QUAERITUR: A priest who won’t say the words of absolution… what to do?

An alarming e-mail came to me from a reader.  My emphases and comments:

Dear Fr. Zuhlsdorf,

Two friends of mine recently went to confession at their parish’s regularly scheduled time. [Tip # 3] Of course, they each made their confession individually to the priest in the confessional in the normal manner. They confessed their sins and made an act of contrition. I’m not sure if they said the priest gave them a penance. However, they both said that the priest did NOT say the words of absolution. What is odd is that the priest did not explicitly tell them he was purposefully not going to give them absolution. He just did not say the words of absolution. The priest knew there was a line and asked them to leave so the next person could confess. One of my friends tried to ask to have the priest say the words of absolution, but the priest basically made her leave before she could even ask the question.  [If this is really what happened, this is a pretty serious situation.]

I have several questions about this odd situation.

1. Was the confession valid, i.e., was there remission of their confessed sins? (My understand is that the answer is no, since the words of absolution are the form of the sacrament of penance.)  [First, God will love them because they tried.  Through no fault of their own, they did not received absolution.  God works with that.  However, they really do need to receive sacramental absolution.  It sounds to me as if they did not receive absolution, they did not receive the graces of the sacrament.  Absolution is necessary.  This is why in Tip #15 I tell people not to leave the confessional before the priest has given absolution.  Usually that happens because the penitent is in a rush to get out, but I guess it applies here too.  I once had to insist three times that the priest use the correct form of absolution.  He was mad by the end, but I was absolved.]

2. If the answer to Question 1. is no, what should my friends do? Should they go to confession again for these same sins? [I would do two things.  First, go to confession where you know you can get a priest who will do the right thing, and make a good confession of everything, saying also that you did go before but didn't get absolution.  Second, I would speak to the pastor (if the priest is young and an assistant) or write to the priest's bishop or religious superior and explain what happened in bare-bones facts.  Remember, the priest can't talk about that confession, even to his bishop.  He can't explain his side, one way or another, or he violates the seal.  But the bishop should know about this.]

3. Have you ever heard of this kind of a thing where priests just don’t say the words of absolution for no relevant reason? [Sure... they are poorly trained and need to have a 2x4 upside the head.]

4. I’m guessing this sort of thing is a very serious breach of a priest’s responsibility. How serious is it? [How 'bout... REALLY SERIOUS!]

5. What should my friends do to try to address? Talk to the priest? Talk to the bishop? [Bishop. Unless the priest was young and under the authority of his pastor.  In that case perhaps the pastor should know so that he can correct the errant priest.]

Thank you and thanks for your blog. It’s a great resource.

 

FacebookEmailPinterestGoogle GmailShare/Bookmark

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in ASK FATHER Question Box, SESSIUNCULA. Bookmark the permalink.

70 Responses to QUAERITUR: A priest who won’t say the words of absolution… what to do?

  1. craig says:

    There is one priest at a very large local parish that throws me evrytime he happens to be hearing confessions. After youmake your Act of Contrition he says:

    And it is by God’s authority that I absolve you, In the name…..

    From what I can gather, this is valid, though perhaps not licit. I have wanted to say something to him, but, well, he is a priest. Not to mention he is acting in persona christi, it just feels weird having to correct.

    Whatever happened to the time when a person did not have to worry about this stuff?

  2. sigil7 says:

    Actually, this has happened to me on a few occasions. One time, when I was an undergraduate, all I got was “God forgives you, go in peace.” So I asked, “Father, may I have absolution, please?” And he told me again, “You’re forgiven, go in peace!” I asked him to at least say “I absolve of you of your sins, in the name….etc.”, and I was told I was being overly legalistic and that the form of the sacrament can be much “looser” than that. Then again, this was in an old confessional converted into a face-to-face setup, with red shag carpeting on the floor and he was sitting in a La-Z-Boy recliner in there. No lie. (sigh)…life in central NY state wasn’t fun back then…

  3. Braadwijk says:

    I made the big mistake of going to Confession with a somewhat cult-like order back in the 2004, and the priest it turns out was somewhat of a Jansenist. I was deliberately denied Absolution twice by the same priest during Confession. The first time he didn’t even let me make the Act of Contrition and told me to come back in two weeks. Two weeks later I was screamed at for nearly an hour about how I was incapable of responding to Grace and nothing could change me (he even tried to stop me from leaving), so I do understand how this feels and I totally sympathize despite the different circumstances. As a result I remain an ally of the Church and the Holy Father but I am not a practicing Catholic, nor do I ever intend to go to Confession again. Do not make my mistake. Follow Fr. Z’s advice and seek some help on this.

  4. Norman Lee says:

    On a couple of occasions, the priest I went to did not say the words of absolution aloud. So I asked him for it, and he told me that he’s already absolved me. Then later I asked another priest about it, and he told me that the priest does not have to say the words aloud. Hmm.

  5. Gerard says:

    I’ve run into this problem on a few occasions. I was in such shock after hearing “God forgives sins.” as the words of absolution. I had to think about it before driving to a nearby religious community and saying my confession over again. The other “cheat” that I’ve seen a lot of is “say your act of contrition after you leave.”

    I sent an e-mail to the pastor and the answer was that it was basically my fault and I must have not heard things correctly. Though I did notice that the priest hasn’t made this mistake since.

    At first, I thought the priest must be a raving modernist, but after watching and listening to him, I think he’s just a poor victim of terrible formation with very little understanding of sacramental theology.

    Fr. Z,

    If a priest has a completely wrong-headed understanding of what a sacrament is, does that affect the validity on the part of his intention?

  6. Fr Z said: “I once had to insist three times that the priest use the correct form of absolution. He was mad by the end, but I was absolved.”

    Same here. After a spiritual director/confessor was reassigned, I went looking for someone else, and found myself trying out various confessors in the Roman Basilicas.

    The worst for this matter were Saint Mary Majors (where I’ve often had to argue with priests who insisted that saying something like “God forgives you” is enough) and Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls (where there was, as I understand it, a similar problem long before I went there). Maybe all that has changed now, but I always tell people going to Rome who ask where they might go to Confession, to listen to the absolution, especially in those two places. Saint Peter’s has some superb Confessors and, as I’ve found out, there are usually some really excellent Confessors at Saint Mary Majors.

