ROME — One of the Vatican's most secrecy shrouded tribunals, which handles confessions of sins so grave only the pope can grant absolution, is giving the faithful a peek into its workings for the first time in its 830-year history.
The Vatican has long lamented that fewer and fewer Catholics are going to confession, the sacrament in which the faithful can receive forgiveness if they sincerely confess their sins to a priest. To combat the decline, the so-called "tribunal of conscience" invited the public into the frescoed halls of its imposing 16th-century palazzo for a two-day conference that ended Wednesday.
"Even though it's the oldest department of the Holy See, it's very little known — specifically because by its nature it deals with secret things," he said. "We want to relaunch the sacrament of penance." By lifting the veil of secrecy surrounding the tribunal's work, the Vatican hopes to emphasize the fundamental role the sacrament plays in saving souls, the Vatican's No. 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said in a paper delivered at the conference.
Its work involves those sins that are reserved for the pope — considered so serious that a local priest or bishop is not qualified to grant absolution, said Cardinal James Francis Stafford, an American who heads the Apostolic Penitentiary.
These include defiling the Eucharist, which Catholics believe is the body and blood of Christ. Stafford said this offense is occurring with more and more frequency, not just in satanic rites but by ordinary faithful who receive Communion and then remove the host from their mouths and spit it out or otherwise desecrate it.
"We cannot hide that the sacrament of penance is threatened in this time of secularization," Girotti said. But he stressed that it remained "fundamental for salvation and the sanctification of souls."