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Every now and then, while a priest is traveling or out running errands, a stranger will approach and ask: "Father, will you hear my confession?"

This can happen on a city sidewalk or in a quiet corner of a big-box store. Often the question is urgent -- because something disturbing has shaken someone's faith.

"I've been asked for confession in a taxi. I've been asked while on a train," said Father Fergal O'Duill, part of the Dallas-Fort Worth branch of the Catholic movement Regnum Christi. His name is pronounced "O'Doul," and he is originally from Dublin.

These requests happen, he added, because "people see you and they know you're a priest. We're priests no matter where we go."

Hearing confessions is crucial during the penitential season of Lent, which precedes Easter, which falls on April 12 this year for Catholics and Protestants (April 19 for Eastern Orthodox Christians). Centuries of Catholic and Orthodox tradition urge believers to go to confession during Lent, before receiving Holy Communion on Easter.

The irony, right now, is that O'Duill can hear confessions during chance encounters, but not during scheduled times at the school where he serves as a chaplain.

The evolving coronavirus pandemic has turned Lent into a confusing minefield of legal and doctrinal questions for pastors and their flocks. In many communities, but not all, state or local officials have ordered people to "shelter in place" -- staying home unless they have "essential" needs elsewhere. This has raised an obvious question: Is going to confession "essential," even if Catholics are preparing for Holy Week and Easter rites they will have to watch on digital screens at home?

For most of March, O'Duill was one of several priests who heard confessions in a giant parking lot, or in a pair of tents, near the Highlands School in Irving, Texas. Every effort was made to provide enough privacy to maintain the "dignity" of the sacrament, he said, while priests remained a safe distance from the penitents. Priests offered similar "drive-thru" confession opportunities in a few other parts of America, including Arkansas. (See the main story on page 4B.)

Then, on March 22, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins issued a shelter-in-place order that was effective through Friday, and perhaps beyond.

The ground rules changed. While Dallas Bishop Edward Burns had welcomed the "drive-thru" confessions, said O'Duill, he canceled all scheduled confessions -- even outdoors -- because that would require Catholics to leave their homes and could create crowds. Priests can still travel, during emergencies, to hear confessions or perform baptisms. Funerals are allowed, with restrictions on social distancing.

Orders of this kind fueled heated debates on Catholic social media.

In one case, the Catholic writer Eric Sammons tweeted: "If your parish priest has not found a way to continue hearing confessions during this pandemic, I'd say that's a sign that you need to find a new parish when this is all over. (And if your bishop has forbid the hearing of confessions, perhaps you need to find a new diocese.)"

Another popular Catholic writer, Father Dwight Longenecker, replied: "As a priest in a diocese where hearing confessions has been suspended, are (you) recommending that I disobey my bishop? ... I can think of some ways to minister while still observing the distancing rules, but we not only obey the bishop, we work in solidarity with our brother priests. If one person breaks ranks there will be chaos."

It's possible the rules could change again, O'Duill said. At the moment, Regnum Christi priests are exploring whether it would be possible to celebrate Easter in an outdoor drive-in theater -- even if shelter-in-place orders continue. Also, he said he will keep his eye on Rome to see how Pope Francis stages the traditional outdoor Stations of the Cross rites on Good Friday.

"I believe that this crisis is becoming a time of grace," O'Duill said. "One of the last confessions I heard the other day was one of the most amazing that I have heard in my life.

"This is a time when people are really digging deep and thinking about what matters. I think that will continue when this is all over. ... The Lord isn't going to let us down. He is with us as we go through all of this, no matter what."

Terry Mattingly leads and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.

Religion on 04/04/2020

Print Headline: Pandemic a legal quandary about Lent, confession


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