Online confession and absolution

For practicing Catholics, being able to confess sins is important — perhaps now more than ever. Many of us are reflecting on our own mortality at the moment, writes author and Benedictine oblate Elizabeth Scalia. And this makes us hungry to receive the sacrament.

“When we are in fear for our lives, the words of absolution help us find our way into a ‘happy death’ — one where we may depart our bodies with no fear, but only a hope of heaven before us,” Scalia says.

While most of our lives aren’t in danger, it’s still vital for Catholics everywhere to receive confession and absolution. Here’s what you need to know about online confessions and how you can absolve your congregation during a pandemic.

Can sacraments go digital?

The first question that needs to be answered is whether holy sacraments like confession and absolution can be accomplished virtually.

In the eyes of Father James Bradley, assistant professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America, “pastoral needs of the faithful” must be met, especially in these turbulent times. So you need to find and use new approaches to deliver the sacraments.

“Canon law is clear: The faithful have a right to the sacraments, and the church’s ministers should do all they can to provide them,” says Bradley. At the same time, Bradley notes, innovation must be balanced with “an understanding and respect for the nature of the sacraments.”

The internet is already being used to evangelize and support parishioners in this time of uncertainty, he adds. While some sacrament laws are flexible, others aren’t. You don’t need to hold confession at church, for instance, but confession does need to be heard by an ordained priest.

Theologian George Worgul, Jr. says technology can and should be used to deliver sacraments. “I think what you have going on here is you have rules that were created before the technology, and the church simply is not so attuned to changing those regulations because of emerging technology,” he tells Joshua J. McElwee at National Catholic Reporter (NCR). The important thing is that your congregation receives forgiveness, not the way they deliver their confession.

Not everyone thinks confessions can be made virtually, via the phone, a Zoom call, or private messaging. Certainly, the Vatican hasn’t approved these methods of confession.

What it has done, however, is permit general absolution, McElwee reports in another article for NCR. “Addressing the difficulty Catholic priests globally are having in hearing confessions of individual persons affected by the highly contagious coronavirus, the Vatican made clear March 20 that it is acceptable for bishops to offer general absolution to groups of people as deemed necessary.”

Pope Francis has also said that if no other option is available, Catholics can confess their sins directly to God, writes reporter Brandon Showalter at The Christian Post.

How else can you hold confession during a pandemic?

There are ways to deliver confession in person without putting yourself and your parishioners in danger.

Rev. James Hughes, a priest at St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Parish in Vancouver, holds confession in his church’s parking lot, reports Marie-Danielle Smith at Maclean’s Magazine. He says taking confession online using social media creates “too much of a paper trail.” Instead, a parishioner parks their cars six feet from where Hughes sits, and then rolls down their window to confess.

The same thing is happening in California, reports East Bay journalist Judith Prieve. Rev. Mark Wiesner, the pastor of the St. Augustine Catholic Church in Pleasanton, says that all of the Catholic church sacraments must happen in person.

“While the technology is wonderful…it will never substitute for the in-person contact the way the Catholics celebrate the faith,” he explains. Like Hughes, Wiesner is holding confessionals in his church’s empty parking lot.

In-person confessions don’t have to be completely tech-free, however. In Coral Gables, Florida, Rev. Richard Vigoa chooses to integrate technology into his parking lot confessions, reports journalist Alex Harris. Like the other priests, Vigoa sits in the parking lot, waiting for members of his congregation to drive up and confess. The difference is that Vigoa speaks to parishioners via his iPhone.

“It’s no different from the confession booth,” Vigoa says. “There, we were separated by a screen. Here, we’re separated by a car window.”

Booking appointments is essential for drive-through confessions

Having parishioners book appointments is essential to avoid overcrowding if you’re going to offer in-person drive-through confessions.

This is happening in both San Francisco and Miami, reports Namrata Tripathi at MEA WorldWide. The archdioceses of both cities are enforcing stringent social distancing rules to make sure that confessionals can take place safely and confidentially. Booking appointments is an integral part of that process.

Scheduling appointments can also help your congregation avoid leaving the house for extended periods of time. “Many parishes have added times for confessions to eliminate lines of waiting penitents,” explains Joseph Kenny at St. Louis Review. While you want your congregation to have access to the sacraments, you don’t want to put them in danger or at risk of breaking federal or state guidelines.

Using JotForm to collect confessions or schedule appointments

While we can’t add to the theological debate on the use of technology in sacraments, JotForm can provide the tools priests need to take confessions however they see fit.

If you’re taking confessions digitally, JotForm provides a convenient way for parishioners to submit their confessions. You can integrate forms into your existing church website (or send them to parishioners separately) and set them up so they are anonymous.

If you’re taking confessions on the phone or in person, drive-through style, JotForm makes scheduling appointments simple. You don’t need complicated booking software or even to publicly advertise slots on social media. Parishioners can schedule appointments easily and anonymously.

Integrate one of our pre-made templates into your church’s website to give your congregation the option to choose a specific time for confessional. There’s no need for parishioners to give their names here, so they can maintain anonymity.

If you’re encouraging your congregation to confess virtually or in person at a safe distance, don’t forget to encourage them to donate online, too. This kind of proactive attitude has helped St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Ann Arbor to survive financially in the wake of the coronavirus, writes public safety reporter Samuel Dodge at Michigan Live.

Images by: Shalone Cason, Josh Applegate, Siora Photography

A loving father, trying to walk the righteous path. Loves writing and listening to gospels. John 3:16

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