QUAERITUR: I didn’t understand the words of absolution as spoken

Every time I post about the variations priests impose by their own self-centered authority on the celebration of sacraments, and the confusion it causes members of the faithful, questions multiply in my inbox. 

"But Father! But Father!", some say.  "This happened to me!  Was it valid?"

My heart goes out to these people.

Catholics have the right to expect what the Church establishes as the rites of sacraments, especially in the form of the sacraments.

From a reader:

I have read about this on your blog, but this has never happened to me before.

The other day, I went to confession. I proceeded as normally and listened to the priest’s advice after confession. I made an Act of Contrition and then the priest said something so quickly, which ended ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen’ and then asked me to say a prayer for my penance. I was so doubtful about what he had said – partly because it was so quick, partly because I didn’t understand it – that I followed your advice and asked him to repeat the absolution. Then, the priest said ‘I absolve all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.’

I really wanted to ask again, since I know that the minimum correct form is ‘I absolve you of your sins etc.’, but I was actually so disorientated and confused by now – and did not want to cause offence – I just said thank you and left.

I would just throw in that the priest was not of my nationality and there were clearly some language issues.

I had really want to communicate at Mass, so after this confession I did so, but I had serious doubts about it.

Please could you answer, on balance, was my confession likely to have been valid? Did I do the right thing, with my doubts, in receiving holy communion? If I determine it probably was not valid, will I have to make the same confession again?

From what you wrote, it seems to me that the absolution was valid.   I wouldn’t fret about that.  I think you were okay in going to Communion.  Avoid going to Communion when you know you are in the state of sin.  In this case you had better than strong reason to believe that you were in the state of grace!  Also, I do not think you have to make a confession of those sins again.

I want to add that just because you didn’t hear everything the priest said, that doesn’t mean he didn’t say it properly.  Give the priest the benefit of the doubt in these situations.  This wasn’t one of those blatant cases where the priest goes on his own little adventure to the zoo and winds up doing something obviously invalid.

Also, and this may be part of your point, you don’t always have to hear or understand everything for sacraments to be valid.

On the other hand, priests should do their best to be clear in the celebration of sacraments so that people never have to doubt for a moment that what they just experienced was licit and valid.

If the priest is having problems because of the language, then I would go – discretely – to talk to the pastor of the parish and explain your experience, not in a mean way, but an informative way.  Perhaps all this needs is a two minute conversation between the pastor and the priest to clarify that, "In this parish, we use the words in the book… and here they are."

To priests and bishop who are reading this… and there are a lot of you… this doesn’t have to be hard.

 

Make it clear to people that you take what you are doing seriously.  Do not give scandal to people.  Do not provoke doubts.   They are particularly sensitive in the sacrament of penance.

Say it correctly in the vernacular or in Latin.

UPDATE:

From a priest reader:

I have gone to Confession in [different Western languages] to Indian priests and I have experienced on many – the majority – of occasions that they do not say the words of absolution.  Instead there is often a sort of flowery prayer ending with the words "and so Jesus forgives you" or "God forgives you." 

I think the problem is often that they do not know the formula.  If corrected, it becomes clear that they do not know the form.  I’ve tried telling it to them, but that doesn’t go over to well. 

A fair number of the Indian priests serving in the U.S. are not even of the Latin rite, they’re Syro-Malabar – some have not celebrated a Roman Mass before coming here, thus they import from what they know, or they make it up as they go along. 

It has come to the point that I avoid going to Indian priests for confession.  Also, some priests may not know the form in English or Latin – perhaps a nice gift for parishes/priests would be a nicely framed card for the confessional with the necessary prayers. 

An excellent suggestion!   I would say in Latin and English in the newer and older forms!

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53 Responses to QUAERITUR: I didn’t understand the words of absolution as spoken

  1. FrCharles says:

    Some priests seem to speak the absolution formula while the penitent is making an Act of Contrition. Some seem to save the final part, “I absolve…” for when the penitent is done with the prayer. I never liked this, so I don’t do it. Others reduce the formula to the words required for validity, which is unfortunate.

  2. wolfeken says:

    I would hope a priest does not merely use the bare words for validity. In the traditional Latin form, the rubric is clear that is only allowed in danger of death.
    http://www.traditio.com/office/absoluti.htm

  3. Elly says:

    So what are the bare words for validity. I absolve?

  4. TNCath says:

    I am not trying to create a rabbit hole here, BUT, this issue is not something that is particularly exclusive to the post-Vatican II age either.

