QUAERITUR: Form of absolution was just “I absolve you of your sins.”

From a reader:

I went to confession at a neighboring parish that had recently received a 70-something priest who I know to be a bit free-wheeling as far as anything liturgical or doctrinal. This made me nervous going, but I needed to go.

Confession went as usual, but after giving a penance, He simply said, “I absolve you of your sins” and that was it. No sign of the cross or anything. I asked if I was to make an act of contrition, and he replied that I could if I liked. After I had finished, I asked him if he would give me absolution in the words of the Church (I figured this was a bit forward, but at the same time I didn’t want to wonder about validity or re-confess). He said that he had, so I saw no point and thanked him and left. Ultimately, I am wondering if this is valid, if I was too forward, and if there is anything that should be done if his manner of absolution is invalid.

That was valid.  You were not too forward to ask for the Church’s proper form.  And there is, in fact, something to be done.

The formula of absolution is, in its short form, “Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis, in nomine Patris +, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti… I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father +, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”   This is the last part of a longer formula, which in translation is, “God, the Father of Mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”  The short version suffices by itself in a pinch.  More and more priests these days are using the older, traditional form of absolution as well.

That said, St. Thomas Aquinas argues (though his opinions are not the equivalent of the Church’s Magisterium – never forget that!) that “Ego te absolvo“  is the form of the sacrament (ST III, Q. 84, Art. 3).  If he is right, then that may suffice.

The Catechism of the Council of Trent, reliable and surely an expression of the Church’s Magisterium, and surely working from Aquinas has this:

Pastors should not neglect to explain the form of the Sacrament of Penance. A knowledge of it will excite the faithful to receive the grace of this Sacrament with the greatest possible devotion. Now the form is: I absolve thee, as may be inferred not only from the words, whatsoever you shall bind upon earth shall be bound also in heaven, but also from the teaching of Christ our Lord, handed down to us by the Apostles.

These days it seems that the minimum form in the Latin Church (the Eastern Churches have their own somewhat different practices) is “Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis… I absolve you from your sins.”  As far as I can tell, this is what most authors stand by.  Because I am an Unreconstructed Ossified Manualist, I consulted several manuals (e.g., Tanquerey, Prümmer, Sabetti Barrett).  They all come to the same basic conclusion.  “Absolvo te a peccatis tus” is certainly valid, and “Absolvo te” is probably valid, but if possible the longer form should be repeated to be sure.

Part of the problem here  - aside from the arrogance of priests who screw around with the form of absolution – is the notion of using regularly the bare minimum.  That suggests that perhaps the rest is not so important.

If you confess to a priest who regularly does something dodgy with the form of absolution, I would politely bring it up, as you did. People are within their rights to have the form of absolution spoken as it is in the book. Ask the priest to give you absolution with the proper form. Do not be nasty or aggressive about this.

If that doesn’t help, talk to the pastor of the parish and/or the local bishop.

Remember that the priest himself cannot talk about the confession because he is bound by the Seal.  Therefore, you can politely inform the the bishop about your experience of the form of absolution.  You would have to include that you have been to this priest several times and that he has always done the same thing.  Do not run him down.  Do not add lots of observations.  Do not try to teach the bishop his job or theology.

Ideally, the bishop (or pastor) would then have a chat with the priest during which the priest would be informed that word had come that he isn’t using the proper form of absolution and, if true, that should be corrected – lest in the future he receive in spades the wrath of the whatever from high atop the thing.

If that doesn’t produce results, send a copy of your correspondence to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (not Divine Worship) and seek a clarification.

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9 Responses to QUAERITUR: Form of absolution was just “I absolve you of your sins.”

  1. Sissy says:

    I feel really fortunate. My confession yesterday was with an older priest visiting from Nigeria who used the long form. Afterwards, I felt such amazing relief and joy. I really knew I was absolved. He also gave me a clear penance. I’m very grateful to him.

  2. Kathleen10 says:

    Father, just in case anyone clerical might read these comments, may I please give my experience of hearing those words in confession?

