TCA Life for January/February 2017

Return to Sacraments

Q. I have a friend who, after her third child was born, had her fallopian tubes tied. She accepted her excommunicated status at the time. She is now 73 years old and yearns for full participation in the sacraments. Is there any possibility she will be able to do this? What would the process be for attaining this goal?

Anonymous, via email

A. It is unfortunate that your friend has labored under the incorrect impression that she is excommunicated from the Church. Excommunication is the most serious of penalties available to the Church. Excommunication is in a class of penalties called “medicinal penalties,” because they are meant to be medicine for the soul that has wandered from Christ or acted in a way that harms the Church in a most serious manner. Medicinal penalties are intended to guide those who have strayed to a change of heart and a return to the Church.

There are very, very few acts which call for this severe penalty, and intentional sterilization is not one of them. Voluntary sterilization without true medical necessity is a serious act with moral implications, but it is not a crime under canon law and does not call for excommunication. The commission of a mortal sin, with its separation from the life of grace, and hence from the sacramental font of grace in the Church, is not the same as excommunication. Excommunication is a penalty imposed by the external authority of the Church; withdrawal from the sacraments after mortal sin is an internal discernment of the person himself or herself.

Your friend should make a good confession and return to the sacraments with the absolution of the confessor.

A Confession Rule?

Q. I have a close friend who will only go to confession to one of the priests in our parish. He says it is against canon law to go to confession with a priest who is not the parish priest or his assistant, unless he has written permission from the bishop (not merely permission from the parish priest). Could you confirm whether this is the case and where in canon law it might say this?

Anonymous, via email

A. Canon law says nothing of the sort. A penitent may go to confession to any priest who has the faculty to absolve from sins, and no permission is required. Your friend may be confused by what it means for a priest to have the “faculty” to absolve from sins and how that faculty is granted. The Church does not take lightly the significance of a priest sitting in persona Christi (“in the person of Christ”), judging a soul and remitting or holding bound a person’s sins. This is why the Church requires the priest to be granted the power to absolve sins — he acts not on his own authority but with the authority of the Church herself.

This power to absolve sins is given as a “faculty,” or permission, to act. The faculty may be attached to an office, such as that of pastor, or it may be given directly to the priest by the diocesan bishop. When the faculty to absolve from sins is given a priest, it is an assurance that the diocesan bishop has judged the priest to be capable of judging moral matters and acting as a wise judge of souls, tempering the rigors of the moral law with Christ’s mercy and compassion. This judgment by the bishop is implicit in the act of naming a priest to the office of pastor of souls, and it is a judgment made individually for other priests who are given that faculty individually by the diocesan bishop.

A penitent may choose to celebrate the Sacrament of Penance with any priest who has this faculty (and almost every priest does) and does not need permission from anyone to go to confession to a priest of his or her choosing.

Tough Decisions

Q. I have a male relative getting married to another man. Our family is invited to the wedding, but doesn’t the Church forbid our attendance?

Joe, Hannibal, Mo.

A. Decisions such as this are seldom easy to make. Family members, whether parents, siblings or cousins, as well as friends and co-workers, can be conflicted over whether to attend a ceremony such as this. The Church provides teaching to help guide our moral decision-making, but there is no black-and-white rule which forbids attendance at such a ceremony. An individual invited to attend must make up his or her own mind as to how to respond.

What factors should a person consider in making this decision? Attendance might give scandal to others and show support for an inherently sinful lifestyle and show approval of an act which is certainly not a wedding in the biblical and Christian understanding. It may be seen as capitulation to pressures in society to erode Gospel values and traditional family life at a time when a Catholic ought to be countercultural in public witness. On the other hand, nonattendance may sow family discord, deepen existing tension or serve to alienate friends or family. Nonattendance may close the door to future conversations about faith and spirituality.

Some people, faced with this tension, choose not to attend the ceremony, but will attend all or part of the reception or gathering afterward. Some choose to avoid the events of the day but will host a smaller dinner later for the sake of family harmony or friendship, without showing public support for the simulated marriage. All factors must be considered in reaching an important decision such as this, but in the end it remains a decision of the individual, and there is no clear rule to follow. The best advice is often to seek out a wise and experienced priest and discuss the options with him before making a decision.

Remarriage issues

Q. I have a friend who is planning to enter the Church next Easter. He is divorced and remarried, but has not had an annulment. Is he able to enter the Church without obtaining that?

