QUAERITUR: words of absolution

From a reader:

      I know you are busy but I have a quick question regarding the valid words of absolution in the sacrament of penance.  If the priest says the whole formula starting with God the Father of Mercies, and then at the end says "I absolve you from all of your sin", instead of I absolve you from your sins, does that actually invalidate the confession?  I am just asking because last week I think the priest who seemed extremely faithful but is a foreigner didn’t use the proper words, so now I listen more carefully.  I’m a scrupulous person, so I tend to think that it isn’t a crucial difference, and that it is just me, but hearing so many people say the crucial thing is that "I absolve you from your sins"  makes me question how much the English can change before it is invalid, like sin instead of sins, and of instead of from etc…


In your case, I would not worry.  In my opinion, that variation did not invalidate the absolution.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in ASK FATHER Question Box, SESSIUNCULA. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Maureen says:

    I believe we’ve heard before from Father Z that “peccata” is a collective noun, so you can translate it either “sin” (like all our sins are a single yucky glob), or “sins” (all the separate sins which comprise the yucky glob). That’s why either way is right.

    I’d always wondered about that myself in the Mass parts, so I’m really glad Fr. Z said that.

  2. tradition says:

    The simple rule to apply in these circumstances is to ask whether a change in the form for any of the sacraments is a substantial change or not. If it is not a substantial change to the form then the sacrament is valid.

  3. Martin says:

    An interesting statement from the Conference of Swiss Bishops regarding the abolition of collective absolutions:

  4. James II says:

    The indivative form (as in “I absolve you from all your sins”) is not required for validity. In the Eastern Church the deprecatory form (“You are absolved from all your sins”) is still used. This was also the case in the Roman Church until the 11 century, when the indivative form came into being. The priest often asked God to absolve the sinner, this is still the case in Russia. An old Latin formula goes: “”May God absolve thee from all thy sins, and through the penance imposed mayst thou be absolved by the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost, by the Angels, by the Saints, and by me, a wretched sinner”.

  5. James II says:

    That above prayer is a product of the transitionary period in the 11th century. Both elements are incorporated as you can see.

  6. alex says:

    In the question it says the priest is a from abroad, I think it was more than likely a language challenge than anything else. Given that, we should remember that if he, the priest, was intending what the Church intends, in this case it is still valid. He stuck pretty much to the formula.

  7. John Collorafi says:

    The absolution was most probably valid. Some authors even believe that the words “I absolve you” are probably valid because it’s implicit that the absolution is from sin.

    I’m reminded of the case in Denzinger of the eighth century priest who, being ignorant of Latin, baptized In nomine Patria et Filia et Spiritus Sancta and it was ruled valid. Some moral theologians even say that Hoc est colpis meus is a valid consecration.

    Simple linguistic mistakes at the end of a word are less serious than those at the beginning. For example, to baptize “in nomine Matris et Filii” would invalidate the sacrament whereas the examples above did not.

  8. James II says:

    The Chaldean liturgy (Holy Qurbana of Addai and Mari) doesn’t even contain the words of institution and it’s been ruled as valid by Rome.

  9. JM says:

    Sounds familiar. I went to a foreign visiting priest a couple years ago who said the same thing. It bothered me at the time and when I spoke to a priest about he said it was valid.

  10. Boko says:

    Yeah, it must be tough administering the sacraments in a language other than one’s own native tongue. Would it be easier if we picked one language that every priest, regardless of his native tongue, learned and used for the Church’s rites? Hmmm…

  11. Nick says:

    The parish priest of my youth (First Confession through high school) used, on occasion, the words, “I forgive you, Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Amen.” This bothered me a great deal when I thought about it years later, so I asked a priest who told me it would probably be what Alex said above, doing what the Church intends even though the words were wrong, and so still valid.

  12. Is it a valid absolution if a priest only says,

    “I absolve you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”?


    “I absolve you”?

  13. Corpsman says:

    Well wouldnt this make the case for the traditional form of confession in Latin? Would make this a non issue no?

  14. rick bohler says:

    Jesus didn’t dictate a prescribed formula verbatum. He simply gave His disciples the go-ahead to get the job done. “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them.”
    I also struggle with scrupulosity. A kind
    and wise confessor once told me: “God is not
    a mathmatician; He’s a loving Father.”

  15. Kevin: yes, the absolution was valid…

    Sounds like language problem…I know several foreign priests, they have this problem, I don’t worry about it.

  16. Thank you Joe of St. Therese.

    I checked out your blog. Good stuff.


  17. peregrinus says:

    While it’s unhealthy to be scrupulous, and scrupulous folks can get overboard and focus so much on the ritual as to forget the mercy of God being communicated in the Sacraments, some priests are not helping by taking liberties with the Church’s prescribed liturgical texts. I know of Priests in my archdiocese who varies the phrasing, such as : “I forgive you your sins in the name…” One even omits mentioning the Trinity. While the intent to celebrate the Sacrament as the Church intends is clearly present, why can’t they just stick to the text? They are ministers of Jesus, ambassadors of Christ, not representing themselves.

  18. Trevor says:

    “The parish priest of my youth (First Confession through high school) used, on occasion, the words, “I forgive you, Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Amen.” This bothered me a great deal when I thought about it years later, so I asked a priest who told me it would probably be what Alex said above, doing what the Church intends even though the words were wrong, and so still valid.”

    I’m not fluent in theology, nor do I want to induce scrupulosity. However, the priest’s intent doesn’t cover a botched form. If the form has been changed substantially, then the Sacrament would be invalid (despite the priest’s good intentions). Whether “I forgive you” constitutes a “substantial change” is beyond me (perhaps Rome has ruled on it).

