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The Value of Canon Law

March 24, 2012

Several weeks ago, the bishop of my diocese took the initiative to have a day of confessions in every parish, similar to what has been done in other dioceses.  Today, from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. I heard confessions with two other priests (one being another canon lawyer giving a parish mission for me this weekend.)  I was amazed at the people who came.  We heard confessions without stop until well past 2.  Then there was another line-up for our normal Saturday confessions from 4 – 5 p.m.  It has been an exhausting, but very rewarding, day.  All I can say is, I thank God I have a canon law degree.  People who think confessions are just about listening to, “I was impatient,” are wrong.  Today was a beautiful and humbling day for me, as a priest.  But I don’t know how I could have gotten through it without my knowledge of the Code.  I can only sympathise with my brother priests who had to do this with only their seminary ‘penance and anointing’ course.  Not enough!  No way!  If nothing else, I am convinced that priests, especially the newly-ordained, need regular seminars, courses, whatever, on confessions and law and a whole host of other things.  A penitent comes to unburden her soul and Father doesn’t know what to tell her? or worse, gives him incorrect advice? because he doesn’t know the law.  It doesn’t matter how nicely we can say it, or how kind we can be, if we are giving the wrong advice, or no information, we are harming souls.  No wonder there is so much confusion out there.  Tell every bishop or seminary formator you meet: train your seminarians and priests in canon law more than you are.  After today, and fifteen years as a priest,  I am convinced of it.  Next time you run into a priest who is a canon lawyer: give him a hug!


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  1. notgiven permalink

    One of the best confessors I know has a canon law degree. When we have a penance service and there are several priests hearing, if asked for a recommendation as to who to go to, I send them to him!

  2. James permalink

    I’m praying about entering seminary soon and have an interest in Canon Law. Good you give specific examples of what sorts of things I ought to know for hearing confessions?

    • notgiven permalink


      How wonderful you are praying about entering the seminary!

      Two things, I believe are very important:
      1. The more you are a confessee, the better you will be as a confessor.
      2. “Nothing graces the Christian soul as much as mercy.” St. Ambrose. That said, a good practical knowledge of Canon Law is a great mercy.

      A great little book, though it does not contain a lot of canon law stuff but does include the “Vademecum for Confessors Concerning Some Aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life” (Vatican Pontifical Council for the Family, 1997), is “A Confessor’s Handbook by Kurt Stasiak, O.S.B. It offers both insight and practical recommendations.

      God be with you!

  3. Anonymous Seminarian permalink

    Let’s suppose that all I get is the single “penance and anointing course”, and there aren’t any sort of seminars or ongoing educational opportunities. As a candidate for the transitional deaconate (and therefore, God willing, a soon-to-be priest), what can I do on my own, in order to help bolster my technical competency in the confessional?


    • read, Read, READ and think, Think, THINK. There are good commentaries out there, even good books on confessional practice. If I remember correctly there is a rather good book published by CTS for priests in the confessional.
      Fr. MacD

  4. Thomas permalink

    Perhaps we should get T-shirts printed: “Hug a Canon Lawyer Today!”

    From what I have heard from my parish priest seminary formation over the last few decades has been decidedly lacking. I think you’re right that most priests have largely a grasp on the canon law regarding marriage and that’s about it.

  5. Catherine permalink

    @Thomas – do it! I promise to buy one!

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