We have all heard of C & E Catholics. There are those Catholics who think about going to church twice a year, Christmas and Easter. Many more feel the impulse to make a confession before the Masses of these great feasts.
However, with the larger numbers of people coming for confession or "penance services", some priests over the last few decades have – sometimes from good motives and sometimes from laziness – held "form 3" services, which we call "general absolution".
General absolution does not include individual confession of all mortal sins in number and kind.
General absolution is permitted by the Church in certain emergency circumstances, such as when an airplane is going to crash, troops are going into battle, a person is dying in an emergency ward and many people are around, a missionary finds a thousand people waiting, etc.
However, for the sacramental absolution to be valid, there must be an intention to confess your sins and it may not be received more than once without individual auricular confession when there is no danger of death.
Pastors of souls, bishops, should remind their flocks, and their priests, about the importance of confession and the conditions for a valid sacramental absolution of sins.
To this end, His Excellency Most Reverend John Nienstedt, Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, has a letter in the newly revamped Catholic Spirit, the paper of the archdiocese.
This was for the 5 November issue. I don’t know how I missed this. Be sure to spike their stats by clicking here.
His Excellency will over the next weeks use his platform to present a catechesis on the sacrament of penance. He taught seminarians about this sacrament for many years.
Let’s have a look with my emphases and comments.
Penance and the gift of forgiveness
By Archbishop John C. Nienstedt
Wednesday, 05 November 2008
“A regular use of general absolution is bound to have a negative effect on the spiritual well-being of the penitent because general absolution involves a depersonalized experience of the sacramental grace of forgiveness.
Without the one-on-one encounter and an explicit confession of guilt, penitents also risk developing a superficial understanding of their willing participation in the personal evil that is sin.”
FROM: The Catholic Spirit Com.
Official Newspapar of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul, Mineapolis
THE WHOLE TEXT:
Within the first verses of St. Mark’s Gospel, Jesus appears in Galilee, proclaiming God’s Good News: This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand! Reform your lives and believe in the Gospel!” (Mark 1:15).
From the very beginning of his public ministry, then, Jesus calls all men and women to conversion from sin. But, one might ask, what is sin? Why are we called to conversion? What kind of reform is being asked of us?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church indicates the answer:
“To try to understand what sin is, one must first recognize the profound relationship of man to God, for only in this relationship is the evil of sin unmasked in its true identity as humanity’s rejection of God and opposition to him. . . .
“Without the knowledge Revelation gives of God we cannot recognize sin clearly and are tempted to explain it as merely a developmental flaw, a psychological weakness, a mistake, or the necessary consequence of an inadequate social structure, etc. [All of which reduce to almost nothing an individual’s personal responsibility.] Only in the knowledge of God’s plan for man can we grasp that sin is an abuse of the freedom that God gives to created persons so that they are capable of loving him and loving one another” (CCC. 386-387).
Who has sinned? St. John gives us the answer in his first letter:
“If we say, ‘We are free of the guilt of sin,’ we deceive ourselves; the truth is not to be found in us” (1 John 1:8).
Therefore, to be truthful, we must all admit that we have sinned. Sin affects both our relationship with God and with our neighbor. But the truly good news is that Jesus came to save us from sin and that he has entrusted the power to absolve sin to his apostles. That power of forgiveness is offered to us in the sacrament of penance, otherwise known as reconciliation.
The ordinary, and therefore most appropriate, way of celebrating this sacrament calls for a verbal confession of our sins to a priest. Why? Allow me to give three reasons for this.
Jesus as model
The first reason is that, during his earthly ministry,  Jesus himself always forgave sins in a one-on-one encounter with the penitent. While other miracles in the Gospels may have involved groups of persons, the gift of forgiveness is always given to an individual, who hears Jesus speak the words, “Go, your sins have been forgiven.”
Second, as human beings, one of the most difficult things we ever have to say is, “I’m sorry.” Yet,  once we have said it, we are freed to accept our guilt and then to begin the process of reconciliation. We can inevitably find all kinds of self-justifying reasons for what we have done or failed to do. Yet, once we have spoken out loud the reality of our guilt, it is often only then that we accept responsibility for what we have done, and only then can we begin to reform our ways. [Remember that Christ, in His words and deeds, reveals man more fully to himself (cf. GS 22). In our encounter with Christ and our own submission of our words and deeds, and omissions, to Him in the person of His minister, we are also revealed more fully to ourselves. When we confess our sins after a good examination of conscience, we learn about ourselves.]
Finally, the actions that we call “sins” very often betray an attitude or an inner disposition that ultimately led us to commit a particular sin. [Our "particular fault" as spiritual writers call it. Identifying a particular fault is a major step in our spiritual lives.]
Over the next weeks, I plan to share with you some thoughts as to how we can move forward with a total re-catechesis for the sacrament of penance [This is very welcome!] Having taught a penance practicum to seminarians for 13 years, I have learned that there is an art on the part of the confessor in hearing a confession. The priest has to listen closely to what is being said “between the lines.” It is one thing to know that one has been uncharitable, hurtful or unfaithful, but that doesn’t necessarily lead one to know why he or she committed the particular act, i.e., what prompted this action in the mind or heart.