    I have not gotten the longer form of the words of confession by the priest memorized, so I don’t know all that he is, or should be, about to say. All I know is that when I go to confession, and I hear the priest begin to say those words, my spirit is lifted from that second on. My head goes downward, but I begin to smile. I know that I am hearing the words that take away my sins and shortcomings, and I am no longer responsible for them, and they can’t weigh me down any longer. For at least that moment, I am “right with God” and I don’t think there is anything that can compare to this feeling, on earth.
    There is something marvelous to be said about being part of something that has been said in just this way for a few thousand years or so. God, time, tradition, words, they are all there in the quiet environment of the confessional at that moment. So sublime, why would anyone want to shorten it? My mind tries hard to catch a few of the words and hold on to them. I listen especially for “absolve you”, but I beg clergy to keep in mind that these rites are not something many of us are rushing through, wishing the priest would hurry up and get done, but rather they are often savored, enjoyed, and perceived in a dim way to be the mystical methods they are by which we can have an encounter with Our Lord and Savior through the words and presence of the priest.
    Be generous! Why give the hungry who come to you an appetizer when you have a full banquet to share! We can’t prepare this banquet ourselves. Only YOU can provide us with it.

  3. Imrahil says:

    That suggests that perhaps the rest is not so important.

    Which is because the rest is not so important. The real problem is the following: The truism that “not so important” is not equal to “totally unimportant” has curiously vanished from many modern minds, or if not minds at least feelings.

    (I know that this was what you meant to say.) [I know exactly what I meant to say.]

  4. louder says:

    As a priest, this drives me absolutely nuts when fellow priests cut short on confessions, and I’ve been on the receiving end of this also. I think it is EXTREMELY important that when a person leaves the confessional, they should leave, if at all possible, doubt free. That means a concrete penance that they know they can preform, and an absolution that leaves no doubt. The problem is that some priests get a holier-than-thou attitude that looks down upon these issues, and ignores what the penitent is thinking and feeling. Lord have mercy, there are people who find it extremely difficult to go to confession, a priest doesn’t have to add to that difficulty by being “Fr. Cool.” To my mind, whenever I encounter this in a priest, I feel he does not take me or my sins, or the Sacrament seriously — just can’t be bothered to do the right thing, and go by the book. *Sigh* End of rant *Sigh* but it does upset me to see this in other priests.

  5. acardnal says:

    thank you Father “louder”.

  6. Matt R says:

    Father, are we still within our rights to ask for the full formula “God, the Father of Mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen,” if it is during a confession heard during a regularly scheduled time, where the priest consistently uses the form ” Through the ministry of the Church, may God grant you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father +, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Or some slight variation on the opening… I can’t recall his exact words)? My new pastor always uses a valid form of absolution, but it’s never the full formula of either the Ordinary or Extraordinary Forms. This makes me quite uncomfortable, as it is not prescribed by the Church.
    Thank you.

    [It is fairly common that priests begin the form of absolution once they have heard you express at least attrition during your Act of Contrition. Thus, you only hear the end of the form.]

  7. Marion Ancilla Mariae says:

    “his (St. Thomas Aquinas’) opinions are not the equivalent of the Church’s Magisterium – never forget that!”

    You’d better smile when you say that, Father.

    [Neither are St. Augustine's. Never forget that.]

  8. pfreddys says:

    PLEASE SOMEONE CORRECT ME IF I AM WRONG IN MY THINKING ON THIS (with reasons why):
    One of the effects of receiving Holy Communion is to have your sins forgiven. [VENIAL sins] Now you cannot receive Communion with having unconfessed mortal sins. Once you submit yourself to Confession it doesn’t matter what goes on in there, even if the priest is completely loopy. Once you receive Holy Communion that will effect the forgiveness of your sins.

  9. wolfeken says:

    Fr. Z wrote: “More and more priests these days are using the older, traditional form of absolution as well.”

    If more priests would use the older form (as requested by any layman, using Summorum Pontificum’s Article Nine) this would not be a problem, as the rubrics in the Roman Ritual are very clear as to the absolute minimum allowed:

    “For a just cause the Misereatur and Indulgentiam may be omitted, and it is sufficient to say Dominus noster etc., as above, up to Passio Domini nostri, etc. For some grave necessity, in danger of death, the priest may use the short formula: I absolve you from all censures and sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, + and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

    http://www.traditio.com/office/absoluti.htm