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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 March 2008, 07:05 GMT
Vatican confessors' crash course
By Christian Fraser
BBC news, Rome

A confessional box in St Peters, Rome, 23 August, 2007
Italian confession boxes have been used less in recent years
The Vatican is putting priests who hear confession through a refresher course to tackle a recent crisis of confidence among church-goers in Italy.

There has been a sharp decline in the number of those going to confession, with some blaming the performance of priests hearing their litany of sins.

Many are ill-equipped to deal with contrite Catholics, critics argue.

The Vatican's crash course aims to strengthen priestly training in a bid to improve relations with believers.

The Catholic Church has long been aware of the dissatisfaction expressed by penitents about the priests who hear their confessions.

According to the latest available data, around 30% of Italian Catholics do not believe it is necessary to have priests in the confessions.

Furthermore, 10% believe the presence of a priest "impedes direct dialogue with the Lord".

Another 20% admit to finding it difficult to talk about their sins with another person.

Special attention

Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, who heads the tribunal of the Apostolic Penitentiary, said the sacrament of confession was in a "serious state of difficulty".

The new training organised by his department includes some role play of real life examples.

The people who will come forward include divorced and so called "irregular" couples - as well as same-sex couples.

For cohabiting divorced and homosexual couples, the Catholic Church dictates that absolution may be given only if those living together transform their relationship into one of "friendship and solidarity".

Remarried divorcees can not receive communion because their condition is seen by the Church as a permanent state of sin.

But Bishop Girotti said priests should pay special attention to such people "especially if they are ill or in danger of dying".

With homosexual Catholics, he said priests must be "a fair judge" and a "good doctor of the spirit".

When faced with sinners possessed by the devil, the bishop advised priests to proceed with caution - and to request the intervention of an exorcist.


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