Recently we have learned that priests are human and can commit serious sins. What is the priest supposed to do if he has to say mass (and receive Communion) without being able to go to confession?
St Ambrose, St John Chrysostom, and many writers since them, have given sobering advice to priests on the damage that is done by their sins. One of the most important works of the Council of Trent was the reform of the education and life of the clergy; it would be a fair historical judgement to say that it achieved a measure of success. In recent years of course, we have been saddened by the scandal of priests committing horrendous sins. These should remind us that sinning does not make a man more human but less human. Our Lady did not commit a single sin during her life and she was the most “human” person that ever lived.
When a priest commits a serious sin, there are a number of consequences which aggravate the damage that he does. In many cases the sin will be worsened by the scandal that is given: and as you rightly point out, he may also be obliged to celebrate Mass, thereby running the risk of committing several sacrileges. Canon 916, following the teaching of the Council of Trent, stipulates that a priest who is conscious of grave sin must not celebrate Mass or receive Holy communion without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess. If the priest has a duty to celebrate a public Mass, he must make an act of perfect contrition (sorrow out of the motive of the love of God) and resolve to make sacramental confession of his sins “as soon as possible” which moral theologians generally reckoned to be within about three days.
Although it is surely good that we emphasise the love and forgiveness of God, we must also recognise the damage that sin does to others, the value of frequent confession and the importance of genuine sorrow, a firm purpose of amendment, and sincere penance and reparation.
Catholic Dilemmas column published in the Catholic Herald
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