.S. bishops, Cardinal Joseph Tobin suggested that a delegation ofbishops go to the border to see for themselves what was happening to newly arrived immigrants, families and children. On July 1 and 2, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. bishops conference, and five other bishops conducted a pastoral visit to the diocese of Brownsville, Texas. Stops included Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle with the community, a visit to anHHS/OBR Shelter and Mass for the families there, a visit to the Customs and Border Patrol processing center in McAllen, TX, and a press conference at the end of their visit. Catholic News Service accompanied the bishops on their border trip. 

  1. Backgrounder and analysis of the bishops’ trip to the border: Cardinal DiNardo told CNS, “You cannot look at immigration as an abstraction when you meet” the people behind the issue.
  2. At final press conference, Cardinal Daniel Dinardo said the church was willing to be part of any conversation to find humane solutions because even a policy of detaining families together in facilities caused “concern.”
  3. Bishops serve soup to immigrant families at a center run by Catholic Charities and listen to their stories. Scranton Bishop Joseph Bambera said he found hope in hearing the people in the room talk about what’s ahead. They didn’t speak of making money but of finding safety for their children, he said, driven by “the most basic instinct to protect your family.”
  4. At an opening Mass he Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle-National Shrine near McAllen, Texas, Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville told Massgoers, “The bishops are visiting here so they can stop and look and talk to people and understand, especially the suffering of many who are amongst us,”

A delegation of U.S. bishops goes on a fact-finding mission at the U.S.-Mexican border to learn more about Central American immigration detention.

Following their visit to an immigrant detention center, U.S. bishops said they are even more determined to call on Congress for comprehensive immigration reform.