Only by getting “behind” the objective sinful act, can one begin to change one’s life with a firm purpose of amendment. The assistance of a confessor can be invaluable in this process.
Historically, the Second Vatican Council, contrary to what some may think, never envisioned the use of Form III with General Absolution as the ordinary way to experience the sacrament of penance. The church has never approved its use, even though it has been widely practiced in some places. [Many dioceses have this problem. And it is amazing that some priests have simply defied the efforts of their bishops to change this.]
In response to a question regarding this very point, Archbishop Harry Flynn wrote clearly in his pastoral letter of Feb. 20, 1996, that general absolution is not acceptable as a normal practice. This is also the position of the last two popes, a synod of bishops as well as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ general assembly. It is now codified into law.
But my concern here is much more a pastoral one than a legal one.
A regular use of general absolution is bound to have a negative effect on the spiritual well-being of the penitent because general absolution involves a depersonalized experience of the sacramental grace of forgiveness.
Without the one-on-one encounter and an explicit confession of guilt, penitents also risk developing a superficial understanding of their willing participation in the personal evil that is sin.
I am pleased to be receiving requests these days from pastors who are planning penance services using Forms I or II during the upcoming Advent season. I encourage all pastors in the archdiocese to do the same. To be clear: The use of general absolution is simply not allowed.
I appeal to all of our priests to be obedient to the promises they made on their ordination day and offer our Catholic people the sacrament as it is meant to be celebrated. I likewise appeal to our faithful laity not to participate in celebrations prohibited by church norms. [This is excellent. In 1990 Pope John Paul II, in the revised rites for ordination, made this more explict in the part of the ordination where the candidates are queried about their intentions. They are asked if they desire to be ordained in order to forgive sins.]
It is my sincere hope that the clergy, religious and laity in this local church may reflect in practice the unity that Jesus himself desired as we join in a common celebration of the sacrament of penance.
Over the next weeks, I plan to share with you some thoughts as to how we can move forward in this archdiocese with a total re-catechesis for the sacrament of penance so that it may be the powerful help in our growth toward holiness that it is meant to be.
Until then, let us pray again and again for the grace of that conversion from sin that Jesus announced so long ago: “This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand! Reform your lives and believe in the Gospel!”
God love you!
What a welcome initiative this is.
The sacrament of penance has been so neglected for so long. I would hazard to say that very many of our Catholic people have no real sense of the Church’s teaching about sin, justification, sanctification, forgiveness. I would say very few really think about the Four Last Things. I suspect that a large majority never think about confession, which is the ordinary means by which CHRIST desired that we be reconciled to God, the Church and each other.
In a first article, Archbishop Nienstedt couldn’t say everything that could be said about the sacrament of penance. But this is but the first, not the last or only.
Please go give that page a hit, by clicking this link. That will send a message to the editor and the Archbishop. At the time of this writing the column on that site has only 170 hits! Make it spike!
I look forward to reading the others and making sure that a wider readership picks them up.
This is a matter of life and death.
This much-needed instruction is good news!
As one of the folks in the pews, might I also suggest that bishops strongly urge/tell their priests to make Confession more broadly available?! Most parishes I’m familiar with have — at most — two hours scheduled for Confession a week, with one priest available. Simple math indicates that only about a dozen or so people can make a good Confession to one priest in one hour, which is woefully inadequate in a parish of any size if we are all urged to go at least monthly.
Additionally, “by appointment” Confessions interfere with the penitent’s right to a private Confession and do not “fix” the problem of availability except in emergencies.
Just a hope of mine…
I have a somewhat tangential question.
Are there any regulations regarding a priest hearing confession and granting absolution over the phone?
[It is FORBIDDEN and INVALID to give sacramental absolution over the phone.]
It might help your readers to see an example of what the Archbishop is responding to – a leading proponent of general absolution is Father Mike Tegeder at St. Edwards in Bloomington, MN. You can see the degree of his and St. Edwards’ defiance in this link.
Would I be wrong in thinking there is a direct correlation in the neglection of the sacrament of penance and the increase of outwardly visible changes in the Church (Mass, things we talk about here, etc.)?
To shed some other bright news on the sacrament: yesterday, I was at the University of Notre Dame and there was a line of about 10 students waiting to confess at the Basilica.
“Two hours a week?” It seems to me that most “modern parishes” pretty much limit themselves to 45 minutes before the Saturday Vigil Mass around here.
Fortunately, there are still some parishes that offer Confession nearly daily. Another blessing of the Internet is being able to find them.
See http://www.masstimes.org or your local diocesan list of parishes.
I would recommend that priests up the ante with the penances that they ladle out to individual penitents. If, after procrastination and doubts and can0n law debates with myself over whether my offense met the three fold requirement of the statutes* and all I get is a “Hail Mary” for a penance, I wonder if my Mortal Sins are really that serious? Maybe I might omit them next time, out of consideration for those standing in line behind me.
