Sunday, January 13, 2013

When the pope administers the sacraments

As the chief shepherd of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI plays many roles, among them minister of the sacraments.

Along with his daily celebrations of the Eucharist, the pope's 2013 agenda opened with the ordination of new bishops Jan. 6. Just a week later, he was scheduled to mark the Jan. 13 feast of the Baptism of the Lord by baptizing 22 infants in the Sistine Chapel.

For most Catholics, receiving any sacrament from the pope would be a special event, yet such opportunities are necessarily rare. On what occasions does the pope personally administer the sacraments and to whom?

Baptism: The babies whom the pope baptizes in the annual January rite usually are the children of Vatican employees, as was to be the case this year. The pope also traditionally administers the sacraments of Christian initiation -- baptism, confirmation and first Communion -- to a group of adult converts in St. Peter's Basilica on Holy Saturday every year. This event became the focus of controversy in 2008 after one of the baptized, Egyptian-born journalist Magdi Allam, publicly and emphatically repudiated his former Islamic faith. Pope Benedict has not continued Blessed John Paul II's practice of baptizing adults during foreign trips, occasions that the late pope used to initiate hundreds into the church.

Communion: Who receives Communion from Pope Benedict at papal Masses in Rome and elsewhere is up to the pope's master of liturgical ceremonies, Msgr. Guido Marini. During papal trips, prominent or highly active members of the local churches are usually among those chosen. Though parents around the world have asked, Pope Benedict has never celebrated a Mass specifically for a group of children receiving their first Communion, but a few children have received their first Communion from him at Mass during papal trips. The pope gives Communion at the Mass he celebrates every morning in his private chapel. During the pontificate of Blessed John Paul, those Masses were often attended by dozens of outside guests, but Pope Benedict has typically limited attendance to members of the papal household.

Confession: Pope Benedict heard the individual confessions of young people in St. Peter's during Lent in 2007 and 2008, then again at World Youth Day in Madrid in August 2011. He has not continued Blessed John Paul's practice of administering the sacrament in St. Peter's every year on Good Friday morning.

Confirmation: Pope Benedict confirmed a group of young people attending World Youth Day in Sydney in 2008 and will confirm another group in Rome on April 28 of this year, one of the events organized for the 2012-13 Year of Faith.

Matrimony: While this sacrament is actually administered by the spouses themselves, the church normally requires Catholics to marry in the presence of a priest or deacon. Pope Benedict has not celebrated a marriage ceremony as pope, but given his increasing emphasis on the need to defend traditional marriage, it would not be surprising if he were to do so soon. At a Mass marking the Jubilee for Families in October 2000, Blessed John Paul celebrated the weddings of eight couples, using his homily to affirm the family as a life-long union of husband and wife with naturally conceived children. (The late pope also married a young couple from Rome in 1979. Blessed John Paul had been visiting a sanitation center there when the bride, the daughter of a street cleaner, asked him to celebrate her wedding, which he did in the Vatican's Pauline Chapel.)

Holy Orders: Pope Benedict ordains priests in St. Peter's Basilica every year on the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, Good Shepherd Sunday, which will be April 21 this year. Since his election as pope, he has also ordained 22 bishops, most recently Jan. 6, when he ordained four new prelates including Archbishop Georg Ganswein, his longtime personal secretary who is now also prefect of the papal household.

Anointing of the Sick: The pope has administered this sacrament in public only once since his election, to 10 sick pilgrims at the shrine of Lourdes in southwestern France in 2008.

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