    A saintly priest, long since deceased, once told me that he was convinced that a certain Bishop of Nashville, whose jurisdiction at the time comprised the entire state of Tennessee, never once conferred a valid Confirmation in all the years he was Bishop because of the way he mumbled the words so unintelligiably. This was later confimed by a certain monsignor, who said that the bishop actually abbreviated the formula. This bishop was the ordinary from 1936-1972. Does this mean that those literally thousands of Confirmations were invalid? [You need to direct that question to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has competence in the matter of the question of validity of celebration of sacraments.]

  5. Magpie says:

    It seems to be a common idea among priests that the words in the book are just a guide… Which is really just a form of pride, and pride that the priest is, apparently, blind to: I know better than the Church. ”Yes, the Church puts out this book, but on my own authority, I can change the words as I like.”

  6. wolfeken says:

    Elly — click the link for the traditional form of absolution.

  7. Thomas S says:

    Suppose the priest in this person’s anecdote actually didn’t give absolution in a valid form. The next time the penitent went to confession he didn’t repeat the sins of the previous invalid confession, but simply confessed his new offenses. This second priest did indeed give valid absolution.

    Would that absolution cover the sins of the prior confession, too, since sins we genuinely forget to confess are forgiven? Presummably the penintent would not have deliberately withheld those sins in such a scenario.

    I’m not being scrupulous, I just thought it was an interesting possibility.

  8. prairie says:

    “…a nicely framed card for the confessional with the necessary prayers.”

    I thought exactly this about half-way through reading this post. I’ve never been in the priest’s side of the confessionals at our parish, but on the penitent’s side the act of contrition is posted right beside the screen. It was very helpful when I was a new convert and hadn’t yet memorized it.

  9. FrCharles says:

    Thomas: Yes. Absolutely, to make a bad pun.

    prairie: Glad to know those cards serve some good use for someone. We have them in our confessions, affixed on little chains to the wall. Usually they get banged around when penitents come in, distracting everyone! On the priests’ side, we are fortunate that the rite of penance is now back in print after a long absence.

  10. The card with both forms and in Latin/English sounds fabulous.
    And, as for the confusion with the words of absolution…I hate to keep referring to myself, but when I taught at a seminary a course dealing with the Sacrament of Penance/Spiritual Direction, I hope, I hope these guys remembered what I tried to drill into their brains.
    “Say the red, do the black”; not in those words exactly, but the essence was there.
    The faithful deserve our priestly “presence” in the confessional, they don’t need to wonder if they have, in fact, been absolved of their sins (esp. mortal sins).
    Holy cow! It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to do this…why can’t priests just do what they’re supposed to, with reverence, care and compassion for their penitents?

  11. Levavi says:

    Hi all – this was my query, so I am pleased Fr Z has put it up.

    It is interesting that the Indian nationality is brought up. This priest was indeed Indian. Apparently, at the church where I went to confession, the correct formula is written on the back of the door, so even more inexplicable and inexcusable when it is not used.

    I respect the answer that this was a valid confession, but I’d love to know the basis for that answer. My concern is that ‘I absolve your sins’ has a different meaning to ‘I absolve you of your sins’. After all, St Thomas says the form is ‘Ego /te/ absolvo’. When the meaning is changed, surely the intention and form are changed? Or can the intention and form be there even if the words are changed? If this were true, words would not matter at all…

    If I have still have doubts, I guess the only thing to relieve my concerns would be to do this confession all over again…

  12. From my perspective, Levavi, if you have doubts about the absolution regarding any mortal sins, simply confess them the next time you go to Confession with the explanation that you are not sure you were absolved.
    Otherwise, let it go.
    God knows; it’s not your fault if the priest did not say the correct words.
    But to calm your soul, just mention it in your next confession, and be very sorry for any mortal sins and make an act of amendment.
    Bless you!

  13. Supertradmum says:

    Ah, many priests in our area do not wait for the Act of Contrition, and I am to the point of driving 40 minutes for a Confession I think is valid. Why they skip this, and I have even been interrupted by the absolution, when trying to say the Act of Contrition, I do no know.

  14. Jack Hughes says:

    @supertradmom

    I know what you mean; at THE parish which has the most peneitents (on the grounds that confession is avaliable for 25 mins monday-saturday) one of the priests is notorious for skiping the act of contrition + I don’t like the modern act of contrition which skips the words “because they have crucified my loving Saviour, Jesus Christ”.

  15. Supertradmum says:

    Jack

    I say a very old version the dear nuns taught me as a child. I do not even know the “new ones”. Bless you.

