“Ask a Priest: Shouldn’t Priests Always Be Available to Hear Confessions?”

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Q: I went to Mass this morning at my parish and asked the priest to hear my confession. I could sense that the priest was a little annoyed by my request. I had gone to this particular priest on several occasions after morning Mass. I know that he has to attend to some other duties after Mass. This happened before at another church near where I work. I never went back to that church. I am not going to ask this priest for anything going forward and may consider changing parishes. I wrongly assumed that priests would be able to hear a confession, no matter the circumstances. I have to deal with a number of family issues and needed to make a confession today. It is sometimes hard for me to go to confession on Saturday. I would like your advice. – V.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It is good that you are trying to take advantage of the sacrament of confession.

Let me offer a few points from various perspectives.

First, in principle a priest is to be available for dispensing the sacraments. Canon 843 §1 of the Code of Canon Law says, “Sacred ministers cannot deny the sacraments to those who seek them at appropriate times, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them.”

That phrase “at appropriate times” can be interpreted in various ways.

Most parish priests try to post regular times for confession in the parish bulletin. Some also make themselves available “by appointment.”

Many priests today, frankly, are overloaded with work, and it’s not unusual for them to try to keep a tight schedule, especially in the morning.

One can imagine that a typical parish priest has limited time between Mass and his first appointments of the day. He might have to squeeze in breakfast quickly.

Hence it is understandable that such a priest might prefer to avoid hearing confessions in this time frame. He might want to avoid giving the impression that he is routinely available after Mass, which could trigger lines outside the sacristy.

Third, you mention “a number of family issues.” It is good to remember that the sacrament of reconciliation is primarily about the confession and absolution of sins. It might not be the best forum for trying to deal with complex family problems, especially in a tight time frame.

These family problems might better be seen with a spiritual director or a family counselor. The amount of time needed to address complex family issues might be beyond the practical limits of what a priest can do within the sacrament of confession — and certainly beyond what a priest can do right after morning Mass.

An analogy might help: Imagine a person with chronic health issues who decides to stop his doctor in the parking lot. The doctor out of compassion might give the person some advice on the spot. But it wouldn’t be ideal if the person stopped the doctor regularly in the parking lot. Rather, it would be better to make a formal appointment so that the issues can be dealt with in-depth.

Whatever you do, don’t give up on the sacrament of confession. But don’t overlook the possibility that other avenues of help also might need to be pursued.

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