    In the end, I started going to Confession to… well, I won’t say!

    I myself use the full absolution formula with the added prayer at the end.

  7. Paul Haley says:

    If I’m not mistaken, saying an Act of Perfect Contrition would place one in the state of grace until that same person is able to make a sacramental confession under the right conditions, i.e., with the priest granting absolution. An Act Of Perfect Contrition would be as follows: “Oh, my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee not so much because these sins bring suffering and death to me, but because they have offended Thee, My God, and offended Thy Infinite Goodness. I firmly resolve with the help of Thy Grace to confess my sins, do penance and amend my life, Amen.” Should not this counsel have been given to the persons in question?

  8. Trevor says:

    Is Confession still valid if there is no Act of Contrition? I recently went to Confession, and the (older) priest already started the absolution formula before I could begin my Act of Contrition.

  9. AM says:

    I believe that for sacramental validity, the words “I absolve you” are the absolute minimum necessary, right? The Trinitarian addition “in the name of the Father” &c is not 100% essential, and the “Father of Mercies” etc. is excellent and required by the rite but not needed for validity.

    I think.

    Right?

    So in a similar situation the requirement to confess again as it were immediately arises only if the priest won’t say “I absolve you”?

  10. Trevor says:

    Is absolution still valid if there is no Act of Contrition? I recently went to Confession, and the (older) priest already started the absolution formula before I could begin my Act of Contrition.

  11. Question to bring up:

    My confessor usually says the first part “God the Father of Mercies, etc silently, and then will say I absolve you of your sins…aloud.

    Could that have been what happened in this case? In which case I think the confession would be valid.

    If he actually did NOT say the words of absolution…Follow Fr Z’s advice :)

  12. A.T.S. says:

    Father Z.,

    What, in your opinion, is minimally required for a valid absolution – in terms of the words said by the priest?

    I know that the formula as set out in the approved translation of the Rite of Penance : “I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” is sufficient.

    But what about “I absolve you OF” (rather than “from”) “your sins”? Or “from ALL your sins”?

    What about all the changes that come with simply being lazy – “in the name of the Father, Son, Holy Spirit”, for example?

    How much deviation is acceptable?

  13. Lauren says:

    Trevor,

    That’s a good question. I’ve had that happen to me as well.

  14. Brian C. says:

    Oh, my word…

    It’s at times like this when I realize how “spoiled” we are, out here in our particular nook of “flyover country”! I’ve already heard that Rome (as a geographical city, distinct from Vatican City) has some problems re: liturgy (and even orthodoxy, in places), but it’s always jarring to see clear-cut examples (such as were quoted by Fr. di Lorenzo). God be praised for our wonderful pastor!

    If I think too much about the absolute *hash* that’s been made of the Holy *sacraments* (of all things!) by those who are either ignorant or agenda-driven or both, I feel completely ill. Praise God for the progress that our Holy Father (and the multitude of those united with him in spirit) has made, in liturgical reform…

    In Christ,
    Brian

  15. Fr. D. says:

    From what I gather from the old Moral Manuals, the Council of Trent (sess. 14, cap 3.) said, “I absolve you of your sins” is necessary for validity.
    Sabetti says, “I absolve you” is “probably” valid, but also that we should never accept probabile validity with regard to the sacraments.
    Of course, the priest has no right to aim for minimum validity and is obliged to say th entire formula, unless there is some emergency.

    Meanwhile, none of us should aim at the minimum in regard to confession. We need a practice of frequent confession even if there are no mortal sins to confess. Those who go to confession infrequently take a great risks – because they may not be granted the grace of a spirit of penance and true contrition and because when they do confess they may end up going to a priest who does not validly absolve them. But, if I go to confession frquently and I don’t realize that priest did not validly absolve me, I will probably be absolved in my next confession even of those sins provided I made a sincere confession and am “sorry for these and any other sins I have ever committed.”

  16. porys says:

    It happend to me some time ago. In my next confession I asked another priest
    about this problem. He answard:
    >

  17. Janet says:

    My priest grants absolution according to formula, but he always asks that I make an act of contrition and my penance on my own after leaving the confessional. He’s a rather orthodox and faithful priest, so I’m assuming this means that the act of contrition doesn’t have to be done before absolution at all. I guess Fr. Z can tell us definitively if this is the case.

  18. Christopher Sarsfield says:

    This reminds of an incident from the life of St. John Eudes. He was remarking on the ignorance of some priests that thought that absolution could be given by reciting the Hail Mary while making the sign the Cross. This was before seminaries had been established.

    With regard to perfect contrition, you must actually be perfectly contrite, and not just say the words. Many Saints doubted whether they could have perfect contrition, not that they did not strive for it.

    Finally, whenever I confess my sins, I always end the list of sins with “for these and all the other sins of my past life I am truly sorry.” Just in case for some reason a past confession was not valid, or I had forgotten anything. These threads always leave me wondering if they teach anything theology in seminary.

  19. Geoffrey says:

    I guess I’m pretty lucky here in “liberal” California after all. The only questionable thing I’ve heard is during the formula of absolution, one priest will add something like “though a sinner, I absolve you…” etc.

  20. Johnny Domer says:

    What do you do if a priest uses this form: “I forgive you your sins in the name of the Father, etc.” It’s obviously not the correct form, but I don’t know that it’s really heretical…would someone be good to go? I’ve had priests use it with me in Confession a few times.

  21. John Polhamus says:

    As to California, I live in San Diego, and in the last few years priests in the Diocese have been omitting both council, then giving the absolution, then omitting to impose a penance. A friend of mine went back into the confessional room (having used the screen), and said, “Father, you didn’t impose a penance.” “No, I didn’t.” replied the priest. To which my friend said rather bluntly, “Well I want one.” I have taken it up at the diocesan level, who don’t seem to think that satisfaction is a necessary part of the formula for valid confession. I would argue that Canon Law requires it. Nonetheless, this has become a rather regular formula, though the diocese denies that there has been any direction to priests to that effect.