Kevin, via email

A. Jesus’ prohibition against divorce and remarriage is unambiguous (see Mt 19:3-12 and Mk 10:2-12). The Church is not competent to change this. Remarriage following divorce is a serious sin, in light of Jesus’ teaching. He clearly names it adultery. Please note that, despite the persistent misconception that divorce removes a person from the sacraments, this is not true. Only remarriage following divorce has this effect. Assuming that your friend is still married and living with his second wife, then he is not able to receive the sacraments licitly (lawfully).

Keep in mind that Pope Francis’ recent post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) invites pastors to spend time one-on-one with individuals in such irregular situations in order to discuss and discern the options and steps available to restore a person to the sacraments. An “annulment” or Declaration of Invalidity (also called Declaration of Nullity) can be sought for a variety of reasons, and other solutions are also possible (we can think of the “brother/sister” solution, as an example, wherein the spouses, by reason of age or medical condition, live permanently as spouses without conjugal relations).

In sum, generally a person is not able to receive the sacraments of initiation or to be welcomed into the full communion of the Catholic Church without a Declaration of Invalidity of all prior marriages, but a person in such a situation should spend time with a priest knowledgeable in these matters to discuss all the options available.

Homily Prep

Q. Could you tell me if there are any rules, regulations or Church laws that govern what is preached about in the homily?

Paul, Sacramento, Calif.

A. The homily is specifically the act of preaching during the celebration of holy Mass. Other forms of preaching, including reflections and sermons, are delivered outside of Mass.

The Code of Canon Law states, “Among the forms of preaching, the homily, which is part of the liturgy itself and reserved to a priest or deacon, is preeminent; in the homily the mysteries of faith and the norms of Christian life are to be explained from the sacred text during the course of the liturgical year” (Canon 767.1).

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal notes, “[The homily] should be an explanation of some aspect of the readings from Sacred Scripture or of another text of the Ordinary or Proper of the Mass of the day and should take into account both the mystery being celebrated and the particular needs of the listeners” (No. 65).

Those are broad descriptions of the homily and its contents. Canon 767.3 gives the pastor the responsibility of seeing that these prescripts are observed within the parish, and Canon 386.1 counsels the diocesan bishop to see to their observance within the diocese, “so that the whole Christian doctrine is handed on to all.”

In general, then, the homily is to be based on a text from the celebration of the Mass in which it is delivered and is to focus on the spiritual, doctrinal and moral development of the listeners. It is not an instruction but an exhortation — a call to apply the lessons of the Mass to daily living.

In February 2015, the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued a Homiletic Directory with the stated goal of promoting better preaching. It was the result of the 2008 world Synod of Bishops, which dealt with the topic of the Word of God.

In its first part, entitled “The Homily and Its Liturgical Setting,” the document describes the nature, function and specific context of the homily; in its second part, called “The Art of Preaching,” specific resources are provided to help the preacher.

Norms regarding the homily are rather generic in nature since the homily must address the needs of a specific group of people — those present in the pews or those who will hear the homily through other means. The homily is prepared for that group of listeners, whether they are in a large modern city or tiny rural village, whether they are wealthy or poor. Norms promulgated for the universal Church must take into consideration the variety encountered in a global Church, and so norms regarding preaching are broad in their content.

Clergy Colors

Q. We recently attended a priest’s funeral Mass where there was a cardinal and several bishops in red and purple cassocks. Why do cardinals wear red and bishops wear purple?

Josephine, Los Angeles, Calif.

A. A look at artwork through the centuries shows that attire for the clergy has changed greatly over the two millennia of the Church. However, the color purple is of ancient origin and has traditionally been used mostly by royalty since it was among the most difficult of colors to produce, and hence expensive and affordable only to royalty.

Within the Church, an overlay of theological or spiritual meaning is often added to practices or customs centuries after those customs arise out of convenience or common usage. For instance, it is almost certain that the use of purple attire by bishops was originally intended to show that the bishops possessed religious and spiritual authority equal to the temporal and civil authority of princes and kings. Pious commentators later came to suggest that bishops wore purple in imitation of the purple cloak placed on the shoulders of Jesus during his trial on Good Friday.

The Gospel of Matthew states that the soldiers placed a scarlet robe on Jesus (see 27:28), but the Gospels of Mark (15:16-17) and John (19:2) indicate that the soldiers, mocking Jesus as a king, clothed him in purple. Interestingly, at least one commentary suggests that the robe was probably red when it was new, but had faded and become soiled so that it seemed to be purple.

The wearing of red clothing by cardinals, according to some accounts, arose from a medieval custom in Lyons, France, where the canons of the cathedral wore red to distinguish themselves from other clergy.

