Unlocking forgiveness: Vatican tribunal promotes pardon

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The Apostolic Penitentiary has nothing
to do with a jail cell and everything to do with ensuring repentant sinners
experience God’s mercy.

Established in the 12th century when penitential pilgrimages
to Rome began to bring thousands of faithful to the city seeking absolution of
their sins, much of the office’s work is covered by anonymity and the absolute secret
of the confessional seal.

But this summer the office, officially a tribunal, offered a
little glimpse into its main areas of concern when it published “Sin,
Mercy, Reconciliation: A Theological-Pastoral Dictionary.”

The book, available only in Italian for now, features a
presentation by Pope Francis, who lauds the staff’s “service, which by its
nature unfolds in the most discreet silence.”

However, he wrote, “this ancient dicastery’s numerous
initiatives to tell the world of the marvels of the mercy of God have not gone

One of those projects is the dictionary, which, the pope said,
“is based on the contribution of scholars used to pastoral practice.”

That experience, the pope wrote, is translated into
practical suggestions, particularly for the celebration of the sacrament of
reconciliation, which plays “a fundamental role in the marvelous embrace
between return (to God) and forgiveness.”

“God’s faithfulness is unchanging, infinite and
continues to exist and produce fruits despite the infidelity of
creatures,” Pope Francis said.

Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, who heads the Apostolic
Penitentiary, said the book was written to help pastors and Catholic faithful “discover
the beauty and efficacy” of confession.

The book has 60 entries beginning with
“accoglienza” — on the importance of giving a warm “welcome”
to penitents when they arrive for confession — to “viaticum,” which
refers to the Eucharist given to a person about to die.

The entry on divorced and civilly remarried Catholics noted
that their eventual admission to the sacraments has been the subject of
theological and public debate. But, even citing Pope Francis’ apostolic
exhortation on the family, the book said such couples cannot receive absolution
in confession and Communion without an annulment of their original marriage or
without abstaining from sexual relations in their new union.

Msgr. Livio Melina, president of Rome’s Pontifical John Paul
II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, wrote the dictionary’s entry,
which insisted divorced and civilly remarried Catholics are still members of
the church and are to be welcomed, accepted and accompanied.

Like Pope Francis, Msgr. Melina said the personal situation
of each couple must be examined and dealt with in a way appropriate to that
couple. However, he wrote, even if a divorced and civilly remarried Catholic is
“not subjectively culpable” for violating his or her sacramental
marriage vows, objectively the person is living in a state of sin and cannot
receive the sacraments.

Not everyone agrees with his assessment. For example,
Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, whom Pope Francis chose to
present “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”) to the public
in April, said, “It is possible, in certain cases, that the one who is in
an objective situation of sin can receive the help of the sacraments.”

In an interview in July with La Civilta Cattolica, a Jesuit
journal reviewed by the Vatican prior to publication, the cardinal said the
pope’s exhortation “takes greater account of those elements that suppress
or attenuate imputability” of a Catholic in a second union and seeks a
path that would move that person closer to the fullness of what the Gospel demands.
Absolution and Communion could be the medicine such a person needs, he said.

Less controversially, the Apostolic Penitentiary’s book
includes detailed instructions for pastors who encounter a penitent confessing
a sin whose absolution is reserved to the Holy See. Those sins, which result in
automatic excommunication, include: profanation of the Eucharist, violation of
the seal of confession, absolving someone the priest had sex with, a physical
attack on the pope, the consecration of a bishop without papal mandate and the
attempted ordination of a woman.

The confessor must write to the Apostolic Penitentiary for
authorization to absolve the penitent and lift the excommunication; usually, it
said, the office will mail a response within 24 hours. Delivery time, of course,
depends on the local post office.

The book suggested the letter be written on a typewriter or
computer to guarantee it is legible. It can be written in any language, but the
office is best with “Italian, English, German, French, Spanish,
Portuguese, Polish, Slovakian or Latin,” it said.

To preserve the secret of the confessional, “cases are
always presented with fictitious names,” the book instructed.

And, it said, “recourse to this tribunal is absolutely
free, and voluntary offerings are not accepted.”

While the vast majority of Catholics will never have any
direct contact with the Apostolic Penitentiary, each year tens of thousands of
people receive the sacrament of reconciliation from a priest who answers directly
to the office: the full-time confessors who offer the sacrament in a dozen
languages at St. Peter’s Basilica and the Rome basilicas of St. Mary Major, St.
John Lateran and St. Paul Outside the Walls.

For Pope Francis, getting people to confession is a key part
of the Year of Mercy. “Even in the darkness of sin, a minimum of openness
to divine grace can be truly important for our inner transformation,” he
wrote in the book.

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Follow Wooden on Twitter @Cindy_Wooden

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