*The Three-Fold Requirement Statute for Mortal Sins:
* Mortal sin is a sin of grave matter**
* Mortal sin is committed with full knowledge of the sinner
* Mortal sin is committed with deliberate consent of the sinner
**What the H-E-doubletoothpicks is “grave matter?” Talk about a weasel clause for easy use in simplifying confessions!
**The canon lawyers of Vatican II, probably having a conflict of interest because of the condition of their own souls, omitted the Baltimore Catechism’s much more clear definition.
* It must be a serious sin.
* You must know it is a serious sin.
* You must want to do it.
Seven year old children used to know what a serious sin was. It’s time that pastors and bishops start preaching to us about what a serious sin is.
Randy_in_MN, I read Fr. Tegeder’s article, then looked at his parish bulletin. God bless him, he makes some very interesting assumptions about the need for 40 priests. Could it be that the reason so many attend the penance services is that his parish offers confessions for only a total of 30 minutes per week? If he and the weekend associate (admittedly, Father is probably considerably overworked since he’s there by himself) would devote an additional 30 minutes to one hour a day to hearing confessions through Advent and Lent and by scheduling that period at different times of day, the need for 40 priests would probably diminish by quite a bit.
I think that the Archbishop is spot on in his assessment regarding the need for re-catechesis for the Sacrament of Penance.
“It is an uplifting celebration of the sacrament and it is valid.”
But if the penitents don’t have the intention of later auricular confession, it’s not.
And if he knows that this is the case (and how can he not?) can our canonists weigh in on whether this constitutes simulating a sacrament?
We are very lucky to have a priest from The Priestly Society of Saint Peter who hears Confessions before every Sunday Mass as well as before the weekday Masses. The lines can often be quite long. This is due to the fact that Father speaks to us regularly about sin and the consequences. If a priest gives feel good homilies, the chances are the congregation will not feel particulary moved to go to Confession. Father recommends that we go every 2 weeks for the so that we can benefit from the plenary indulgences.
In my opinion, these group Reconciliation services do more harm than good. People feel that they have met the yearly obligation but really haven’t done the work of weeding the sins out of their souls. They miss out on the beauty of the sacrament.
Father, would you able to keep us abreast of this re-catechesis please, or advise us how to reach it? This is very important! With grateful thanks. [I intend to!]
One of the good things about living near or working in a downtown of a major city is access to so-called “commuter churches”. These churches typically make priests available to hear confessions before and after work and during lunch hours. In my experience, there is usually a line at these hours as well as at churches that hear confessions prior to Sunday Mass. The only time I don’t find a line for the confessional seems to be at the typical “Sat. 4:00-4:45pm or by appointment” churches.
I know that in rural or even suburban areas daily confession and even Sunday confession is not always feasible. Still, I have no doubt if the days and times for confession were increased, along with an emphasis on the sacrament from the pulpit, there would also be an increase in confessions heard. It seems that if churches in a given geographical area could coordinate their schedules, confession could be made more widely available without increasing the workload of often overworked priests.
In our diocese, private confessionals have been removed from most, if not all of the churches. This has effectively stopped all private confession. Put back the “private” in private confession, and you might see a return to the confessional.
In our town in Maine there is NO confession available, the same is true for the next town farther north. Of course they offer Mass every week, but you have to drive 30-50 minutes (think Maine winters) to the big city to go to confession on Saturday afternoons. What does this say to the average Catholic? And if you are thinking that there are lots of folks sitting in the pews during Communion ’cause they need to speak to a priest, think again.
Of course at every TLM I have ever attended (6+ parishes) there is always confession available beforehand AND there is always a line. Maybe those traddies sin more than the progressive types? Hmmmm…
Is a priest allowed to hear confessions outside of his diocese without permission of the local ordinary? I have heard this before however have seen visiting priests hear confession in my diocese along with my priest hear confessions while outside of his diocese. Thanks.
This general absolution situation was epidemic in Australia not long ago, and is still a problem, IIRC.
None of the churches in our area do less than an hour on Saturdays, that I know of. And I will often sit longer than that if needed (most Saturdays, not all). I think if I left after half an hour, I’d get tackled by the Catholic equivalent of the babushka. But luckily, we have ample priest friars around to hear drop-ins, and I have a decent number of appointments made by phone, and have a good number that ask for it before Sunday Masses (since fortunately, there are enough of us that some of us aren’t celebrating Mass). People in our area know that our parish can generally easily take people confessing at almost any halfway decent time, hopefully taking some of the burden off the diocesans, who have to sit by themselves and run an entire parish, and get ready to celebrate Mass on Saturday. They have my admiration.
Oh, and most priests happily take appointments to meet your time requirements. I wish I could scream that from every rooftop.
For Mr. Bill Haley: No, over the phone is not valid. I can’t find the document from Rome, but here is an informational link (go through the part in Tagalog).