  16. Jack Hughes says:

    “I do not even know the new ones” -supertradmum

    And I don’t use them anyomore since a very Holy Priest in Fatima taught me the old version.

  17. Again, Jack and Suptradmum: I have no concept of why some priests do not do what they are supposed to; the Act of Contrition, in whatever form is part of the rite.
    I hear confessions of old Germans here; they say the Act of Contrition while I give the words of absolution. As soon as I’m aware that that this person is doing this, I conform to their practice…why be a jughead in the confessional as a priest???
    An older priest told me about this after I was ordained and I just conform; good grief, can’t the faithful just receive the Sacraments without all this craziness?

  18. RichR says:

    What is the current form of absolution in Latin?

  19. Elly says:

    Wolfeken, thanks I looked at the link but I was wondering about the non traditional form. If those words are the bare minimum for validity then the non traditional form would not be valid because they are not contained in it. So if a priest were to shorten the non traditional form, what is the minimum he must say?

    Thanks,
    Elly

  20. AnAmericanMother says:

    Supertradmum, Jack,

    What is (or are) the forms you know?

    I use a relatively old Act of Contrition but I’m not sure how old.

    “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee, and I detest all my sins because I fear thy just punishments, and because they offend thee, who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to avoid the near occasion of sin.”

  21. Supertradmum says:

    AnAmericanMother,

    That is exactly the same one I learned and which has been passed down in our family.
    I learned it in 1957 for my First Confession. So, you ageists can figure out my age (smile).

  22. Supertradmum says:

    Oh, there are small variances: …and I detest all my sins because of Thy just punishments, but most of all, because they offend Thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid near occasion of sin. Amen.”

    Of course, as I learned this when I was two, I may not remember correctly–just kidding…

  23. AnAmericanMother says:

    Can someone identify the source of the engraving? It looks vaguely French, and 18th century . . . . ‘the good and the bad confession’?, or, more hopefully, “before and after”?

  24. teaguytom says:

    I remember stories about my great-grandmother who was from Germany. South Baltimore had three parishs and one was either Irish, German or Polish majority. She never could pronounce the Act of Contrition in English, so she had to go up the hill to Holy Cross. Holy Cross had a german majority and German speaking priests who could understand and speak the language. It does make it hard to have priests from Africa, Asia etc who have thick accents.

  25. AnAmericanMother says:

    Thanks so much! (in 1957 I was two years old, so the ageists can get after me too. Probably the years I (mis)spent as an Episcopalian aged me much more on a per year basis anyhow :-D )

    Some of it may be minor variations, and some of it may be that I didn’t learn it quite right or that I can remember it properly when I say it out loud all at once, but not when I have to type it!

  26. Ulrich says:

    @AnAmericanMother
    It’s
    Pietro Antonio Novelli (1779)
    The Seven Sacraments – Confession
    another version (though there aren’t really good ones online you may find here:
    http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_ucYVERQzby0/S_fIN6vVXsI/AAAAAAAAACk/Mg74_dCe73E/s1600/pietro_antonio_novelli_1779_seven_sacraments_confession.jpg

  27. AnAmericanMother says:

    By the way, I made my First Confession to our then priest-in-residence, a very kind and very holy Thai Redemptorist. I think he understood me better than I understood him . . . . he did have a very heavy accent. He was very patient with me. And he gave me a heavy penance to match the accent, too . . . . :-D

  28. RichR: Here you go, absolution in the present form in Latin:
    Deus, Pater misericordiarum,
    qui per mortem et resurrectionem Fílii sui
    mundum sibi reconciliavit
    et Spiritum Sanctum effudit
    in remissionem peccatorum,

    per ministerium Ecclesiae
    indulgentiam
    tibi tribuat
    et pacem…

    Et ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis
    in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.

  29. AnAmericanMother says:

    Thanks, Ulrich!

    The theme seems to be fairly common – and it’s usually identified as “The Good Confession and the Bad Confession”.

    This is a beehive front board from Slovenia – apparently a common folk art practice was to decorate hives with various religious themes.

  30. Supertradmum says:

    AnAmericanMother,

    Well, bless your E-pixie years. I am slightly older than you are and had two very misspent years as an atheist and Marxist brat. The grace of God brings us all to the Splendor of Truth.

  31. AnAmericanMother says:

    Thanks be to God!

    In my case I had to kind of be hit upside the head with a two-by-four.

  32. Ulrich says:

    @AnAmericanMother
    Very interesting, thanks!

