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Community’s Role Is Important

Is Confession by E-mail Allowed?

Q: I am a Roman Catholic and attend Mass every Sunday. I am very uneasy, though, with going to confession. Since I haven’t gone in years, I am wondering: Is there such a thing as going to confession to a priest online or by e-mail?

A: The person going to confession and the priest hearing that confession must be in the same physical place. It is not possible to celebrate this sacrament by phone, letter or e-mail.

Why not? Although in one sense the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a private act (we do not mention our sins before a group), in another sense it is a public act (we have all sinned and we all need forgiveness). The reconciliation intended by this sacrament is twofold—with God and with the community of believers, as well as the larger human community.

This second aspect of the sacrament is reflected in the absolution formula, which reads: “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

If you have had a bad experience with confession in the past, I urge you to believe that not all confessors are like that one. Their job is really a very humbling one—helping people accept God’s grace and forgiveness. If your bad experience was in a confessional box, perhaps the face-to-face option would be better for you. If your bad experience was face-to-face, perhaps the confessional box would be better.

I hope you have met a priest whom you can trust to celebrate this sacrament with you. If you haven’t, try visiting some other parish or retreat center in your area. A confessor represents both God and the faith community. I encourage you not to cut yourself off from the grace of this sacrament.

Geography Is Only One Factor

Q: What criteria are used for naming cardinals? Geographic, demographic, population numbers? Does one area always have a cardinal serving it? Does the United States have a specified number of cardinals at all times, which are replenished when attrition occurs?

A: Since cardinals are the electors of the pope, geography is certainly a factor in their appointment. For example, every archbishop of New York since 1902 eventually became a cardinal. It is unlikely, therefore, that the pope will appoint as archbishop there someone whom he does not intend to make a cardinal.

Geography, however, is not the only consideration. Cardinals are supposed to head the Holy See’s Secretariat of State and the Vatican’s nine congregations. Anyone appointed to those offices will probably be made a cardinal.

No country is entitled to a specific number of cardinals. In the last 40 years, in fact, many cardinals were the first ones ever named in their country.

In 1971, Pope Paul VI set 120 as the maximum number of cardinals below the age of 80; only they may vote for a new pope. As that number declines, a pope is more likely to appoint new cardinals.

Pope John Paul II has retained the rule specifying a maximum of 120 members under age 80. He has also named as cardinals several men over that age. He did so to show his appreciation for their lifetime service to the Church.

There are now 11 U.S. cardinals under the age of 80, eight serving in this country and three in Rome. As of October 15, 1999, the Church’s 154 cardinals were born in Europe (81), Latin America (24), North America (16), Asia (15), Africa (14) and Oceania (4).

Who Was First?

Q: How is it that after so many years of traditional teaching, some people are acknowledging Mark the Evangelist as author of the first Gospel instead of Matthew? I read something about “internal evidence.” Is there such doubt about authorship, or is “internal evidence” more convincing than early Church history?

A: This problem may arise from what people mean by “the first Gospel.” The attribution of the four Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John was reported by Papias, a bishop who died as a martyr around 125 A.D.

Most modern biblical scholars think that the Gospel of Mark was the first of the four Gospels to be completed (about 70 A.D.) and that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke borrow a good deal of material from Mark. The Gospel of John is usually considered the last of the four Gospels, having been completed around the year 95 A.D.

The Gospel of Matthew is the first Gospel in the sense that it has long been copied or printed first in collections of the four Gospels. That does not mean, however, that it was completed first.

Although the Book of Genesis is printed first in the Old Testament and without doubt describes its oldest events, the Book of Amos was probably completed 200 years earlier, in the eighth century before Christ’s birth.

If the Gospel of Matthew was not written first, then why is it printed first? The Gospel of Matthew is in some ways a more “churchy” Gospel than the other three—indeed, the only one to use the Greek word ekklesia (“Church”). The liturgy has used this Gospel more than those of Mark, Luke or John. Why? Jesus is most clearly a teacher in Matthew.

Is Hell Real?

Q: A friend of mine, who was quite upset this morning, told me that a newscaster had reported that Pope John Paul II said that heaven and hell were a “state of mind.” Is this truly what he said?

A: During his weekly general audience last July 28, the pope said that hell “is not a punishment imposed externally by God but a development of premises already set by people in this life....It is the ultimate consequence of sin itself, which turns against the person who committed it. It is the state of those who definitely reject the Father’s mercy, even at the last moment of their life....

“The images of hell that Sacred Scripture presents to us must be correctly interpreted. They show the complete frustration and emptiness of life without God.

“Rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy....The thought of hell—and even less the improper use of biblical images—must not create anxiety or despair, but is a necessary and healthy reminder of freedom within the proclamation that the risen Jesus has conquered Satan, giving us the Spirit of God who makes us cry ‘Abba, Father!’ (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6).”

Sometimes what the pope says (hell is real but more than the biblical images used to describe it) can become so drastically compressed in a news report (hell is a state of mind) that the summary distorts or even reverses the original message.

The text of the pope’s weekly audience can be found at:, searching for the word hell.

Home Blessing

Q: I have searched for many hours, looking for a blessing for a new home, and I was delighted to find your Web site. We are a large parish, and we are considering providing to new parishioners a home blessing prayer. We welcome each family personally and provide them with a packet of ministries, etc.

What we are looking for is a home blessing which we have heard of but cannot find. It is one in which the mother and father bless the home, room by room, with the blessing specific for the purpose of each room.

A: I think that what you need is on pages 297-301 of Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers, a 1988 publication of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C.).

You can find this book at your local Catholic bookstore, by calling St. Francis Bookshop in Cincinnati (1-800-241-6392) or by contacting the NCCB publications department (1-800-235-8722). You need the NCCB’s permission to reprint this blessing.

Is She Still Saved?

Q: If a Catholic is baptized, then renounces her religion, is she still saved?

A: Renouncing one’s religion is serious business, but only God knows for certain the various factors involved and whether a person acted with full knowledge and full consent.

If you know someone in this situation, pray for her but not with the fear that she will surely go to hell if she dies without returning to the Catholic Church. Only God can sort all this out. The Church puts up warning signs for us, but it also asks God to remember: “...all the dead whose faith is known to you alone” (Eucharistic Prayer IV).

Coming in the January issue: “Ask the Wise Man” will become “Ask a Franciscan,” and its new author will be introduced.

The Wise Man welcomes your questions. If you have a question, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Wise Man, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.

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