EASTER is here again and I hear conflicting criteria regarding the so-called Easter Precept and the sacrament of Confession. Some say that the Church prescribes that the faithful go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation at least once a year¾during Easter Time¾and receive the Eucharist. On the other hand, there are those who say that in this age and time of too many people and too few priests, it is not practical to bother them unless one has mortal sins, so that the once-a-year precept refers more to going to Communion rather than going to Confession.
Can you enlighten me on this?
The Easter Eucharistic Precept
Due to a widespread neglect of the sacrament of the Eucharist in the Middle Ages, various Church Councils, from the 6th Century onward, enacted laws obliging the faithful to receive the Holy Eucharist, especially on the principal feasts. The IV Lateran Council (1215) established a general law for the Latin Church requiring the reception of Communion at least once a year at Easter by those who had attained the age of discretion. This law, which was confirmed by the Council of Trent, was incorporated in the 1917 Code of Canon Law. The actual Code of 1983 retains the annual precept, with some modifications:
Can. 920 ¾ §1. All the faithful, after they have been initiated into the Most Holy Eucharist, are bound by the obligation of receiving Communion at least once a year.
¾ §2. This precept must be fulfilled during the Easter season, unless it is fulfilled for a just cause at some other time during the year.
The primary subject of this precept, therefore, are all the faithful who have received First Communion, barring excusing causes such as moral or physical impossibility. This obligation to receive Holy Communion at least once a year should be fulfilled normally during Easter time, understood as the period from Palm (Passion) Sunday to Pentecost Sunday. The satisfaction of the Eucharistic precept outside this period required a just cause¾such as illness, or residence in a remote area where there is no minister to celebrate Mass or administer Holy Communion¾but it must be satisfied within the space of one year, counted from the previous Communion (cf. c.203).
In the Philippines, this precept applies as legislated in the universal law of the Church, and no special faculty is needed to comply with the Easter duty outside Easter time: each faithful, in conscience, shall decide whether he has sufficient reason to do it in the prescribed time.
Finally, it must be said that since the same Code of Canon Law, in c.914, imposes the responsibility of ensuring that children who have reached the use of reason are nourished by the divine food as early as possible on the parents and those who take their place as well as on the pastor, one can conclude that¾in the case of children¾the observance of the Eucharistic precept indirectly bears upon the parents or guardians and upon the parish priest too, who thus become the secondary subjects of this ecclesiastical law. This was actually stated in the 1917 Code (c.860), which though removed in the present Code as something not strictly proper in a book of law, nevertheless is quite morally binding.
The Law of Annual Confession
In the Philippines, fortunately, one hardly needs to be reminded of the Eucharistic precept: the Sunday Masses are noteworthy for their long queues of people coming to receive the Holy Eucharist. In this connection, it would be good to be reminded of yet another disposition of the 1983 Code of Canon Law:
Can. 989 ¾ After having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by an obligation to faithfully confess serious sins at least once a year.
Definitely, the canon does not lay down this law for any specific time of the year, nor does it lay it down for everyone. It binds only those who are aware of having committed a mortal sin and have not yet had it absolved in sacramental Confession, and he may go to Confession any time during the year. But the long queues in the confessionals of many churches during Lent and Easter season are an eloquent manifestation of the common sense of the faithful that even the just man falls seven times each day; furthermore , as John Paul II reminded the faithful: the individual and integral confession of sins with individual absolution constitutes the only ordinary way in which the faithful who are conscious of serious sin are reconciled with God and with the Church (Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 33).
Indeed, the faithful are all too aware of that warning of St. Paul to the Corinthians: Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily, will be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord…for he who eats and drinks unworthily, without distinguishing the body, eats and drinks judgment to himself (I Cor 2, 27-28).
Herein lies the nexus between the Easter Eucharistic precept and the law on yearly confession of serious sins: To receive Holy Communion worthily at Easter time, it seems logical that the best way to prepare for it is with individual sacramental Confession.
Duty of Pastors to Facilitate Confession
If the obligation exists for the faithful to go to confession at least once a year in case of serious sins, and the just man falls seven times each day, there seems to be a corresponding duty on the part of the sacred ministers to enable the faithful to fulfill the duty.
Indeed, a series of simple calculations can serve to quantify this duty of the pastor¾at least in a general way. In the Philippines, there is an average of 15,000 Catholics for every priest. Now according to the population profile of the Philippines, roughly 68% of the population falls in the 10-60 years old bracket¾which , presumably, is the age group to which (roughly) the law of annual confession applies. Assuming that the same percentage holds for the Catholics too, then there should be 10,200 Catholics of 10-60 years of age for every priest in the Philippines. Even if each of these faithful only went to the minimum once-a-year confession, this would mean that the pastors, if they are to fulfill their duty, should on the average hear about 30 confessions daily throughout the year.
There has been a lot of talk of the need for moral recovery in Philippine society and politics. Such moral recovery cannot happen in a collective way, in a mass action. The moral recovery of a society depends ultimately on the individual personal conversion of its members—a conversion that is not possible without the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Here indeed is a point of self-examination for the pastor of souls, and a possible point of redress for the parishioners.