  33. The Cobbler says:

    Huh. There are/is (a) new Act(s) of Contrition? I’m one of them pesky youngsters and I’ve never heard of any besides the one quoted at length by Supertradmum. Maybe that’s just ’cause my parents and mentors were all of the sort who’d never (as far as I know of) caught the “Spirit of Vatican II”?

    I must say though: Jack Hughes has piqued my curiousity with the line about the Crucifixion and I’m now wondering how goes the Act from which that one came, or if it’s another variant of the one I know then where in that one it is placed. It seems like the sort of thing one ought to be thinking about.

  34. Amy MEV says:

    I have to come to the defense of my favorite priest and former confessor (I moved), who is Indian. Yes, it was tough at first to understand him, however, his orthodoxy trumped my pride and I had to ask him to repeat himself several times, for several meetings, before I could understand him.

  35. Carolina Geo says:

    For the sake of variety a few weeks ago, I went to Confession at a parish I’d never been to. It is primarily a “Hispanic parish.”

    After I made my Act of Contrition, the priest (who was wearing civilian clothes, but did bother to put on a stole when he went into the confessional) said some sappy prayer instead of the correct form of absolution. I then explained to him that I would prefer to have him give me the traditional form of absolution. He then gave me the correct absolution.

    It struck me as I was thinking about it afterward: this priest clearly knew the correct form of absolution, yet he chose not to say it. Needless to say, I will be avoiding that parish from now on.

  36. Good for you, Carolina G., good for you.
    Maybe the good Father will take this to heart and quit being “sappy”.
    Sheesh!

  37. Sixupman says:

    The was a parish priest in my home parish, Msgr. no less, who was so offhand at Confession, I felt like confessing to a murder in order to see if he was actually listening.

  38. Norah says:

    I’ve been going to confession for a looooong while and at every confession the priest has pronounced the words of absolution whilst I was saying my act of contrition. Maybe that’s the way it is done in Australia.

  39. Apparently… a lot of Eastern churches don’t have the priest say “I absolve you”, but instead pray over your head that God will forgive you. I assume this would be what the Syro-Malabar guys are doing, unless they’ve just been forced to to go to a lot of stupid workshops when they come over here. Alternately, it may be that the non-absolution prayer things come from stupid workshops trying to copy the Eastern rites, and probably replacing good stuff with lame stuff.

    You know, it would really help if all the valid liturgical prayers and sacramental forms were online, so that we wouldn’t have to guess so much.

  40. thereseb says:

    I was mildly surprised (but quite impressed) to receive absolution recently from an Indian priest – in Italian – with the last couple of lines of absolution repeated in English. I understand enough Italian to follow it – and know it was authentic absolution. (First time I actually thought it was heavily accented Latin, and was really impressed as that Parish is a bit felt-bannerish) Lovely priest properly attired – so I was not fazed by it. Perhaps he trained in Rome.

  41. kat says:

    All my life, the priests have always prayed the longer Latin prayer, including the final words of the absolution, while we say our Act of Contrition aloud. Depending on how fast the priest is or how fast I say the Act of Contrition (not racing…just saying it), he may or may not say the final words “Ego te absolve…” after I finish my prayer. But I can always hear him saying it even if I’m still finishing the Act. Neither of us are speaking loudly in the confessional.

  42. dcs says:

    Huh. There are/is (a) new Act(s) of Contrition? I’m one of them pesky youngsters and I’ve never heard of any besides the one quoted at length by Supertradmum. Maybe that’s just ‘cause my parents and mentors were all of the sort who’d never (as far as I know of) caught the “Spirit of Vatican II”?

    Yes, I’ve heard the “new” Act of Contrition from a couple of cradle Catholics in their mid-30s.

    I taught 6th grade CCD for a couple of years and the Act of Contrition suggested in their guide to confession was pathetic (I am paraphrasing): “Dear God, I am sorry that I’ve sinned and I’ll try to do better next time.” One of the priests at the parish quickly put the kibosh on that.

