This past Saturday afternoon, I went to confession (or, rather, I tried to go to confession). The good news is that the line was full of penitents. There were at least 25 people waiting in front of me and a good number behind. After waiting nearly an hour, the priest came out of the confessional and assessed the line. He called everyone in line to gather close, distributed cards with an act of contrition printed on them, and explained that he had to get ready for Mass and would not have time to hear the remaining penitents’ confessions. He asked everyone to pray the act of contrition together and then he gave absolution (the official form) to everyone there. [i.e., General Absolution] I know that, even after receiving a general absolution, penitents are still bound to confess mortal sins if afforded the opportunity in future.
My question, Fr. Z, is whether the absolution was invalid, illicit, or neither. I had mortal sin to confess; I plan to confess it as soon as possible but I did receive the Eucharist at Mass this weekend. I approached communion with humility and begged the Lord to forgive me if it was displeasing to Him. I will probably not be able to confess my sins by number and kind until the weekend of Divine Mercy. Should I refrain from receiving the Eucharist in the interim, or was the absolution valid and can I consider myself properly disposed to communicate? What do you think?
I am sure the absolution was valid. If you will not have have the opportunity to confess your mortal sins in the normal fashion until Divine Mercy weekend, you can nevertheless receive Holy Communion with clear conscience (provided you do not commit other mortal sin before that). Do go to confession at the first opportunity as you are obliged by the fact that you received General Absolution.
It is unfortunate that, in many places, confessions are not heard during the Triduum.
Although the absolution was valid, what was done was illicit.
The priest should not continue this bad practice (which, sadly, is not uncommon).
If the priest was not able to hear all the confessions prior to Mass, he should have stated that he would be hearing them afterwards. If he was unable to hear confessions afterwards, he could have said when the next available time for confessions would be.
If the priest does this General Absolution thing regularly, because there are a few unshriven penitents left in line, a letter should be sent to the diocesan bishop or regional vicar simply stating clearly what happened (as you did in your email).
I want to give Father the benefit of the doubt and guess that he thought he was within the guidelines for General Absolution. In most places, however, he was not within the guidelines for the licit imparting of General Absolution.
“But Father! But Father!”, some of you are saying. “Isn’t there a provision that priests can give General Absolution if there are too many penitents? Isn’t that what this priest did? You are mean. You hate Vatican II.”
I respond saying that General Absolution is to be given in cases of grave necessity, emergencies (e.g., airplane about to crash, earthquake traps people under rubble, listeners in a hospital ward, battle about to begin, etc.). Canon 961 establishes that a grave necessity exists (outside of the clear case of danger of death) when…
“given the number of penitents, there are not enough confessors available properly to hear the individual’s confessions within an appropriate time, so that without fault of their own the penitents are deprived of sacramental grace or of Holy Communion for a lengthy period of time.”
All those conditions would need to be present for general absolution to be given licitly. Telling people to “come back next week” would NOT deprive them of sacramental grace for a “lengthy period of time,” which most manualists – and we like manuals – would say is a month or more.
Furthermore, the Motu proprio of 7 April 2002 Misericordia Dei, 5 clarifies that “judgment as to whether there exists the conditions required by canon 961 is [Note bene] not a matter for the confessor, but for the diocesan bishop who can determine cases of such necessity in light of the criteria agreed upon with other members of the Episcopal Conference.”
The local bishops lay down the conditions. They may vary from place to place. In Africa, for example, a missionary priest might arrive at a place to find a thousand people waiting. That conference will lay down the proper conditions for the priest. In the USA, these problems don’t exist and the bishops have laid down the conditions (more which repeats the point about a month or more).
Also to be abominated is the scheduling of General Absolution, which is as wrong wrong wrong as wrong can be! You cannot reasonably schedule an emergency.
This whole scenario, in addition, underscores another problem.
Tell me if this sounds familiar. Confessions are scheduled from 3:00 pm to 3:45 pm, once a week, before a 4:00 pm Saturday Mass. The priest sits, lonely in the confessional, until the first penitent shows up at 3:42. She is immediately followed by 20 people who all want to get their sins shriven before this Mass. When, at 4:03, the priest has to leave the confessional to start Mass late, they are mad… at the priest!
Keeping in mind my 20 Tips for Making a Good Confession, if you have grave sins you must confess, try to get to church for the beginning of confessions, not toward the end of the scheduled time.
And, everyone, avoid General Absolution. You cannot receive General Absolution twice validly, except in danger of death, without having made a regular, auricular confession beforehand. When you receive General Absolution, licitly or illicitly, you are bound to confess all your mortal sins in the normal manner as soon as you can. If priests are scheduling General Absolution way in advance, blow the whistle on them. This is a serious abuse of God’s people which has to be stopped.