March 19, 2001
volume 12, no. 78
Clarifying the misconceptions of general absolution

    This Lent one thing that gets a lot of attention is the Sacrament of Penance, or Reconciliation.

    "The sacrament of penance includes the confession of sins, which comes from true knowledge of self before God and from contrition for those sins. However, the inner examination of heart and the outward accusation must be made in the light of God's mercy. Confession requires on the penitent's part the will to open the heart to the minister of God and on the minister's part a spiritual judgment by which, acting in the person of Christ, he pronounces his decision of forgiveness or retention of sins in accord with the power of the keys" (Liturgical Library)

    One of the more popular versions of this is the Penance Service. Held in the church, the penitents arrive as for a Mass. The priest gives an opening prayer followed by Scripture readings, and readings, or something, designed to assist the penitents to examine their conscience. Hymn's, whatever. "Penitential services are gatherings of the people of God to hear God's word as an invitation to conversion and renewal of life and as the message of our liberation from sin through Christ's death and resurrection. The structure of these services is the same as that usually followed in celebrations of the word of God and given in the Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents. It is appropriate, therefore, that after the introductory rites (song, greeting, and opening prayer) one or more biblical readings be chosen with songs, psalms, or periods of silence inserted between them. In the homily these readings should be explained and applied to the congregation. Before or after the readings from Scripture, readings from the Fathers or other writers may also be selected that will help the community and each person to a true awareness of sin and heartfelt sorrow, in other words, to bring about conversion of life. After the homily and reflection on God's word, it is desirable that the congregation, united in voice and spirit, pray together in a litany or in some other way suited to general participation. At the end the Lord's Prayer is said, asking God our Father 'to forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us . . . and deliver us from evil.' The priest or the minister who presides concludes with a prayer and the dismissal of the people." (Liturgical Library)

    Recently my parish held one and it went something like this. Fr. Bob came up to the altar and opened with a prayer. A Scriptures were read, the Old Testament, the New, and the Gospels. All had sorrow for our sins and forgiveness as their theme. The hymn, "Were You There" was sung and then they turned out the lights with only a spot light on the cross. What followed were 'testimonials' from various people, Mary Magdala, Barabbas, the cripple Jesus cured after forgiving his sins, a Roman centurion, and a mother with her children. Each person spoke of what Christ meant to them, and each had a different view of Jesus and one could hear if Jesus, or their own lives, were more important. The centurion was interested in getting back to Rome with honors, glory and enough money to retire and buy land. Though he knew this Jesus was different, and was called to Him, what he wanted, or thought important, was of the first priority.

    Another prayer by Fr. Bob followed this, and ended with what might have been misconstrued as an absolution.

    As that ended, Fr. Bob pointed out where the priests would be located for personal confession. However, many, rather than going to the priests for confession and absolution, left for home. Now, some may not have needed to go to confession, but many actually thought they had received absolution!

    Here is what Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez, Prefect for the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments circulated during Lent last year:

        "Care must be taken to ensure that the faithful do not confuse these celebrations with the celebration of the sacrament of penance. Penitential services are very helpful in promoting conversion of life and purification of heart. It is desirable to arrange them especially for these purposes:
    • to foster the spirit of penance within the Christian community;

    • to help the faithful to prepare for individual confession that can be made later at a convenient time;

    • to help children gradually to form their conscience about sin in human life and about freedom from sin through Christ;

    • to help catechumens during their conversion." (Ibid)

        There are times when penance services may end in a general absolution. If the bishop gives a dispensation to a priest whose responsibility is so large as to not be able to give the Sacrament of Penance. Say, for example, if one priest were responsible for all of Alaska. If a parish had a large number of people where he couldn't possibly hear all their confessions and make another important appointment (Mass in another city hours away), he could give a general absolution. Or, when a military chaplain gives a general absolution to servicemen right before they enter into battle. The intent is that each penitent will make a good confession when they can.

        However, many parishes have decided, generally on their own authority, to dismiss the instructions of their bishop, or the Church, and hold penance services which include a general absolution. It has to be admitted that it isn't outside the realm of possibility that some bishops have given very broad dispensations to parishes to do this.

        Now bishops do have the authority to adapt these services according to the needs of their Diocese, and the priest also can make certain adaptations according to the needs of his parish. For example, if the service is for the children of the parish school or for an adult home, the sick, etc. But too often, this allowance is used as the excuse to give a general absolution.

    "In giving consideration to the authentic discipline of the Church concerning "general absolution", the recent interdicasterial meeting of the Roman Curia with a representation of Bishops of the Episcopal Conference of Australia noted that: . . . communal celebrations have not infrequently occasioned an illegitimate use of general absolution. This illegitimate use, like other abuses in the administration of the Sacrament of Penance, is to be eliminated.

    The teaching of the Church is reflected in precise terms in the requirements of the Code of Canon Law (cf. esp. canons 959-964). In particular it is clear that "A sufficient necessity is not ... considered to exist when confessors cannot be available merely because of a great gathering of penitents, such as can occur on some major feastday or pilgrimage" (canon 961, § 1, 2).

    The bishops will exercise renewed vigilance on these matters for the future, aware that departures from the authentic tradition do great wrong to the Church and to individual Catholics.

    4. With respect to the administration of "general absolution", the exclusive authority enjoyed by Diocesan Bishops to determine whether a grave necessity is truly present in a given case in their diocese does not permit them "to change the required conditions, to substitute other conditions for those given, or to determine grave necessity according to their personal criteria however worthy." Indeed, the Diocesan Bishop makes "this judgement graviter onerata conscientia, and with full respect for the law and practice of the Church."

    5. Local Ordinaries and priests, to the degree that it applies to them, have an obligation in conscience to ensure that penitents have regular and frequent scheduled opportunities for individual and integral confession of sins in all parish churches and insofar as possible in other pastoral centres. In addition, priests are called upon to be generous in making themselves available outside of those scheduled times to celebrate individual and integral confession whenever the faithful would reasonably ask for it. "Other works, for lack of time, may have to be postponed or even abandoned, but not the confessional." (Circular Letter Concerning the Integrity of the Sacrament of Penance; March 20, 2000; Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments; Jorge A. Card. Medina Estévez; Prefect)

    It's funny, in the last election one of the issues was whether a doctor was to be given carte blanche when treating their patients, or whether the insurance companies can dictate treatment.

    The priest, acting in the persona of Christ, is the 'doctor' there to heal our souls and reconcile us with God, but now, we see parish councils, etc, deciding that they can't! That it's better to give them the band-aid of an illegitimate penance service.

    No doubt, some leave feeling that they've actually been absolved, because Father Told them so. But many others go to these simply because they need do nothing. No confession, no humbling, nothing.

    "It would . . . be foolish, as well as presumptuous, to wish arbitrarily to disregard the means of grace and salvation which the Lord has provided and, in the specific case, to claim to receive forgiveness while doing without the sacrament which was instituted by Christ precisely for forgiveness. Since "reconciliation in Christ is achieved in a pre-eminent way in the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance", Diocesan Bishops are to recommend strongly the frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance, even in those cases when, after a diligent examination of conscience, penitents remain unaware of any mortal sins, both by promoting this teaching themselves and by reminding confessors to counsel the faithful that "the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit" (Ibid)

    This Lent, confession is highly recommended, not just to get into the spirit of the season, but as a practice to get us into the habit of going to confession. But beware of the quicky confession.

Pax Christi,

Pat Ludwa

For past columns by Pat Ludwa, see VIEW FROM THE PEW Archives

March 19, 2001
volume 12, no. 78
Pat Ludwa's VIEW FROM THE PEW column
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