VATICAN CITY – Each of the 14 Conventual Franciscans who live in the Vatican and hear confessions full time in St. Peter’s Basilica offers absolution to an average of between 8,500 and 9,000 penitents each year.
But they also are approached in the basilica’s confessionals by non-Catholics who have questions about moral issues or are looking for spiritual advice, Italian Franciscan Father Rocco Rizzo, rector of the college of confessors at St. Peter’s, told the Vatican newspaper.
While Vatican officials have spoken frequently about a decline in the number of people seeking the sacrament of reconciliation and have said the trend appeared to be turning around in the past couple of years, the interview with Father Rizzo was the first to provide statistics.
Pope Clement XIV, who had been a member of the order, entrusted the ministry of reconciliation in St. Peter’s Basilica to the Conventual Franciscans in 1774, said the article in the July 31 edition of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.
Father Rizzo said the superior general of the order nominates priests to the special ministry, but before they can begin they must go through an examination and interview with officials at the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican court dealing with matters of conscience.
The friar said a suitable candidate must be one “who particularly loves the sacrament of reconciliation and is willing to live his priesthood there, offering this gift above all others to his brothers and sisters.”
In addition to being patient and a good listener, Father Rizzo said, the basilica confessors must have a background in moral theology and canon law and be able to speak and understand at least one language that isn’t their mother tongue.
Currently, he said, the 14-member college consists of two Italians, five Poles, a Spaniard, a Brazilian, a Maltese, a U.S. Franciscan, a Taiwanese, a Romanian and a Franciscan from Croatia.
Father Nevin Hammon, a native of Syracuse, N.Y., and a member of the U.S. Conventual Franciscans’ Immaculate Heart Province, has been a confessor at St. Peter’s for 11 years.
“You get the pulse of what the problems of the church, the problems of the people are sitting in a wooden box in St. Peter’s five hours a day, six days a week,” he told Catholic News Service July 31.
Father Rizzo told L’Osservatore Romano that each of the priests “confesses between about 8,500 and 9,000 faithful a year. The majority of penitents obviously come from Italy, then from English-speaking countries and Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries.”
Father Hammon estimates he has heard “over 65,000 confessions” since he arrived at St. Peter’s in 1998. “That’s probably more than any priest, bishop, cardinal or even pope has heard, unless they have been a confessor in St. Peter’s,” he said.
The U.S. Franciscan said over the past year the number of people coming for confession has gone down a bit, “primarily because of the economy. It (fewer visitors) is noticeable not just in the basilica and the confessionals, but in the stores and hotels.”
Father Rizzo said people of all ages come to confession in the basilica. “Every day dozens of children come to the confessionals as well as adults and numerous elderly. Many young people come to us even just to dialogue and to deepen their faith,” he said.
“Sometimes we even meet people who are not Catholic: Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Protestants. They come to ask advice on current moral questions, about peace and about the meaning of life,” Father Rizzo said.
Given a growing awareness of social justice and the environment, the newspaper asked if the confessors have noticed any increased concern about those themes among the faithful going to confession.
“In effect, there is a certain sensitivity among penitents to social sins, beginning with tax evasion, breaking the rules of the road and environmental pollution,” Father Rizzo said.
The Franciscan said the confessors also encounter penitents who come seeking forgiveness for serious sins requiring the intervention of the Holy See.
Father Rizzo said when dealing with the specific sins falling into that category – “profaning the Eucharist, violating the seal of confession, a physical attack on the pope, the absolution of an accomplice in a sexual sin and the ordination of a bishop without the authorization of the pope” – the basilica’s confessors work with the penitent and the Apostolic Penitentiary to establish a process for reconciliation.