Nous sommes tous une generation perdue. Well, maybe not anymore. I hope it’s not too late for the generation after VII and before JPII’s youth crusade. My g-g-generation.
For Father and any other priestly readers:
I have a very hard time speaking due to my disability. In my parish, we have confessionals that allow both kneeling behind a screen and face-to-face, so I just scribble down things on a notepad and let Father read it and then gasp out an act of contrition after he gives me my penance.
Are there any general guidelines for mutes or almost-mutes as far as how to communicate with the priest?
I have one serious comment to make.
While one can only welcome His Grace’s clear statement that the general absolution is forbidden, in practice there will be priests who would disobey; and what His Grace fails to say is that those opportunists, or mislead people who do not have intention to confess their sins as soon as possible, do not receive the Sacrament validly, i.e. that their sins are nor forgiven by such an absolution.
That formulation is not a Vatican II novelty. In fact, it is present in substance in the Baltimore Catechism, to wit:
Q. 282. How many things are necessary to make a sin mortal?
A. To make a sin mortal, three things are necessary:
a grievous matter, sufficient reflection, and full consent of the will.
Q. 283. What do we mean by “grievous matter” with regard to sin?
A. By “grievous matter” with regard to sin we mean that the thought, word or deed by which mortal sin is committed must be either very bad in itself or severely prohibited, and therefore sufficient to make a mortal sin if we deliberately yield to it.
Q. 284. What does “sufficient reflection and full consent of the will” mean?
A. “Sufficient reflection” means that we must know the thought, word or deed to be sinful at the time we are guilty of it; and “full consent of the will” means that we must fully and willfully yield to it.
I once asked a priest after a general absolution service whether it had been valid. He responded by asking me what Jesus would do in the same situation. HE GOT ME THERE! (Not really, though…)
I was shocked by Fr Tegeder’s comment about “the cost for the priests”. I have never asked for and never been offered any sort of stipend or monetary remuneration for assisting at any celebration of Form 2.
In one Diocese I lived in, each deanery had a series of Form 2 celebrations held in different parishes of the deanery over the course of 5 nights (during Advent and Lent). The Priests of the whole deanery, or as many as could make it, including Religious Priests of pretty much the whole Diocese who did not have parish assignments, gathered at each celebration. There were never 40, but there were often 20. They were wonderful celebrations.
I wonder about appealing to the laity not to assist at celebrations prohibited by church norms. Of course Christ’s faithful should never assist at a prohibited function, but a forterior the Priests should not do so. Is there an implication that if participation remains high, he will not tell the Priests involved to stop?
To follow Fr. Joe’s comments, for people who are curious, usually if you’re called in as the “Saturday confessor,” there is a set stipend by diocesan guidelines (as there is for coming to celebrate Mass, weddings, etc). Penance Services AFAIK, are deanery things, where we just all agree to go to each others’ parishes to help out, so writing a bunch of checks would be silly, and I likewise have NEVER heard of any kind of renumeration or stipend, other than being offered dinner before the penance service at the rectory.
Randy usefully provided a link to the bulletin of, what in charity, might be called a recalcitrant priest. Some interesting excerpts:
“In May, Archbishop Nienstedt will become our new bishop. He too comes to us from another place. He has given a very clear “no,” or can I say, “nein,” to the continued use of Form 3. This is very sad.”
“Our celebrations of Form 3 have been very well planned and include participation of our choirs and specially prepared liturgies and homilies.” (I love the phrase “specially prepared liturgies”.) [That’s like saying “Please come to our previously scheduled emergency.”]
“In the future with the new episcopal regime [sounds sinister] we will have changes. We could continue to have communal penance services without the words of absolution but trusting in the words of the Lord that his merciful presence is there when we gather in his name. At this time I would also like to send in a petition along with any of your own personal comments to our bishops. To serve is to listen. I have heard the voice of the faithful and believe that our bishops should also listen. The petitions and response forms will be available at the communal reconciliation services tomorrow.” [I think that if I were the Archbishop in question, I wouldn’t have appreciated that priest’s manipulation of his flock in this manner for the sake of his own personal position.]
Dear Jacob: communicate as best as you are able. Letting the priest know your difficulty via a note when you enter would be helpful for him to help you confess. Try to figure out a system that works best for you, and any priest I know would be most accomodating. Here is a short article about confessions for a deaf-mute community that I found interesting and inspiring: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,932169,00.html .
I once asked a priest after a general absolution service whether it had been valid. He responded by asking me what Jesus would do in the same situation. HE GOT ME THERE! (Not really, though…)
Jesus would never ask a priest to contravene the direct orders of the Church He established to govern His kingdom on earth in His name. Nor would He direct a layman to receive a sacrament illicitly or invalidly as it could imperil his immortal soul. Besides, although Christ is not bound by the sacraments, this priest is, so the question is completely irrelevant to the serious matter at hand. Fr. is not Jesus in all of His omnipotence.