  22. Anonymous in Michigan says:

    Braadwijk,
    A priest should be full of mercy in the confessional but at the same time firm in that he should not minimize the gravity of sin. However, it seems this priest may have been too harsh. Did that experience lead to your falling away from the practice of the Catholic faith? I don’t want to sound preachy but please be assured that I shall remember you in my prayers especially during Holy Week.

  23. EDG says:

    Trevor and Lauren:
    It was very common in the old days that priests would begin the absolution before or during the penitent’s recitation of the Act of Contrition. Some older priests who bother to hear confessions still do. This was a time saving device and probably dates back to the time when there was a line around the block to go to Confession on Saturday afternoons (and a pretty hefty line before every morning Mass in a downtown church, too!).

  24. I went to confession about 90 mins ago. Wonderful experience. The Lord is very good indeed.
    As long as the absolution is valid, this is always the case, but how tremendous it is when a priest just does what he is supposed to do. One can almost hear the angels celebrating, as the Lord says they do when one is in the Lord’s good friendship.

  25. elizabeth mckernan says:

    If a priest hears confession with his purple stole still folded up beside him, is the absolution still valid?

  26. Is there any possibility that there could be a clarification from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on this matter, like the one we had on the invalid baptism formulas?

  27. RBrown says:

    If I’m not mistaken, saying an Act of Perfect Contrition would place one in the state of grace until that same person is able to make a sacramental confession under the right conditions, i.e., with the priest granting absolution. An Act Of Perfect Contrition would be as follows: “Oh, my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee not so much because these sins bring suffering and death to me, but because they have offended Thee, My God, and offended Thy Infinite Goodness. I firmly resolve with the help of Thy Grace to confess my sins, do penance and amend my life, Amen.” Should not this counsel have been given to the persons in question?
    Comment by Paul Haley

    So who’s capable of making a perfect act of contrition?

  28. Would baptism be valid without “in the name of the Father” etc. Answer: No.

    Is there no “Absolution for Dummies” book anywhere?

  29. 1. A priest might refuse to absolve if no sins have been confessed and he suspected that in fact the person was simply refusing to acknowledge his or her sins. It is not unknown, let us say, for people to produce lists of things they haven’t done, or things their neighbours have done. One might sigh, and invite the ‘penitent’ to renew his sorrow for the sins of his past life, and then absolve, but I suppose strictly the priest is not required to absolve where no real matter for the sacrament has been produced.

    2. Many priests in the past (and some today) would say the words of absolution while the penitent is saying the act of contrition. Thus it is possible that sometimes the penitent has not heard the formula, but it has been said.

    3. At a penitential service, I have been required to absolve people simply if they asked for it, without any confession being required. I see little difference between this and the forbidden practice of General Absolution. I was put in a very awkward position, and will not assist in that parish any more.

    4. In this country there is another widespread practice, which I abhor, of not allowing people to confess more than one sin at a time. Is this common elsewhere, too?

  30. Diane says:

    Braadwijk says: As a result I remain an ally of the Church and the Holy Father but I am not a practicing Catholic, nor do I ever intend to go to Confession again.

    Dear Braadwijk, I couldn’t help seeing a parallel here to those back in the time of Jesus who would say, “I am loyal to Jesus, but I will not follow his commands (with regards to sacraments) because of the grave immoral act of Judas”.

    The so-called “Jansenist”, which sounds like a potentially correct assumption, does not give you cause to reject the Sacraments or other teachings of the Church.

    I pray you will reconsider your position and seek hard, until you find, a priest with his head on straight.

    Keep in mind also, that some priests are poorly trained or poorly influenced by others. Hence, we need to pray for them. That particular priest who offended you is in deep need of your prayers and you may use the pain you suffer as a prayer for his conversion and his soul.

    I am deeply saddened whenever someone uses bad behavior by a priest as justification to avoid the Sacraments. This is a most serious error.

    My most heartfelt prayers are with you as you continue to meditate upon the acts of the apostles in the face of the betrayal of Jesus by Judas.

  31. Habemus Papam says:

    Braadwijk: I had a similar experience to yours with an SSPX priest some years ago. It came as shock. Remember that even if you feel unable to frequent the Sacraments for now (never is a long time) you can still attend Mass, pray.

  32. Concerned Penitent says:

    Dear Fr Z,

    I wonder if you could help me with the following question.

    Is it permissable to go to confession to a priest who does not use the correct words of absolution but only makes small change to them, such as ‘from all your sins’ rather than ‘from your sins’?

    A lot of priests around here do that and I often think that going to confession to them is being an accomplice in their sin.

    However this often means I put off confession until I can get to a priest who uses the right words.

    What would you advise I do?

  33. Concerned Penitent: Is it permissable to go to confession to a priest who does not use the correct words of absolution but only makes small change to them, such as ‘from all your sins’ rather than ‘from your sins’?

    I don’t think adding the word “all” invalidates the absolution. It changes nothing of the meaning of the form. After all, the absolution is intended to absolve all, not some, of your sins.

    Remember that any English formula is a translation of the official form, which is in Latin.

  34. Concerned Penitent says:

    Thank you Father, that reassures me.

    Does this mean that is acceptable to go confession to a priest whom you KNOW will use this illicit form?

  35. anonymous priest penitent says:

    A few days ago, I pulled one of my brothers aside some short time before the Chrism Mass and asked if Father would hear my confession. We went to a quiet corner in the Cathedral (I didn’t want him to be detained in the confessional before Mass was about to begin and not have a chance to vest – this has happened before). The confession was pretty normal up until the absolution which sounded something like the following: “May Jesus Christ absolve you from your sins.” (he made the sign of the cross over me as he said this) This of course was a small part of the absolution in the extraordinary form, but it doesn’t stand on its own. Afterwards he continued with the traditional formula, in English, “May the Pasion of our LOrd…” As a priest I should have corrected Father, but I let it stand as we were both needing time to vest and prepare for the chrism Mass. My intention now is to repeat my confession, with an explanation, at the next opportunity, for the sake of certainty.