  43. Andrew says:

    I think the act of contrition serves a double purpose. One, it helps the penitent to feel sorrow for his sins. And two, it gives the priest a visible confirmation of the penitence which is needed because the sacrament consists of two things: contrition and absolution. So the contrition has to be interior but also exterior: hence, the audible act of contrition. As to the formula of the act of contrition, I think there is some latitude, but it would be wise to use the existing one, since it states the key point: I am sorry because I fear the punishment but mostly because I should love you, and I promise to avoid these sins and to do penance for them. Is there a lot of emotion needed? I don’t think so. Some people are more emotional than others. I think the important thing is the will of the penitent to avoid all evil. But there is some connection between the will and the human emotion, so perhaps some sadness needs to be present. /end of ranting …

  44. Rob F. says:

    The only non-sappy version I know (I was educated in the 70’s) is in Latin:

    Deus meus, ex toto corde paenitet me omnium meorum peccatorum, eaque detestor, quia peccando, non solum poenas a te iuste statutas promeritus sum, sed praesertim quia offendi te, summum bonum, ac dignum qui super omnia diligaris. Ideo firmiter propono, adiuvante gratia tua, de cetero me non peccaturum peccandique occasiones proximas fugiturum. Amen.

    I too am curious about mention of the crucifixion.

  45. Supertradmum says:

    Dear Rob F.,

    I sincerely hope the version AnAmericanMom and I learned is not considered sappy by you. This old version covers all the necessary conditions for a true confession, sincere purpose of amendment and sorrow out of love for God,rather than merely fear of punishment. If I said your wonderful Latin version at our parish, my priest would highly object.

  46. Jack Hughes says:

    @ American Mother

    here is the form I use

    O my God I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee
    and I detest my sins above every other evil,
    because they have deserved Thy dreadful punishments,
    because they have crucified my loving Saviour, Jesus Christ,
    and, most of all, because they have offended Thine infinite goodness.
    I firmly purpose with the help of Thy grace,
    which I beseech Thee to grant me now and always,
    never more to offend Thee,
    to avoid the occasions of sin
    and to amend my life. Amen.

  47. wolfeken says:

    Some folks above mentioned confessional wall cards. This makes for a good gift to a priest who will use the traditional form of absolution:
    http://www.cantius.org/go/webstore/product/confessional_wall_card/

  48. AnAmericanMother says:

    Thank you Jack Hughes,

    It looks like these “old forms” are all essentially the same content, with variations. Yours has several additions or amplifications, which seem helpful.

    The children’s version of the Act of Contrition in our parish adds at the end, “Our Lord Jesus Christ suffered and died for us, Lord have mercy.”

  49. Yes, whenever a penitent says they do not understand the abolution, I am happy to repeat it in English . . .

  50. ocsousn says:

    This is a recurring and vexatious problem, though it’s pretty clear to me that the confession in question was valid. (Some years ago I had to dump a confessor because his “absolutions”, while creative and flowery, never quite god around to actually absolving me.) Amid all this concern about hearing what the priest is saying, traditionalists should recall that it was the general practice until the mid-60’s for the priest to say the Formula of Absolution quietly WHILE the penitent was reciting the Act of Contrition. In addition, merely accidental changes (e.g.: saying “forgive” instead of “absolve”) do not in themselves invalidate the sacraments. Recall the famous letter of St. Gregory the Great regarding the priest who’s Latin was so bad that he was baptizing ” In nomine Patris, et FiliAE…” (In the name of the Father, and of the Daughter…) instead if “In nomine Patris et Filii…” (In the name of the Father, and of the Son…). Another example: Fr. John , saying Mass for the first time in English, says: “This is my Corpse, ” honestly thinking that “corpse” is the English equivalent of the Latin “corpus”. The same would go for those who adlib in any language. As long as the essential matter and form are present the sacrament is valid. This is not to say that unwarranted changes are permissible. They can and do cause great harm. Say the Black! Do the Red! One of the good effects of the liturgical and sacramental chaos of the past 40 years is that people now actually pay attention. However, our attention and concern should be prudent and informed, especially with regard to the distinction between what is “illicit” and what renders a sacrament “invalid”. Fr. Aidan Logan, O.C.s.o.

  51. robtbrown says:

    If I said your wonderful Latin version at our parish, my priest would highly object.
    Comment by Supertradmum

    I have used it for years all over the States and in various European nations. No priest has ever objected.

  52. Supertradmum says:

    You are fortunate. I have been corrected for using the Ave Maria and the Pater Noster in college classes and teaching these to classes of seminarians, being told specifically that Latin is not appropriate for prayer. Same order and same secular priests are in charge of all the parishes in the area, where there is no Latin, either in the NO form, or in the TLM. One priest I know, 45 miles from here, does allow the Latin version of the Act of Contrition, and gives absolution in Latin. But, we cannot afford to travel that far. Again, I think you are fortunate not to have ever been corrected by a priest, or nun, for that matter, on these issues.