I’ve been in a situation where there was a priest that started to do this at the end of a normal confession time slot. I just walked away from the group. As some friends were rushing over to “participate”, I shook my head, and they stepped out with me so I could explain why this was not right. It was a teaching moment for them, and I tried to be kind, but that was all I could do to avoid scandal (short of public condemnation).
I think putting his soul in eternal peril is a huge price to pay for a priest to extend this false vehicle of “mercy” to his flock. When it’s called for (as FrZ mentioned above), it’s an extraordinary means of grace, but this is an abuse that really has to stop. The potential cost of lost souls is too great.
Kudos to this brave bishop for pointing out the elephant in the living room.
I don’t mean to be the Catholic equivalent of Fox Mulder conspiratorial theorist but:
I cannot help but think the whole general absolution thing – along with the short amount of time most parishes have for private reconcilitation – and the irritating “tell only one or two sins” at Penance Services – come as a direct result of the “priest shortage” and the misunderstanding of “community.”
Since, as somebody alluded to above, priests can use the “I am only one priest and I am overworked” excuse (and I certainly know our priests are overworked these days – God love ALL of you!) they at times will “cut corners” so-to-speak.
My family will not attend Penance Services simply because of the “one or two” sin thing and the possibility of general absolutions (even though there is four priests there hearing confessions for about 75 people – and the attendance for these drops every year).
As a catechist for both teens and adults – my experience when speaking of this neglected sacrament is that most folks think that Confession is TWICE a year! (At the beginning of Advent and Lent) “After all,” they say, “the catechism SAYS we only have to go ONCE a year!”
God bless Archbishop Nienstedt for this endeavor – it is sorely needed everywhere.
Archbishop Nienstedt conducted the penance practicum when he was rector at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit back in the early ’90’s, when I was a seminarian there. I remember very clearly his catechesis on the sacrament and his insights into each “confession” we had in the class. The manner in which I hear confessions now has been shaped largely by him, and I am grateful for that formation. The people of his archdiocese would do well to pay close attention to his catechesis.
Beat this, Ray from MN. 30 minutes on Saturdays here in AZ. 3 folks, tops, in line. Sad.
God bless you, Archbishop Nienstedt. Looking forward to your future postings on this life-and-death topic.
sekman: Is a priest allowed to hear confessions outside of his diocese without permission of the local ordinary? I have heard this before however have seen visiting priests hear confession in my diocese along with my priest hear confessions while outside of his diocese.
Yes. If he has faculties in his own diocese or religious institute or order, he can hear confessions anywhere. However, if he is going to be in a place for more than just a short period, he should also be given faculties by the local bishop.
Before the new Code of Canon Law for the Latin Church in 1983 things were a bit more strict. I don’t know how the Code for the Eastern Churches handles this.
Jacob: I would only say that care should be taken so that a) no one overhear your confession or b) the paper is destroyed.
Thank you for your replies. I do destroy the paper afterward. Little pieces thrown in the trash. :)
HITS UPDATE: 368
Keep at it! Send it to your friends.
An initiative like this is worthy of widespread support. We need such an effort in every diocese.
I hit confession today (Praise God!) and the priest definitely was probing at the underlying reasons for my sins. It was a very personal and effective experience on a worldly level in addition to the graces and forgiveness that come from the Sacrament.
This bishop is to be commended! May the other ones learn from his example in this!
There is a priest in my diocese who for a penance tells penitents to “go to Holy Communion.” It seems odd, but I don’t question him. [Hmmm… that doesn’t sound like it falls into the category of “doing penance”.]
Since I’ve started attending the TLM at our parish, I’ve been confessing more often right before that Mass, instead of driving downtown Saturday evening. I’ve noticed that the TLM Massgoers spend a very long time in the confessional, and frankly it’s making me nervous that I’m confessing less completely than I should be. I do try to search my conscience thoroughly, but as a homeschooling housewife, my constricted life makes my sins limited (though not at all infrequent). I generally have the same sins, which don’t take long to confess, and I’m out of the confessional in less than half the time of those in line in front of me.
The Saturday penitents are likewise brief. What are the TLM penitents doing that the rest of us are neglecting?
Not to be mean-spirited–but there are also the Confessional HOGS…full aware that there may be only an hour or so available for Confession (and one priest) yet take up the entire time. That was a common occurance at one parish that I would stop by occasionally. This one individual would park right by the door starting at around 9:30 am ( Confession was at 3:30) so she could be the FIRST in line…She would then proceed to WEEP and wail LOUDLY ( you try to practice custody of the ears but you could still hear her clear across the church.)..meanwhile the line would grow long and longer…. the priest would finally get her to leave with about 30 seconds left for Confession. That sure drove alot of folks away. Can’t priests recommend to those folks that they arrange for a private appointment?? When I went through RCIA that was recommended to me as I had a rather lengthy First Confession set up.