  36. RBrown says:

    anonymous priest penitent,

    Invalid Sacramental form is a consequence of a change to the words that “destroys the essential sense of the words” (per talem mutationem tollatur debitus sensus verborum), ST, III, 60, 8, (a very famous article of the Summa).

    Although the change you cited should be discouraged, nevertheless, it seems to me that it does not destroy the essential sense, and thus does not invalidate the absolution.

    I only taught the course De Sacramentis in Genere once. Although we covered the basics of Sacramental Form, if I were to teach it again, I would concentrate much more on the question of the validity of the various aberrations that seem to be around.

  37. Dear anonymous priest penitent, you can be certain that you were not absolved. The priest acts in the person of Christ. He, by his words, showed that he was not doing this.

    Dear Fr Seán Finnegan, you NEVER have to do something wrong, especially sacrilege. Really. Besides the other things you mentioned, if someone has more than one mortal sin, say adultery and wife-bashing, to mention only one thing would also amount to a sacrilege, at least on the part of the priest who forbade an integral confession.

    Finally, Fr Z, are the notes available for the course on Confession, in which you’ve participated a number of times. I wanted to go to this, but was told by just ordained priests, every year, that this was only for priests who have been ordained within the last year and that this was very strict.

  38. Fr. Renzo: I don’t think it would be that strict, especially for priests who are very much focused on the sacrament of penance.

  39. RBrown says:

    Dear anonymous priest penitent, you can be certain that you were not absolved. The priest acts in the person of Christ. He, by his words, showed that he was not doing this.
    Comment by Fr Renzo di Lorenzo (TRILOGY)

    Oft wrong, never in doubt.

  40. Stan says:

    [1] There is little the penitent can do about priests using invalid forms of absolution, except repeat the confession (perhaps to another priest?). God’s mercy will enable one to do what has to be done. It is a cross.

    [2] Penitents should be alert to the fairly common practice of priests NOT asking for an act of contrition, and end their recitation of sins with a phrase like “For these and all my sins I am sorry, for the love of God” — which suffices as an expression of contrition. Expression of sorrow for sin does pertain to the essence of the sacrament, and I doubt that the mere presence of the penitent in the confessional should be taken to imply this expression. (Any priest please correct if I am wrong in this.)

    [3] I am puzzled as to why Braadwijk would stop going to Confession altogether when the tenor of his post suggests that he recognizes the cultic-Jansenist priest as being anomalous. Does he really believe that all priests are that way? Does one stop going to doctors altogether because one doctor turned out to be a quack?

    [4] RBrown’s question, “So who’s capable of making a perfect act of contrition?” may not have been intended as such, but is reminiscent of a somewhat Jansenistic tendency to exaggerate the difficulties of making the act. As long as the intellect and will are focused upon the supreme goodness of God as the primary reason for sorrow for sin — even though other legitimate reasons may be felt more strongly — the basis for perfect contrition is present. It is to be “perfect” not in terms of emotional response, but in terms of the underlying reason for sorrow.

    We should not think it any “harder” for God to move our hearts and to forgive our sins than it was for us to commit them in the first place!

  41. Habemus Papam says:

    Stan: Extreme negative reactions in the Confessional can knock us off course for a long time. We need God’s grace to be truly repentant and have a firm purpose of ammendment, not simplistic reminders that all priests are not the same.

  42. Thanks, Fr Z. Still, I’m not in Rome right now, so… are the notes for that course on-line, somewhere, or has anyone at the NAC NOTE FACTORY been doing their thing? I’d really be very interested in the getting to know the content of the course. I always want to know more about such things, as I know enough to know that I’m ignorant.

    “May Jesus Christ absolve you from your sins” would be analogous to the consecration at Mass if the priest, instead of acting in the Person of Christ, would say: “May Jesus Christ say that this is His Body”. Just doesn’t work.

    As to “Oft wrong, never in doubt”, that’s exactly my point. I know for certain that I often do wrong things, and that’s why I want a Confessor who knows how to act in the Person of Christ, reciting the formula as it stands.

    I recite the entire absolution formula. Even if do some work on my blog, hearing Confessions is what I do, day in, day out. This is my mandated apostolate. I mention that as a lead-in to this observation: I often hear penitents say that they’ve never heard such a wonderfully beautiful prayer and they ask where I got that prayer. They are overwhelmed by the grace and goodness and kindness of our Lord Jesus and His Church. The absolution formula is absolutely wonderful. To all priests… Let’s use it!

  43. Fr. Renzo: I have no knowledge of notes online. I don’t think that would be a good idea anyway. The course and training concerned information priest/confessors need to know. I remember that under H.E. De Magistris would ask everyone not to share too openly the information from the course, though we should feel free to share it with other priests, to help them know how to use the Penitenzieria as a resource.

  44. Stan says:

    Habemus Papam — I quite understand how a bad experience can affect us in subtle ways to knock us off course so to speak — e.g., a friend of mine says she stopped going to Mass when it was no longer mandatory for women to wear veils — but what struck me as unusual was the ability to conceptualize so clearly the reason for one’s bad experience (“a somewhat cult-like order back in the 2004, and the priest it turns out was somewhat of a Jansenist”) and still affirm the intention not to move beyond it.

    Sometimes the “simplistic reminder” is just what is needed: God’s grace does not operate in a vacuum, but through the circumstances of our lives.

    Apropos “negative reactions in the Confessional” — I’ve also experienced those, paradoxically, when I felt the priest was being too lenient — one would like to be confident that the priest is taking one’s sins seriously, not always the case these days!

  45. Thanks for that, Fr Z. I’ll follow up on that. Cheers!

  46. michigancatholic says:

    This is a huge problem.

    There are a large number of priests who think (erroneously) that you’ve come to visit with them, or who think they’re primarily in the confessional to give you advice or guidance, even of a soft behavioral science type–ie pop psychology (ie. how to be *nice* which is the point of the gospel, according to some.] This is 100% wrong and any priest who thinks this is his job is ignorant and illiterate of his own religion AND of the criteria that define other social science fields.

