Mortal Sin Query

Q. A layperson is not supposed to receive Communion while in a state of mortal sin. But what about a priest who is in the state of mortal sin? Does he have to go to confession before celebrating a Mass? Does it impact the validity of the Mass? 

N.W., via e-mail 

A. Here is a reply from Father Francis Hoffman, J.C.D.: 

No one should receive holy Communion while in a state of mortal sin. Fortunately, the Church provides us with the wonderful Sacrament of Penance, to forgive our sins, and priests are willing to hear confessions whenever the faithful make a reasonable request for this sacrament. 

Nevertheless, the Church recognizes that there can be situations when a person has an unconfessed mortal sin on his soul and has no opportunity for confession before holy Communion, yet has a serious need to receive Communion. In those cases, the person is asked to make the best Act of Contrition possible — a perfect Act of Contrition — with the resolve to go to confession at the earliest possible opportunity. This is all laid out in canon law:  

“A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible” (Canon 916). 

If a priest has committed a mortal sin, he should go to confession before he celebrates Mass — unless he has no opportunity to confess — AND he must celebrate that Mass for the good of the faithful. The obligation to celebrate Mass for the parish is a “grave reason.” If he is the parish priest and has no substitute, he should make a perfect Act of Contrition, and then celebrate Mass. 

If he makes a perfect Act of Contrition, he returns to a state of grace (and a condition of this perfect Act of Contrition is his resolve to confess ASAP) and celebrates the Mass validly. Even if he is not in a state of grace, he still celebrates the Mass validly if he intends to do what the Church does in celebrating the Mass.  

The validity of the sacraments is not dependent on the personal holiness of the minister. The sacraments operate ex opere operato, by the very fact of the rituals being performed.