On the other hand–in the military in deployed areas we had what what we called “drive-by confessions.” About one step above general absolution I guess..we would form a line and one at a time we would say “Bless me Father for I have sinned.. I have committed # Mortal sins and for that I am truely sorry.” Real quick absolution and usually Penance was 1 Our Father and 1 Hail Mary. …of course these were in places were chapels were not readily available. You were done in about 15 seconds. God Bless our military chaplains though..they really helped me through a bunch..
Father Z., I have a question.
During our last penitence service (before Easter) our senior priest made a point of saying that we only needed to confess things we had DONE. Having bad thoughts, he said, were temptations and if we didn’t act on them they weren’t sins.
I thought this wasn’t right, as it seems to me that harboring poisonous thoughts about a political candidate, for example, is a sin because it would eventually lead one to say or do something uncharitable and then sin.
Am I wrong? Is he wrong? My husband and I are converts and my husband agreed with the priest. (My husband, bless him, thinks I should never need confession. He’s a wonderful man but not big on theology.)
Are we not to confess bad thoughts? I remembered Christ’s exhortation that he who has committed lust in his heart is just as guilty, and I think that the priest is simply trying to get the confessions moving quickly by getting the mortal sins as the only ones confessed. (We are a very large parish.)
Anything advice you can offer with would be greatly appreciated.
In the old days Confession for adults was offered on Saturday evening beginning at about 7:30. It was an ideal time. All the Saturday errands had been run, the evening meal eaten, the encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist the next morning was looming larger in the mind. There was nothing standing in the way of going to Confession.
What an ideal ambience for the confession of sins! The end of the day was reminiscent of the end of life itself. The Church was in semi-darkness, which is just where unconfessed sinners want to be. Coming into the Church one could immediately find anonymity in the darkness to kneel and examine his conscience. It was an atmosphere very conducive to remorse and repentance. Far away in the gloom the flickering sanctuary lamp reminded us of the loving presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
The line typically had 8 or 9 people in it, with everyone subdued and prayerful. After confession one could walk up to the communion rail and say his penance and then stay some time in the holy presence of Christ. There was time to be prayerful. There was no rush to get groceries or to the soccer game or the cleaners…
Confession situated in this time slot made it a very easy habit to keep week after week. The very arrival of Saturday evening carried an implicit question, “Do you need to go to Confession?” Everything else had been taken care of- except one’s soul.
A very positive corollary to this frequenting of auricular Confession by so many Catholics ( the priests made it easy for us by situating it on Saturday evening) was that it made great preachers of our priests. They knew where their people were. They knew what had to be addressed- and they addressed it in no uncertain terms.
Our pastor was like Moses newly descended from the mountain, but he did not need Aaron to speak for him. “We do not get our religion from the Chicago Tribune!” he thundered. Yes, there was a lot of thunder and lightning from that pulpit, from accumulated shocks in the confessional I would guess. It was all good, all grist for the mill, from a great priest who was salt and light for his congregation- probably in large part because he faithfully heard their confessions.
Today I was at the Cathedral of Saint Paul in Archbishop Nienstedt’s qrchdiocese. There was already a long line for the confessional an hour before Mass. I counted around 25 people who were in the line. This is good news…
God Bless this Bishop…I think some parishes need a dose of this in LA.
Christa: During our last penitence service (before Easter) our senior priest made a point of saying that we only needed to confess things we had DONE. Having bad thoughts, he said, were temptations and if we didn’t act on them they weren’t sins…. Are we not to confess bad thoughts?
In a sense thinking is doing. If you have a thought of some sort, and you know it is wrong, and fight it or strive to put it out of your head or try to turn you mind and correct yourself, you have done well and needn’t be overly concerned. We get into trouble when, having that thought, we make the choice to harbor it, foster it, give consent of will to it and truly make it our own in a deeper sense.
Those are the sorts of things we need to confess.
It is true that not all bad thoughts are mortal sins, but they are not good and they are tricky moments. We can indeed sin mortally in thought, as well as word and deed and omission. Thinking is a human act, a thing we do.
But a simple tendency or passing thought which we shove aside or correct, while something to be wary of, is more than likely not a mortal sin. Winning by struggling against a tendency is a good thing! You can confess it as a venial sin, of course and you should examine your conscience regularly to make sure that you are not just fooling yourself… for God cannot be fooled. But I wouldn’t make fleeting thoughts into more than what they are, especially if you do the good thing and successfully fend them off and correct yourself.
It’s funny how Fr. Tegeder used the German word ‘nein’ to seemingly imply that Archbishop Neinstedt is some sort of Nazi. C’mon, does general absolution even make sense in the context of the history of Confession? Isn’t that just an example of wanting a free ride? How easy is it just to show up at church on “Form 3 Night” to be absolved from all sins without actually having to confess anything? You could have committed murder, rape, all sorts of other heinous crimes and then called it good the next day. Seriously!
I’ll be putting news of this initiative and a link to this discussion up at mine very shortly. In the meantime, a few observations:
1. With regard to the question of thoughts vs. deeds, the prayer of the Church is confiteor Deo omnipotenti…quia nimis peccavi COGITATIONE verbo opere et omissione. The priest who gave you that advice was probably acting out of a misguided but legitimate pastoral sensitivity, but his counsel was bad and wrong.