    Priests are not literally experts on many domains of expertise, from psychology & social work to philosophy and international affairs, but apparently most of them don’t know this and feel perfectly free to insert their opinions about these things literally everywhere. At the same time, they don’t seem to understand their own domains very well at all. It’s completely & utterly peculiar. Many priests apparently don’t realize this either, such that it often makes them look fairly amateurish & stupid at times. Even worse, some laypeople take them at their word because of their authority, and go off and do really stupid things to themselves…

    Don’t get me wrong, spiritual advice well given, is an incredibly valuable thing, but it’s not pop psychology. Good spiritual know-how is as hard to come by as tons of gold these days. However, the point urgently needs to be made that any amount of spiritual direction (or whatever) is not the point of confession (!!!) which is a sacrament by definition without spiritual direction of any type.

    Priests are there to provide sacraments and that is their life’s work, which ought to go without saying. (But believe it or not there is some resistance to this idea!) Sacraments are religious in nature and are not constituted by “visiting” and giving advice. [I can never believe it when I have to make this point. HOw can there be so much ignorance?] And of course, receiving this sacrament purely for itself, when done properly, can do nothing but good for a person.

    The level of ignorance seen in a great many priests in this content area is amazing. One wonders how they manage to get through school, except that perhaps the schools they go to are deficient too.

    I think it’s also important to point out that other sacraments have been eroded in similar ways–baptism & confirmation. Pointedly, I was a sponsor for my nephew’s confirmation and he got the correct form, even though the child just before him got some home-made concoction. That priest and I know each other and I was glaring at him–he knew I knew and wasn’t afraid to insist. I would have stopped the nice procession right then and there, and he knew it, polite be damned. So he complied. I suspect that many people have gone through this, either in my place or the place of that child who got the homemade confirmation words. [My sister wanted her son confirmed at this parish because she came into the church there, and I couldn't talk her out of it. I've related this story to show that it does happen to other sacraments besides the Eucharist and Confession.]

    [Just this last week, in fact, the Vatican warned a diocese in Australia about a large number of possibly invalidated baptisms attempted with the wrong words--something to the effect of "in the name of the Creator, Liberator & Sustainer" or some such homemade crap. And the diocese is currently telling people not to worry. Not worry???? WHA???]

    One can only hope they don’t find a way to botch the Last Rites, ie send the local friendly ministry lady with her malarky. I may not have the strength to fight then.

    So, sad to say, this leaves us to policing our all our sacraments again just like many of us have done for the mass. It’s so sad and unnecessary. Why, oh why, do we have to go through this?????

  47. michigancatholic says:

    Fr. Sean, you said:
    In this country there is another widespread practice, which I abhor, of not allowing people to confess more than one sin at a time. Is this common elsewhere, too?

    Yes, there have been attempts at this in the States, too. (I write from Michigan where I’ve seen it.) People have also been told on occasion that there is no difference between venial & mortal sins and one can cite one sin as a symbol for all of them. Wrong.

  48. michigancatholic says:

    BTW, Fr. Z. I can’t do anything about a botched sacrament of confession but find another confessor, but if I was the mother of one of those kids from Australia, I’d be heading for the kitchen sink with that kid under my arm. By golly, I’d get the job done with the right words and no repeat victimization.

  49. Fr. Sean, you said:
    In this country there is another widespread practice, which I abhor, of not allowing people to confess more than one sin at a time. Is this common elsewhere, too?

    I’ve heard of that here too. It’s important to note that this invalidates the confession which must be whole and entire. It is forcing a person to withold other sins. It is a grevious offence against God. Anyone who would ask this will have a lot to answer for. The preist who demands this MUST be reported to the bishop. If it’s the bishop, then to Rome. This is a grave abuse.

    The same goes for the priest who didn’t give a penance. It is an integral part of the sacrament.

    The essential form of absolution is: Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in Nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. That is: I absolve you from your sins in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

    It is neither the best nor desired way, but it suffices that the act of contrition be said before going into the confessional, and shoud be said before going in even though it will be repeated. Even if the priest asks you to say it afterwards (which he shouldn’t do) there is nothing to prevent saying it while he gives the absolution.

    In order to receive the sacrament of Penance rightly the following conditions are required:
    1) A thorough examination of conscience. If this is done nightly it will be much easier when it is time to go to confession.
    2) Contrition, which is a true sorrow for sin with the firm purpose of amendment. Saint Alphonsus says that the confessor who does not assure himself of the contrition of the sinner commits a grave offence. Likewise the penitent who does not have sincere contrition is not absolved and the confession is sacrilegious. Note that contrition is not a feeling, but an act of the will.
    3) The Confession or accusation of sins made to a priest of every mortal sin in kind and number and those circumstances which change the nature of the sin or increase the number. Venial sins should also be confessed though it is not necessary.
    4) Absolution
    5)Satisfaction or Works of Penance. The council of Trent (Session XIV) says that priests are bound to give a penance and the sinner is bound to perform it. For a priest not to enjoin a penance is a grave sin on his part. A penitent who does not perform a penance he/she has accepted through his/her own fault commits a grave sin. Penance is an integral part of the sacrament.

  50. Habemus Papam says:

    Stan: I guess that without knowing all the factors involved its hard to say. Its just that the description reminded me of a similiar incident with an SSPX priest which I felt was overly harsh and left me in a state of shock. It didn’t color my view of priests or even SSPX priests in general, it just left me with an aversion. I suppose I was trying to get over a long period of scruples and this guys reation was the last straw. Anyway I totally agree that there can be a false tolerance, but overall I’m grateful for those few priests who take sins seriously without a smack on the head for not trying harder!

  51. Bob says:

    The priest I regularly confess to has me say the act of contrition twice as penance. I have never been asked to say the act of contrition during or before confession by any priest, or taught to do so when a student in Catholic schools. Is that a problem? What should I do?

  52. RBrown says:

    “May Jesus Christ absolve you from your sins” would be analogous to the consecration at Mass if the priest, instead of acting in the Person of Christ, would say: “May Jesus Christ say that this is His Body”. Just doesn’t work.

