Everyone should go to confession regularly.
That said, sometimes it can happen that you will have a less than edifying experience of the priest confessor. Do not fret!
This even happened to me, recently. While out on the road, I stopped at a parish where I knew confessions were scheduled. The priest in the confessional was a missionary from India. As you know, in these USA during the summer we have many visiting priests going about making mission appeals.
This priest did not say the proper form of absolution. Instead, he gave me a blessing. Three times I asked for absolution. I even said the words for him. He eventually came through.
Will that discourage me from going to confession? Not a whit. Of course, as a priest, I can bring a bit more ammo to the moment, if you get my drift. I am not easily shaken.
Still, I informed the pastor of the parish (standing in the church’s entry way) about my experience and left the situation in his hands. The priest in the confessional, of course, cannot in any way speak about what happened behind that closed door, but I had – nevertheless – to inform the pastor of the parish about what happened in his confessional.
The matter and form of sacraments is no small matter. Invalid matter or form is serious. That is what prompts this post.
What happened to me on Saturday is not an isolated experience. I know that priests can back me up on this. As a matter of fact, some time back a priest reader wrote in once with this experience, in response to one of my ASK FATHER posts:
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 didn't even get that. I got a blessing.]
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. [Yep.] 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.
Yes, dear readers, this can happen. We live in a fallen world and not every priest out there, over the last few decades, has been perfectly trained up. Thus, we learn not to freak out.
Fathers, if you are pastors of parishes, parish priests, and you have a missionary priest visiting, and you put him to work hearing confessions, I suggest that you mention that in your parish, all priests use exactly the form of absolution which the Church has approved. You should have a printed card in the confessional with the approved formula in Latin and in English (and perhaps in Spanish, etc.). Perhaps diocesan bishops might think about directing that parish priests remind visiting priests from outside the diocese that, ’round these parts we say the black words and do the red stuff.
“But Father! But Father!”, you might be thinking, “isn’t this sort of… insulting? Assuming that priests don’t know the form of absolution? Telling them something so fundamental?”
We can’t assume that all visiting priests are going to get it right. You just can’t. Better safe than sorry.
Lay people, if this happens to you, ask the priest – politely – to say the words of absolution. Keep in mind that older priests will be saying the form of absolution while you are reciting your Act of Contrition. In most cases, they will wait with the actual form, “I absolve you…” when you have finished. But, sometimes, they don’t. In that case, if you don’t hear the priest say “I absolve you…” you can – politely – ask if the priest gave you absolution. You might add that you didn’t hear it. If you get the sense that the priest simply did not just at any time the correct form, do not lose your cool. Sometimes a priest will send signals that he is a bit dodgy or unsure. For example, if he tells you something that is clearly a mortal sin is not a sin, or if he subtly (or not) runs you down for a reciting “laundry list”, or even if he doesn’t give a penance or the penance is something like “think nice thoughts about someone”, you may be in the presence of a guy who has either made the choice that he knows better than the Church or he has not been well-trained. Again, don’t lose your cool. Inform the pastor – politely. If the priest is the pastor, you may have to inform the diocesan bishop. Did I mention don’t lose your cool? Be polite? It is nearly unimaginable that the priest is straying from what ought to be done out of malice or ill intent.
If you are pretty sure that you were not absolved, freak thou thyself not out. If there is another priest available, tell him what happened, make your confession, get absolved, and go on your way whistling a happy tune (after leaving the church, of course). Otherwise, at your next opportunity, make your confession.
Sacraments have matter and form. The matter of the Sacrament of Penance (Reconciliation) is the telling of the sins. The form is the absolution spoken by the validly ordained priest who has faculties. If the priest does not say a valid form of absolution, then the Sacrament of Penance has not been celebrated. Some other sort of grace-filled moment might have taken place, but it won’t have been the Sacrament of Penance.
Finally, in the document Redemptionis Sacramentum we read at the end:
Complaints Regarding Abuses in Liturgical Matters
[183.] In an altogether particular manner, let everyone do all that is in their power to ensure that the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist [all sacraments, actually] will be protected from any and every irreverence or distortion and that all abuses be thoroughly corrected. This is a most serious duty incumbent upon each and every one, and all are bound to carry it out without any favouritism.
[184.] Any Catholic, whether Priest or Deacon or lay member of Christ’s faithful, has the right to lodge a complaint regarding a liturgical abuse to the diocesan Bishop or the competent Ordinary equivalent to him in law, or to the Apostolic See on account of the primacy of the Roman Pontiff. It is fitting, however, insofar as possible, that the report or complaint be submitted first to the diocesan Bishop. This is naturally to be done in truth and charity.
I would add to this that, in a parish, start with the pastor – if feasible – and work your way up.
And always always always say a prayer for any priest who might be doing something a little dodgy.
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