2. To Fr. Zuhlsdorf, re. passing thoughts, etc.: I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard a priest say something to the effect of, “you don’t need to confess that.” It is not as bad as “that’s not a sin anymore,” but it is still bad. Of course, one may obtain forgiveness for venial sins by a sincere act of prayerful contrition: one cannot obtain SACRAMENTAL forgiveness. It is in the SACRAMENT that we ORDINARILY obtain saving grace.
3. There is a diffuse and crippling ignorance of sacramental theology among the Church’s ministers of the grace of salvation. The HF has stressed the need for improved priestly formation in every one of his ad limina discourses for the past 2+ years, and I do not think he is talking about “pastoral” formation. What can be more pastoral than making people’s souls fit for eternal felicity?
I haven’t read all the comments so I’m not sure if this has been said yet or not, but I’ve seen a lot of comments about how there are not enough times available for confession. I don’t think this is the real problem. I can’t make it to confession on Saturday evenings, which is when confession is at my church, so I make an appointment with the priest in a church near work and see him for confession on my lunch hour. Of course, you have to confess face to face, but after doing this more and more it has become less and less difficult, or embarrasing I guess you could say (I know we should be embarrased Father Z, but it can be). [I am sure you meant “shouldn’t” be embarassed.] Anyways, if people really want to go to confession, they can, the problem is that people don’t realize the importance of it anymore. I can’t tell you how much better I feel after I started going regularly 4 years ago. People need to be catechised better.
The issue is not comfort. The issue is one of penitents’ rights. Christians have a right to the grill.
So do priests, as one wise in the ways of Canon Law reminds me.
You don’t need to confess face to face when you make an appointment. The priests at our parish just tell us that they will be in the box at the appointment time.
The only snag with that is that, sometimes, someone else in church will see the green light on and pop in before you arrive….
Mark: if people really want to go to confession, they can, the problem is that people don’t realize the importance of it anymore.
You hit the nail on the head. This is why the Archbishop’s initiative is so welcome.
We need a strong and widespread initiative of catechesis on this great sacrament.
It is not hard. We just need to do it.
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An initiative like this is worthy of widespread support. We need such an effort in every diocese.
I wholeheartedly agree with Lee Gilbert’s post above. Well put, sir.
Dear Fr. Zuhlsdorf,
Isn’t embarrassment – overcoming it, anyway, which implies that one have it – an important part of the experience? Often people have shameful things to confess. I know I do. Facing that is an essential part of the battle, at once an exercise in humility and a reminder that our humanty is not destoryed and cannot be by the evil we do.
Sometimes, for some folks, it might be the mode of experience of “dying to sin”.
Can you really make so absolute and unqualified a statment as “one ought not be embarrassed – sic et simpliciter – ?”
I hope the upcoming re-catechesis will include instruction on the General Confession. St. Francis de Sales, for example, highly recommended it & in his day guidebooks for a general confession were readily available. I’m a cradle Catholic & making a general confession, a process that took about 6 mo., was VERY good for my spiritual life. I wonder if Fr. Z has any opinion about reviving it?
Chris: I think you are missing the point. Never let embarrassment prevent… prevent… you from confessing what needs to be confessed.
I know we discuss a certain little Motu Propio here once in a while, but John Paul II of happy memory also had an excellent one on confession: Misericordia Dei, where he gave certain instructions regarding the sacrament (including grill, making yourself available as a priest, etc).
It’s a nice, quick read: http://www.ewtn.com/library/PAPALDOC/JP2MISER.HTM
God bless Archbishop Nienstedt and Father Zuhlsdorf for this discussion, for even among the WDPTRS readership–a “committed Catholic” bunch if there was one–the Penance posts really seem to strike a chord. At some level, I think all of us who are Catholic understand the need for a good Confession and the immense spiritual consolation that the confessional provides a sinner.
I also think we’re in loud agreement here, especially on the need for catechesis and the opportunty to obtain the Sacrament of Penance.
Anecdotally, I’ve noticed a real improvement in both the catechesis and opportunity over the past few years. Good, holy priests and bishops seem to be making an effort to preach about sin, counsel going to Confession, and having it readily available. 20 years ago, I can’t recall regularly scheduled confessions anytime except Saturday afternoons or much of any mention outside the Advent/Lent penance services. Since then, I’ve had a pastor (OF) who set the example–he was in the Confessional at least one hour a day, every day, and varied Confession times to accomodate schedules. At the daily Mass (OF) I attend near work, the pastor offers Confession daily 30 minutes before Mass, and has repeatedly preached on the need to frequently go to Confession “because we are called to be saints.” Of course, the places where I’ve attended the TLM have really long lines at Confession and have for years.
I would like to ask the priests who read this blog, are we the faithful doing our part? Have you seen a positive response to your efforts to catechize and offer the Sacrament of Penance?