    No, it’s not analogous. The Eucharistic consecration is unique because the celebrant adopts the identity of Christ, using His own words: Hoc est enim corpus MEUM.

    In the Sacrament of Penance, however, the priest gives absolution in the name of the Trinity.

    As to “Oft wrong, never in doubt”, that’s exactly my point. I know for certain that I often do wrong things, and that’s why I want a Confessor who knows how to act in the Person of Christ, reciting the formula as it stands.

    Fine, but Doubtful Form is not the same as Invalid Form.

    I recite the entire absolution formula. Even if do some work on my blog, hearing Confessions is what I do, day in, day out. This is my mandated apostolate. I mention that as a lead-in to this observation: I often hear penitents say that they’ve never heard such a wonderfully beautiful prayer and they ask where I got that prayer. They are overwhelmed by the grace and goodness and kindness of our Lord Jesus and His Church. The absolution formula is absolutely wonderful. To all priests… Let’s use it!
    Comment by Fr Renzo di Lorenzo

    Agree.

  53. Bob, I don’t think you need to worry about it. You’re clearly a man of good will. The Act of Contrition in the confessional is a statement that expresses your contrition. As long as you are contrite, that is what counts. Generally, the fact that someone goes to confession and enumerates their sins can be taken as a sign of their contrition and is by some confessors. In the future I would encourage you to say the act of contrition after your examination of conscience and/or quietly while the priest is giving you absolution.

  54. I ABSOLVE YOU… This is the first person singular; there is no doubt whatsoever.

    The Trinitatian formula which follows does not mean that I am not absolving while acting in the Person of Christ. The Holy Trinity is always involved in such works. In fact, this is the very beauty, overwhelming really, of acting in the Person of Christ, namely, that the whole Trinity is involved. This draws one straight into contemplative prayer. The whole formula is, in fact, extraordinarily Trinitarian.

    Indeed, that the priest acts in the Person of Christ is the wisdom of Christ with this Sacrament:

    When we love, we love God and neighbour in the same act of love, for we love but one Mystical Body of Christ, the Head and the members, at the same time. We don’t decapitate the Head to love God alone, casting aside the members, or vice versa.

    When we sin, we sin against that entire Mystical Body of Christ, the Head and the members.

    When we are reconciled, we are reconciled to both Head and members in the Confessional, Christ giving us absolution with the priest (the ordained representative of the members of the Body of Christ) acting in the very Person of Christ. THIS is the great wisdom of our Divine Lord and Saviour.

    Blessed Holy Week!

  55. RBrown says:

    RBrown’s question, “So who’s capable of making a perfect act of contrition?” may not have been intended as such, but is reminiscent of a somewhat Jansenistic tendency to exaggerate the difficulties of making the act. As long as the intellect and will are focused upon the supreme goodness of God as the primary reason for sorrow for sin—even though other legitimate reasons may be felt more strongly—the basis for perfect contrition is present. It is to be “perfect” not in terms of emotional response, but in terms of the underlying reason for sorrow.

    We should not think it any “harder” for God to move our hearts and to forgive our sins than it was for us to commit them in the first place!
    Comment by Stan

    My question is based on St Thomas not on Jansenism.

    According to St Thomas, perfect contrition is contrition informed by Charity. Someone not in a state of grace lacks Charity, and, therefore, cannot have perfect contrition.

  56. Tony says:

    What do you think about a common practice here in Australia of prists imposing penances like: “For your penance, I would like you to read one of the gospels from the missal (extract), and meditate upon it; you may hear the Lord speaking to you in that gospel”; or “Spend about 3 minutes praying for peace in the world”.

    Reading gospel extracts is certainly edifying – as is prayer for peace. But where is the overtly penitential aspect here? Should reading the gosples/scripture be viewed as a penance?!

    Tony

  57. Stan says:

    RBrown — Interesting point there. If charity is required for perfect contrition, I presume it must be possible for charity to enter into the soul through the very recitation of the act of contrition, since moralists advise those who cannot go to Confession to make such an act, in circumstances where consequent freedom from sin must be presumed — e.g. in the case of a parish priest who must celebrate Sunday Mass for his parish without prior opportunity to be absolved from mortal sin sacramentally.

    On the other hand, it is presumably much better as a practical matter to “approach” the act of contrition by way of prior acts of faith, hope and love in that order, the better to be disposed to the reception of sanctifying grace in making the act of contrition.

    I think there is hardly a more beautiful portrayal of extrasacramental contrition than in the deathbed scene of Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited — it is indicated in the feeblest of gestures, and undoes in an instant a lifetime of rebellion.

  58. Dear Father Scott,

    Are you sure you don’t want to reconsider this:

    “2) Contrition, which is a true sorrow for sin with the firm purpose of amendment. Saint Alphonsus says that the confessor who does not assure himself of the contrition of the sinner commits a grave offence. Likewise the penitent who does not have sincere contrition is not absolved and the confession is sacrilegious. Note that contrition is not a feeling, but an act of the will.”

    If this is the case, since true contrition alone is enough to forgive sins, the “absolution” by the priest (what ever the words) is merely a declaration that the sins are already forgiven–since from the moment of contrition, they are.

    According to St. Thomas (and the moral theological tradition of the non-Jansenists), attrition is sufficient for the sacrament. Attrition being the desire to be forgiven so as to avoid punishment. This does not mean one shouldn’t strive for more perfect sorrow, but attrition is all that is required to be absolved.

  59. Father Thompson,

    No, I don’t want to reconsider this. Obviously you have not carefully read what I wrote. It is not my opinion but that of Saint Alphonsus. You will have to take the issue up with him, not me.

  60. Stan says:

    Fr. Scott and Fr. Augustine — I think you are more in agreement than your exchange suggests. Attrition is also known as imperfect contrition, and the “contrition” about whose existence St. Alphonsus admonishes priests to be certain may be either perfect or imperfect.

  61. RBrown says:

    I ABSOLVE YOU… This is the first person singular; there is no doubt whatsoever.