The office and title of canon is an honorary appointment by the diocesan bishop, usually conferred on older or retired priests today, but historically the canons were a diocesan bishop’s closest advisers and filled an important role.

In time, probably in the late Middle Ages or very early Renaissance, the cardinals of the Church came to wear red, undoubtedly as a means to distinguish themselves from other clerics. A later, pious explanation led to today’s understanding that the cardinals wear scarlet red as an outward sign of their willingness to shed their blood in defense of the Catholic faith.

The purple worn by bishops today is not a true purple, but rather a magenta color. During liturgical ceremonies a bishop or cardinal will wear the “choir” cassock, which is entirely purple or red; otherwise, the cassock worn is the “house” cassock, which is black with purple or red buttons and fascia, or sash.

Is it incorrect to suggest that bishops wear purple in imitation of the sufferings of Jesus, or that cardinals wear red in witness of their willingness to die for the Faith? No, certainly not, but these pious explanations came centuries after the colors actually began to be worn by bishops and cardinals. Perhaps not the original reasons for selecting these colors, they are today the reasons these colors remain in use.

Marriage Prep

Q. Does the Church say you need to date someone for a certain amount of time before you can get married?

Karen, Tyler, Texas


A. Preparation for reception of any of the sacraments is a task taken seriously by the Church, especially if that sacrament involves a lifelong commitment. Think of the years of preparation required for priests before ordination, or even the lengthy preparation for children to receive first holy Communion. Surely, the life-changing commitment to marry another person should require adequate time to prepare, including sufficient time to get to know one’s intended partner for the whole of life.

The burden is upon the Church — especially the parish priest and the people — to provide formation to a couple on the meaning of marriage, its commitment, its holiness, its public witness and the sanctity of life that accompanies authentic Christian marriage. It is the responsibility of the Church to arouse and enlighten faith within the couple preparing for marriage. It is not the responsibility of the couple to prove their readiness or worthiness, a fact brought out clearly by Pope St. John Paul II in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (see No. 68).

There is no specific period of time required or suggested by the universal Church for a couple to date or otherwise prepare for the Sacrament of Matrimony. Because culture affects how courtship and marriage are celebrated, this is something left to the various local conferences of bishops. This is spelled out in Canon 1067 of the Code of Canon Law. In the United States, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has outlined in general terms what this preparation should include, but leaves the specifics to each diocesan bishop. They do not specify a minimum time for preparation.

Most dioceses have established a preparation period for the couple to reflect on the lifelong commitment of marriage and its sacred nature, and to learn more about holy matrimony as a sacrament. The flip side of this preparation period is that the Church’s minister who will officiate at the wedding must gauge the readiness of the couple to enter marriage as well as their understanding of their commitment. This takes time.

In most places the minimum preparation period is from six to twelve months and includes a minimal amount of formal instruction and spiritual reflection by the couple.

Confirmation Age?

Q. I have a grandson being confirmed in third grade in one parish and a granddaughter was confirmed in ninth grade a few months ago. Why is there such an age spread for the celebration of that sacrament?

Betty, Chicago, Ill.

A. There is a traditional order for the three sacraments of initiation — baptism, confirmation, Eucharist — that follows the ancient practice of the Church. This order remains the practice of the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches, and, in fact, the three sacraments are often celebrated together when parents present an infant for reception into the Church.

In the West, however, it became customary to wait until children had attained the use of reason and could understand the meaning of holy Communion before they would receive that sacrament. This practice was affirmed by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Varying opinions regarding the specific age at which a child attained the use of reason led to discrepancies in the age of first reception of holy Communion. This prompted Pope St. Pius X to define the age of reason at “about the seventh year, more or less,” in a decree dated Aug. 8, 1910, and entitled Quam Singulari.

However, the three sacraments of initiation had become detached from one another, and the ancient order for reception of these sacraments was no longer universally observed. In 1910, when Pope Pius X lowered the age of first Communion, the age of confirmation remained unchanged, and in some places it was at a later age than the other sacraments of initiation.

U.S. bishops of the Latin rite have decided that each bishop is to make a determination at what age students will receive confirmation. In November 2000, they decreed: “The Sacrament of Confirmation in the Latin rite shall be conferred between the age of discretion and about sixteen years of age, within the limits determined by the diocesan bishop.”

Rev. Msgr. William J. King is a priest of the Diocese of Harrisburg, where after many years in diocesan administration he happily serves as pastor. He is also an adjunct lecturer in Canon Law at The Catholic University of America. He holds graduate degrees from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, The Catholic University of America and the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.