Dear Fr. Zuhlsdorf,
As I was making my way to Argentina from Piazza Pia on the 40, I was mulling it over and came to the same conclusion, or roughly. I think we are both right. It is very rare that someone is so forthright as to say, “I know I need to confess my sins, but I am simply too embarrassed.” [It happens a lot. A confessor has to learn to figure out when this is a the case and help the penitent get it out. And with that we will close this subject.] Nevertheless, it does happen, and on the one occasion someone approached me with similar frankness, my interlocutor was convinced by being invited to consider the alternative.
In any case, we agree that no one ought to let embarrassment prevent one from confessing.
This is also why I am so adamant about grill rights. Some of the commentary on this thread seems to treat the grill/no grill question as a matter falling somewhere between personal preference and pastoral “style”, but the issue is really a legal one, with the law rooted in the Church’s centuries of experience in caring for souls. [Yes! We need to have the grate or grill back in our confessionals.]
o.h. said: Since I’ve started attending the TLM at our parish, I’ve been confessing more often right before that Mass, instead of driving downtown Saturday evening. I’ve noticed that the TLM Massgoers spend a very long time in the confessional, and frankly it’s making me nervous that I’m confessing less completely than I should be. I do try to search my conscience thoroughly, but as a homeschooling housewife, my constricted life makes my sins limited (though not at all infrequent). I generally have the same sins, which don’t take long to confess, and I’m out of the confessional in less than half the time of those in line in front of me.
The Saturday penitents are likewise brief. What are the TLM penitents doing that the rest of us are neglecting?
I’m fortunate to belong to a parish (Dominican/NO) that offers confessions seven days a week. The lines on Sunday morning before mass can be quite long. The pastor periodically puts a note in the bulletin asking penitents to keep their confessions brief and too the point. He also recommends going to confession only once per month unless needed (mortal sins) or under spiritual direction. Unfortunately he offers no advice — just absolution — in the confessional on Sunday mornings. It’s almost like the military drive through confessions another commenter mentioned. I usually go to confession at other times if possible.
I think sometimes the fault for long confessions lies with the priest hearing them. We have had some priests who spend a lot of time with each person even when there is a line. It’s great if you’re one of the three people who are able to have their confessions heard during the allotted time! [Good point!]
I do love our priests and I’m so grateful that I can avail myself of this sacrament frequently.
My experience has been that lengthy confessions are often attributable to two factors, often in combination: 1) Penitents who are reluctant to confess the kind and number of their sins – I am not a priest, but when I first began receiving the sacrament on a regular basis, I would sometimes fumble about, trying to “explain what happened” instead of simply saying what I did, and, if applicable, how often; (2) confessors who understand their role of confessor to be basically that of a spiritual director who gives absolution at the end of the session.
I understand that confessors often get hard cases, and that they need to take their time with these.
Penitents also need to be patient.
Once, here in Rome, where priests will hear confessions during Mass, I was in line so long that communion had ended and the final blessing given before I had confessed myself. The incident chills me still to this day, and I think about it in moments of temptation – my sin caused me to miss the eternal banquet, and Christ, through His Church, took away my sin and became the banquet for me, there, right before my eyes – he brought the banquet to me, as there was another Mass about a half an hour later.
Lengthy confessions are often the result of people not making a good examination of conscience before they get into the confessional.
“Bless me Father, I have sinned. It has been two years, since my last confession. Now… lemme think…… ”
It may interest you to know that Archbishop Nienstedt has in addition sent out a letter to all the priests of the Archdiocese putting them on their obedience to end this practice. This letter will serve as a canonical warning, setting the recalcitrant up for disciplinary action if they refuse to obey. I am proud to be one of this bishop’s clergy!
As I read this article, I couldn’t help thinking about an elderly Catholic I know who has only gone to “general (group) absolution” for many decades. This is a guy who was in his early 30’s during “vatican II”, and took all those so-called reforms to heart, even when there were no such reforms officially made, as with this issue. Now 40 years later, even being a regular mass-goer, he still cannot accept the Church’s teaching on the need for individual confession. I learned this when discussing the TV show “Father Corapi” with him, which he said he cannot watch because it is too conservative. When I asked for an example of how Fr. Corapi is “conservative”, seeing as that is a political term and not really a religious one, he replied that Fr. Corapi overemphasized personal confession rather than general (group) absolution. I hope my prayers can help him…
I have thought a lot about Lee Gilbert’s comments about Saturday nights. I read in a group about Orthodoxy about how difficult it is in some parishes to get people to come to a Saturday evening Vespers or Vigil service, because so many people are going to movies or parties or visiting friends, etc. The point was made that we as Christians need to recover a sense of unwordliness. That does not mean that those things are bad, but traditionally we had a sense that the weekend was a time of some preparation for Sunday: Friday we abstained in commemoration of the death of Christ, Saturday we prepared our souls as we waited in the Church for Confession, we prayed with the women and disciples, and Sunday we celebrated the Resurrection of Christ (with our families). As I said, it gave me lots to think about.