    The priest says “I absolve” not “I forgive”: He offers absolution, which is God’s forgiveness–not his own. The power of the Church is to release from sins, offering God’s forgiveness.

    A. If the Confessor were to be doing what Christ did (as the celebrant does at mass), then the formula would be Declaratory, as it is with the Eucharist (Hoc est enim corpus meum). In the events in the Gospels of Christ forgiving, He declares someone’s sins are forgiven–this obviously because of His Divine Nature. Generally, purely Declaratory Forms are considered invalid, e.g., the incident above when the priest said, “God forgives you. Go in peace.”

    And so the Sacramental Form of the Eucharist is Declaratory (Hoc est enim corpus meum), but the Form of Absolution is not.

    B. The Sacramental Form that you considered invalid is Impetratory (or it can be called “Deprecatory”). The Eastern Churches tend to use an Impetratory/Deprecatory Form–for various reasons, not only what I wrote earlier but also the tradition in the Eastern Churches, these are not considered invalid.

    C. The indicative form, which is used in the West (I absolve . . .) is accompanied by impetration: “through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace . . .”

    I agree with you that the indicative form in the West better expresses the concept of the priest acting in persona Christi, but that doesn’t mean that an impetratory form of absolution is invalid.

    The Trinitatian formula which follows does not mean that I am not absolving while acting in the Person of Christ.

    Who said it was?

    The Holy Trinity is always involved in such works. In fact, this is the very beauty, overwhelming really, of acting in the Person of Christ, namely, that the whole Trinity is involved. This draws one straight into contemplative prayer. The whole formula is, in fact, extraordinarily Trinitarian.

    OK.

  62. A penance is meant as satisfaction of the justice due to the sin committed, that is, what would have to be purged from one, in justice, before one could enter heaven. What needs to be purged is a lack of generousity in coming to know Charity in Truth.

    Since one of our joys in heaven will be to thank the Lord for what He has done for us, we have to know what He done for us in order to do this. But this is what people can be so afraid to discover in this world, that is, coming to know more of what it means that the Son of God took on what we deserve in justice so as to have mercy on us in all justice.

    We’re afraid of that since this Charity in Truth would bring us to be more generous than we, perhaps, are now willing to be.

    A penance should be aimed at helping one to come to this Charity in Truth, to carry, then, within us, the glorious death of the Lord so that His resurrection shines forth.

    The perfection with which this penance is enacted need only be adequate, for that is all we can ever muster. Just as one need not be perfectly evil to commit a mortal sin, but only be adequately willing, etc., just so will one’s prayer be accepted by the merciful Lord, especially in the case of a penance, for this penance is given by a priest who is acting, as it is said, in Persona Christi, in the Person of Christ, for the Sacrament.

    God bless!

  63. Henry Edwards says:

    It was very common in the old days that priests would begin the absolution before or during the penitent’s recitation of the Act of Contrition.

    And even now I believe it’s not uncommon for traditional priests to begin the Latin words of absolution as soon as the penitent has said enough to indicate the requisite elements of contrition and repentance.

  64. RBrown says:

    RBrown—Interesting point there. If charity is required for perfect contrition, I presume it must be possible for charity to enter into the soul through the very recitation of the act of contrition, since moralists advise those who cannot go to Confession to make such an act, in circumstances where consequent freedom from sin must be presumed —e.g. in the case of a parish priest who must celebrate Sunday Mass for his parish without prior opportunity to be absolved from mortal sin sacramentally.

    The principle is that the Sacraments are necessary, but it is possible to receive their fruits outside of Sacramental celebration. For a Thomist this is easy to understand: Christ is the principle cause of every celebration of every Sacrament–the ministerial priest is the instrumental cause.

    We have certitude with the Sacraments. Outside the Sacraments there exists only the possibility.

    On the other hand, it is presumably much better as a practical matter to “approach” the act of contrition by way of prior acts of faith, hope and love in that order, the better to be disposed to the reception of sanctifying grace in making the act of contrition.
    Comment by Stan

    NB: I said Charity, which is Sanctifying Grace (i.e., being in a state of grace). Acts of faith, hope, and love do not necessarily put someone in a state of grace.

  65. When the priest declares “I absolve…”, this is most certainly a most direct declaration given in the first person. And, of course, this is God’s forgiveness, for this declaration is made in the Person of Christ, which can only be said because of the first person singular, “I absolve…” Nobody truly acts in another person’s person, so to speak, by saying, “That one says…”

    The priest says neither “Sins! Be forgiven!” as if the power was with the sins to apply forgiveness to themselves, nor “May God forgive you!” as if the absolution were only a prayer.

    This is a Sacrament wrought, again, in Persona Christi: “I absolve…” This absolution applies God’s forgiveness, the mercy of God, who simultaneously acts directly on the soul according to the words of the priest who is acting, precisely, in Persona Christi. The declaration “I absolve” is not here different in content with God’s forgiveness, nor is absolution prior and forgiveness something that happens in a second instance. They are simultaneous, for the priests acts in Persona Christi.

    The ministry of the Church refers to the faculties provided to an ordained priest, but the priest does not apply some eighth sacrament — the Church — but acts, simply, in Persona Christi, in the Person of Christ, who is, in fact, the Head of the Church.

    Let’s not rearrange the syntax. “Through the ministry…” and “I absolve…” are two syntactically separate phrases. Moreover, they are not parallel in content, as if the words “through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace . . .” were a valid, stand alone absolution to which was uselessly appended yet another absolution, “I absolve…” (just to make sure!).

    In the Gospels, Christ speaks of the reality of the situation that particular individuals enjoy, namely, sin forgiven by the presence of God-given Charity in Truth. This doesn’t exclude that Christ ever said the equivalent of “I forgive…”, “I absolve…”

    None of this excludes that a priest is acting in the Person of Christ when he declares “I absolve…” The priest is to judge is someone is sufficiently prepared to receive this absolution, this forgiveness of God, that is, as least by judging whether the penitent has the minimum sorrow necessary, but the priest is not in a position to tell if this is imperfect or perfect. Thus, he must say, “I absolve…” not, as Christ, who knew the hearts of men, “Your sins are already…” Only after the absolution does the priest say, “Your sins are forgiven…”

    God bless!

