Celebrating Mass in mortal sin



Editor’s note: This column previously appeared in The Message and is being repeated by Catholic News Service. Father Doyle is now retired.

Q. Please help settle a discussion I have been having with some friends. The question is whether a priest can celebrate Mass (and, necessarily, take Communion) while in a state of mortal sin, if the Mass is already scheduled and people are waiting for it to begin.

First, can he do so if confession is easily available to him? Next, if confession is not easily available, can he just try to make a perfect act of contrition and go ahead with the Mass? (Houma, Louisiana)

A. If the priest in question has the opportunity to confess his sins before celebrating Mass, of course he is obliged to do so. (A priest is bound by the same requirement as other Catholics: to be in the state of grace to receive the Eucharist worthily.)

But what if there is no opportunity to confess before a Mass for which the priest is scheduled? The church's Code of Canon Law speaks to that situation directly in No. 916:

"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."

If a congregation is expecting a Mass and there is no practical opportunity to recruit a substitute-celebrant, for the good of souls the priest may profess his sorrow privately to the Lord ("perfect contrition" is based on the love of God rather than the fear of punishment), celebrate the Mass and go to confession later.