ASK FATHER: When confessing, do I have to hear, understand the absolution for it to be valid?

From a reader:

A confessor I go to has recently made it his practice to whisper the words of absolution while I am saying the Act of Contrition. The first time he did this I did not catch it and after he dismissed me I asked him whether or not I had in fact been absolved. He said yes and he had said the words of absolution during my Act of Contrition. Now that I know he does it this way (I can hear him whispering but don’t understand the words) I am not so put off by it, but I was wondering whether or not there is any ruling on whether a penitent needs actually to hear and understand the words of absolution for them to be effective?

No, it is not necessary for validity that you hear the form of absolution.  It is not necessary that you understand the words.

It is necessary that you confess your sins (the matter) and that the validly ordained priest with faculties says the proper words (the form).

Some priests (and this priest too) often begin to recite in a low voice or whisper the formula of absolution as soon as he has heard part of the act of contrition which expresses attrition (“I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell”).  This is not rare.

Leaving aside the issue of validity, Father should probably say the sacramental form (“Ego te absolvo… I absolve you…”) at the end more of the formula, clearly, when the penitent has finished the act of contrition.  In this way the penitent does not leave with any doubts about what happened.  That’s important.

If in the confessional you are in doubt about whether the priest has absolved you, by all means respectfully ask the priest before you get out of the confessional.

Remember point #15 of Fr. Z’s 20 Tips For Making A Good Confession.

And, everyone, GO TO CONFESSION!

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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5 Responses to ASK FATHER: When confessing, do I have to hear, understand the absolution for it to be valid?

  1. Supertradmum says:

    Some priests in England and Ireland are saying absolution and the prayers in Latin. I doubt whether most people can understand Latin these days. I loved it when I heard the Latin prayers and absolution.

  2. AVL says:

    At least this priest whispers. :) One of our priests starts the absolution during the Act of Contrition in full volume. The first time I went to him he prompted me to say the Act of Contrition and then launched into the words of absolution loudly, over me. I got confused, so I stopped and he prompted me again to say it so I started again. And then he started saying it again, which made me stop again. So he prompted me again! In retrospect it was pretty funny, although at the time it stressed me out a bit LOL. Now that I know what to expect it doesn’t bother me. I guess be glad your priest is whispering…less confusing that way I would think. :)

  3. Random Friar says:

    I’ve done it in Spanish for Portuguese and Italian penitents. I get the gist of what they’re saying, they get the gist of what I’m saying.

    I once confessed to a Korean priest who, I didn’t know beforehand, didn’t know English very well, but absolved me in Korean and told me I was forgiven in English. Good ‘nuf!

  4. The Masked Chicken says:

    Well, it has been a common practice among some priests in the past to begin the Formula of Absolution when the penitent begins the Act of Contrition, and before Vatican II I would have had no problem with it, but as I have been to a few confessions in recent years where the priest did not use a valid formula, and if the the recitation of the Formula had been soto voce, it would have resulted in an invalid confession that I did not know about. I hate to have to wear a tin foil hat into the confessional, but these days, unless you know the priest to be orthodox, it seems prudent to be careful. Even if the priest says he absolved you, he might not have. Because I have had these experiences, more than once at different parishes, I tend to be more careful than most in listening for the, “I absolve you.”

    The Chicken

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