  66. Thank you Stan. St. Alphonsus does not distinuish here between perfect and imperfect contrition because the distinction is not necessary. What is necessary is that the penitent be contrite, whether for love of God (perfectly) or fear of hell (imperfectly).

    My Dominican brother also fails to make a distinction between forgiveness and absolution which are two different things. God forgives, and He alone can do so since sin is an offense against Him. The Church, through the power given her by Christ, absolves. Just because one is forgiven that does not mean one is absolved.

    I also sense in his comment an implication that Saint Alphonsus was a Jansenist. If true, I find that extremely humerous.

  67. Stan says:

    RBrown said Acts of faith, hope, and love do not necessarily put someone in a state of grace. I concur in this of course, but those acts do dispose one to the reception of the respective theological virtues, the last of which entails sanctifying grace. At issue, as I see it, is not whether grace can be received extrasacramentally (of course it can) but whether the act of contrition can suffice to dispose the soul to reception of sanctifying grace without a prior act of charity. Again, in case I was not clear on this: it certainly can suffice (the Church’s acts of contrition, after all, incorporate the motive of sorrow on account of God’s goodness), though what is sufficient isn’t necessarily what is optimal.

    As a final point, even the “certitude” we have with the sacraments is not absolute, since reception of the fruit and virtue of the sacrament is conditional on one’s disposition.

  68. RBrown says:

    RBrown said Acts of faith, hope, and love do not necessarily put someone in a state of grace.

    That is NOT what I said. Acts of faith, hope and charity–or an act of contrition–NEVER put anyone in a state of grace. NEVER.

    I concur in this of course, but those acts do dispose one to the reception of the respective theological virtues, the last of which entails sanctifying grace. At issue, as I see it, is not whether grace can be received extrasacramentally (of course it can) but whether the act of contrition can suffice to dispose the soul to reception of sanctifying grace without a prior act of charity. Again, in case I was not clear on this: it certainly can suffice (the Church’s acts of contrition, after all, incorporate the motive of sorrow on account of God’s goodness), though what is sufficient isn’t necessarily what is optimal.

    As a final point, even the “certitude” we have with the sacraments is not absolute, since reception of the fruit and virtue of the sacrament is conditional on one’s disposition.
    Comment by Stan

    I don’t think you’re seeing it.

    Absolution given by a priest is the cause of putting someone in a state of grace (cf. ex opere operato). An act of contrition or any other prayer (cf. ex opere operantis) NEVER is the cause of putting anyone in a state of grace (cf. ex opere operantis).

    It is POSSIBLE that following an act of contrition Christ Himself might forgive mortal sin.

    Take two people, one in a state of grace, the other not. The first can arrive 5 minutes late for mass and is disposed (by being in a state of grace) to receive communion; the second can pray for two hours before mass, but still is not disposed to receive communion.

    If someone is not in a state of grace, no prayer that he says can put him in a state of grace

  69. Stan says:

    RBrown, I think we are focusing on different aspects of the issue — or you do not understand the standard terminology I am using. Not to mention that you begin by denying having said what you clearly DID say — I simply cut and pasted from your post.

    I am not considering the question of whether the act of contrition CAUSES sanctifying grace, as if the latter were not a free gift of Christ. I AM interested in whether the act of contrition incorporates an act of charity — for which I argue affirmatively.

    Again: the acts of faith, hope, love, and contrition — made under the influence of prevenient grace — DISPOSE one to the reception and increase of the respective theological virtues, even though the virtues themselves are infused as unmerited and free gifts. (Yes, with respect to “unmerited” I am aware of the distinction between de condigno and de congruo.) That is why the Church puts them in our mouths: they are not inane formulas.

    I never said that the acts are the CAUSE of grace, as if that grace were not the free gift of Christ. To say that they DISPOSE one to the reception is not to say that they are causes of grace on our part. But such acts are very much a part of the working of grace in us, and for you to deny that any prayer can put one in the state of grace could be misconstrued to mean that such a prayer has NO bearing on our reception of grace.

    I’m not sure what your hesitation is in saying It is POSSIBLE that following an act of contrition Christ Himself might forgive mortal sin. [Another cut and paste.] Nothing is absolutely certain with respect to particular cases, of course — but nothing is more certain, as a general principle in the constant practice of the Church, than that sanctifying grace can be granted extrasacramentally.

    And by the way, while the sacraments do work ex opere operato their efficacy in the soul is also ex opere operantis. Absolution pronounced is NOT absolution received, if the soul is not properly disposed. And that disposition occurs, if not through sanctifying grace, at least through prevenient grace.

    Your comment about two hours’ prayer not disposing one to receive communion is correct, but primarily from a canonical standpoint (Church law requires prior Confession, EXCEPT under certain circumstances such as I indicated earlier and which you seem not to have noticed); it does not follow that one would fail to enter into the state of grace thereby.

  70. catherine pansey says:

    Dear Fr.,I recently went to Confession for Lent, after agonizing for some time. I recieved Absolution and a minimal penance, but during the Confession, the priest gave me a directive, which is far too great a burden for me, especially since he has no idea of who I am. I was quite flabbergasted, and tried to tell him, respectfully, that this was likely impossible. He told me that is where Faith comes in. I told him, how can this be a good Confession since I am likely not going to do it? How can you predict the future, was his reply. Can I go to Communion?(thinking I would not be complying with this FAR TOO RIGID directive. He said Yes, I would need Communion. This Confession left no peace, as I TRULY believe, this priest did not have the full equation. He asked me to say the Act of Contrition, and seemed to soften a bit after that, adding, I should do the best I can. I told him , I would try to try to try, as I knew the directive was as close to impossible as anything I have ever heard. I am sick to death. I take my Religion most seriously, but in my heart, this directive is ill advised. This is something that requres a long detailed knowledge of the person, not a few moments behind a screen with a perfect stranger. I believe and love Catholicism and am quite shaken. Is it possible for a Priest to make a mistake in Confession? This was not a Penanace. Thank you