Is remote confession and absolution possible in coronavirus times, due to the difficulty of getting to the confessional and finding a priest amidst the outbreak?

Pope Francis and an Italian theologian have both opened the door to that possibility, with the pontiff counselling this morning at Mass:

“If you don’t find a priest to go to confession, speak to God… You will return to God’s grace immediately”.

– Pope prays in Santa Marta for healthcare workers “at the end of their strength”: “They are truly giving their lives”

Once again the Pope prayed for healthcare providers in the hard-hit Bergamo region of Italy during his Mass at the Casa Santa Marta on Friday, and urged us to “return to our Father who is waiting for us”.

“Yesterday, I received a message from a priest from the Bergamo region who asked for prayers for the doctors working there…. They are at the end of their strength… and are truly giving their lives to help those who are ill, to save others’ lives.”

He also prayed for civil leaders who are managing the crisis and often “suffer from being misunderstood”.

“They are the pillars helping us move out of the situation and are defending us from this crisis”, the Pope added. “So, let’s pray for them”.

The Pope introduced his homily saying the words “return to the Lord, your God”, from the first reading from Hosea (14:2), always remind him of a song sung by Carlo Buti 75 years ago.

“The Italian families in Buenos Aires used to listen to it. They liked it a lot. ‘Return to your daddy, he will still sing you a lullaby’. Return. But it’s your Father who tells you to return. God is your Daddy. He’s not a judge. He’s your Daddy. Go back home.”

Listen to “Torna Piccina Mia”, the song Pope Francis refers to

That memory then lead him to the 15th chapter of Luke. There, another Father waits for his son who left home taking “all that money and wasting it”.

“If he sees him from a distance, it’s because He was waiting for him. How many times He went up the terrace day after day, month after months, perhaps years even. He waited for His son.”

This is how God’s shows His tenderness.

“It speaks to us especially during Lent”, the Pope said.

“[Lent] is the time to enter into ourselves and to remember the Father and return to our Daddy. ‘But, Father, I’m ashamed to go back because, you know, Father I’ve done so many things wrong’. What will the Lord say? ‘Return. I will heal their defection. I will love them freely; for my wrath is turned away from them (Hosea 14:4).’ Return to your Father. The God of tenderness will heal us.”

– Counsels: “Ask God’s forgiveness with all your heart, and promise Him, ‘afterward I will go to confession'”

This Father will heal us of  “so many of life’s wounds”, the Pope explained.

“Going back to God is going back to an embrace, the Father’s embrace, It’s not going to God. No, it’s going back home.”

This habit of returning home “takes flesh in the Sacrament of Reconciliation”, the Pope explained.

“I know that many of you go to confession before Easter… Many will say to me: ‘But Father… I can’t leave the house and I want to make my peace with the Lord. I want Him to embrace me… How can I do that unless I find a priest?’.

“Do what the catechism says. It’s very clear. If you don’t find a priest to go to confession, speak to God. He’s your Father. Tell Him the truth: ‘Lord. I did this and this and this. Pardon me.’ Ask His forgiveness with all your heart with an act of contrition, and promise Him, ‘afterward I will go to confession.’

“You will return to God’s grace immediately. You yourself can draw near, as the catechism teaches us, to God’s forgiveness, without having a priest at hand.”

At the end of his homily, the Pope expressed the hope that the word “return” might “echo in our ears today”.

“Return to your Daddy. Return to your Father. He’s waiting for you, and He will throw a feast for you.”

– Priest canon lawyer asks: “Am I less present by telephone? Virtual presence is real”

On the subject of how to validly confess during the coronavirus outbreak, Father Giorgio Giovanelli, pastor of St. Maria Goretti Parish in Fano, about 300km northeast of Rome, told CNS March 18 that even given Italy’s strict lockdown and rigorous social distancing measures, in most cases confessions as prescribed by Church law can still take place.

However, the professor of canon law at Rome’s Pontifical Lateran University said that, in other situations, it is not possible to respect the Church’s rule that priest and penitent be physically present to each other, above all for the elderly and for coronavirus patients already isolated in hospital.

Giovanelli took care to point out he wasn’t backing general absolution without individual confessions – or anonymous forgiveness via an app or other program – but he did suggest, in exceptional cases, that a priest could grant remission for sins with a phone or video call.

“I am in favor of a use of canon law for the salvation of souls and the happiness of the faithful”, the priest and professor said, warning however that his phone-call absolution would require that Pope Francis dispense priests and faithful from the confession “in person” rule that holds under universal Church law.

Giovanelli explained that what he wasn’t looking for “a change in the sacramental practice, but to respond to a new situation in which we always must consider that the supreme law of the Church is the salvation of souls”.

“This could be the ‘creativity’ Pope Francis asked for from priests” in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the priest and theologian said, adding: “This isn’t theoretical but pastoral”.

“Some would object that the priest must be present. OK”, Giovanelli admitted.

“That’s the kind of thing people would say in the 1980s, but the development of technology has allowed us to have other kinds of presence.

“Am I less present by telephone? Virtual presence is real. Who could say that the celebrative dimension of the sacrament in these very particular, narrowly defined situations is lacking?”

(With reporting by Vatican News)

Follow on Novena the Pope’s daily Mass in coronavirus times:

19/3: Santa Marta Mass: Pope prays for prisoners “suffering” coronavirus “uncertainty”, warns Church against “rules and regulations”

18/3: Coronavirus: Pope prays in Santa Marta Mass for dead, “martyred” doctors, nurses

17/3: In Santa Marta Mass, Francis remembers elderly “suffering” in virus crisis, speaks too of “God’s sickness”

16/3: Santa Marta Mass: Pope hopes virus crisis leads to “new expressions of love”

15/3: Francis praises in Santa Marta Mass those working to guarantee public services amid coronavirus crisis

More on Novena on the COVID-19 pandemic:

Pope encourages Italians battered by coronavirus: “Let us help each other hold fast to what really matters”


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.