    In the original poster’s case, I doubt she has much to worry about. First this may be do to language difficulties. Second, I don’t know if the Church requires absolutely perfect grammar. I’ve heard priests slur basically all the words in a Latin prayer.

  19. Surprised says:

    I am always surprised at how nonchalantly some people post difficult personal questions in many a Catholic forum. I am even more surprised at the way other people answer them. “Was this valid?” “Yes it was”. Nice. Well, if it were me, I would ask a priest, not a faceless forum.

  20. Simon Platt says:

    Dear “Surprised”

    The original poster did ask a priest whom he knew at least by reputation and whose opinion he respected. That was a good idea. The priest concerned then published the question and his response as part of his very effective apostolate of communication, to encourage discussion and for the benefit of many. I think that was a good idea, too. And let’s remember also that Fr. Z moderates comments and often corrects mistakes made by commentators.

    Now, some people online have asked my opinion on matters of faith even though they don’t know me from Adam, or even know my name. That’s pretty stupid, although I’m not surprised by it any more. But this case is something very different. I am glad when people write to Fr. Z with questions like this.

  21. Proper form (in English):

    …I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father (etc.)…”

    Variant in discussion:

    …I absolve you from all your sins, in the name of the Father (etc.)…”

    Does not affect validity.

    When I was first a priest, and had assiduously memorized the words of absolution, and was hearing my first weeks’ worth of confessions, I honestly thought “all” was included; as a result, it occasionally resurfaces.

    I occasionally mispronounce Latin as well; although I don’t believe in the case of the words of institution.

  22. Dominican Father says:

    As a priest, and not a loosy-goosy one, I agree with Father Z’s interpretation. The absolution would be valid.

    May I point out St. Thomas Aquinas’ helpful comments on this matter? http://www.newadvent.org/summa/4060.htm#article8

    I think some of the comments being posted here could be improved a bit. Yes, the priest has to be intending to do what Christ and the Church want him to say and do in order to confect a valid sacrament, and the words being used have to generally be the words prescribed by the Church. However, just because the priest is well-intentioned doesn’t meant that anything goes, as St. Thomas describes well. For instance, in the matter of pronunciation and an extra word here or there, the important distinction would be that the meaning of the words–as said out loud–actually convey the intention of the sacrament. And that goes for priests speaking any language (and yes, I’ve had to celebrate the sacraments in a foreign language)–and that goes for Latin too which can be so garbled as to be unintelligible–and thus unsacramental.

  23. Kathleen says:

    I confessed to a priest in residence who talked rapidly with a heavy accent.
    I wasn’t sure I heard even “I absolve you,” and surely did not hear “in the
    name….” I e-mailed the pastor. This was his reply:

    Holy Mother church teaches that “in spite of the weakness, or mistakes” of the minister (priest), the Holy Spirit acts in the sacrament and “makes up” for the mistakes or missing words if it was the case. It was St. Thomas Aquinas who coined the formula “Ex Opere, Operato,” which means that “in spite of the unworthiness or mistakes of the priests, the grace of God acts.” Thus, you should rest assured that your confession was entirely valid and licit according to church law.

    Is the pastor correct?

  24. Joe says:

    I practiced for a few years early on in French, where the approved text says “tous vos péchés” and when I heard confessions in a French-speaking country of English-speakers I would say “all your sins” in English. I notice that the Latin for the Last Blessing and Plenary Indulgence said “omnium peccatorum”.

    I wonder: is it possible for a priest to absolve from only some sins? For example, if someone has committed a reserved sin, and goes to his parish priest because he really wants to go to confession, can the priest hear his confession and give absolution for the sins for which he has the authority?

  25. Thank you Kevin

    Kathleen: For the most part, yes, that’d be true. Some priests say the majority of it quietly and then the Ego te Absolvo is said aloud…What I do if I don’t hear the words of absolution, go to a new priest, or ask the confessor to say the words aloud so I can hear them.

  26. A Random Friar says:

    No, there is no “partial” Sacrament of Penance, in so far as forgiveness of sins, AFAIK. I can remove censures, etc, without forgiving sins, if there are no sins to be forgiven, but not “X sins but not Y sins.” There are two ways I can think offhand how this can be done:

    (1) Willfully: I refuse to confess a serious, mortal sin, through pride, etc. The desired effect of the Sacrament of Penance is to restore you to grace. This not “The Princess Bride” where we have “mostly dead.” We’re trying to restore you to “full grace,” not partial.

    (2) By ignorance: I didn’t know that a certain sin was reserved. Fine. When I learn about it, it is my duty to rectify it, but if the contrition was there for that sin, then it is forgiven. But I am still *bound* to confess it appropriately when feasible.

    However, in case of grave necessity (e.g., near death), almost all rules are dispensed for the sake of the sinner who shows contrition, and I can absolve anything for which there is contrition. This is most common in general absolution in case of emergency. Think of the firefighters who received general absolution before they ran up the Twin Towers before they fell).

    I welcome all additions and corrections, of course!

  27. Joe says:

    Thanks A Random Friar. I was thinking of the case where a (sincere) penitent wishes to make a full and complete confession but in the course of the confession the priest realizes that he does not have the authority to absolve one particular sin. You say “I am still bound to confess it …” – is one “bound” in the same sense that one is bound after a general absolution to “confess” mortal sins in a subsequent individual confession? I understand that in that case the sin is indeed forgiven, but one is still obliged as a matter of discipline.

  28. There are no longer “reserved sins”. There are still reserved censures.

    Let’s us not take this down a rabbit hole.

Comments are closed.