QUAERITUR: Confession and living far from any priest. Fr. Z also rants about General Absolution.

From a reader:

Thank you for your reminders about confession. It’s appreciated.

My question is, what recourse does a layperson have for the forgivness of a mortal sin in the absence of sacramental confession?

Some of us live in very rural areas that don’t get the regualr
services of a priest, let alone a confessional. What is the best
cource of action when one finds himself in a state of moral sin
without a priest available?

God does not ask us to do what is impossible. If it is truly impossible for a person to confess to a priest confessor, he can make a sincere act of contrition.

However, if you are mobile, I would sometime soon make a little field trip to a place where you know ahead of time confessions will be heard. This would be worth your time and effort.

Another point, sometimes absolution is given by priests without have heard the confessions of the penitents in what is called “General Absolution”. This is not your situation, dear questioner, but I include it here anyway. It is important for people to know that “General Absolution” is to be given only in an emergency situation. Of course emergencies cannot be scheduled ahead of time, can they? But that is, in fact, what some priests do: they schedule “General Absolution” in their parishes year after year usually during Advent and Lent.


You cannot validly receive absolution without a confession of sins twice in a row unless you are in danger of death. When a person receives “general” absolution, without having confessed all mortals sins in kind and number because of an emergency (e.g., the airplane is going to crash, there was an earthquake and people are trapped in rubble, battle is about to begin, a missionary finds 5000 people waiting, paramedics and first responders are working on people, etc….), people must, as soon as possible afterward, make a regular, “auricular” confession of all sins. Again, you cannot validly receive absolution repeatedly without confession.

So, there are three forms for receiving the sacrament of penance.

1. Regular, inidividual, auricular confession.
2. Communal penance service with individual confession.
3. General absolution without confession in an emergency.

Don’t confuse “General Absolution” services with penance services which have a liturgical dimension followed by individual confessions.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Inigo says:

    Last week I was in Austria for my honeymoon, and saw something I never saw before at a mass. There was no confiteor at the beginning, only some kind of song by the choir. After this, the priest said something in german that I couldn’t make out, and then everybody made the sign of the cross.

    Since the mass was technically celebrated by the deacon and some old woman (the priest only said the orations, and the canon) I’m not really shure about this. Was this somekind of general absolution?

  2. pinoytraddie says:

    Why don’t write an article on: What does the Absolution really Say?

  3. Supertradmum says:

    There is a parish in London which only has general Penance services, and to make matters worse, there are no individual priests to hear Confessions, only the general absolution after some sort of prayer service. This is done by missionary priests, and parishioners have complained for years, yes, years, about this. Sadly, nothing has been done. I have encouraged a friend of mine in the parish to first, talk to the priest, and then, contact the bishop. She was confused by this sacramental abuse. Such parishioners should vote with their feet on this one.

  4. AnAmericanMother says:

    “General confession” followed by a general absolution was invented by the Anglicans under Edward VI in order to differentiate themselves from Catholics.
    I’m here to tell you that not only is it an abuse, it doesn’t work. It is completely ineffective as a practical matter — even to give the penitent some sort of sense of sin, penance, or pardon.
    Why would any Catholic parish want to institute such a protestant and ineffective procedure – unless nobody there believes in the real thing?

  5. Gregg the Obscure says:

    The weird twist on this that I’ve run across from two priests (one of whom has been excardinated and the other is effectively retired, but I doubt they’re the only fellows to dream this up) is to encourage folks to avail themselves of the Sacrament of Anointing instead of Confession as Anointing also is a means by which sins may be forgiven. This seems at best disingenuous to me.

  6. heway says:

    Our pastor travels 60 miles to our church, usually twice a week. Before each Mass, he hears confessions, even if it makes Mass a few minutes late – no one complains. Perhaps, you might ask the priest who comes if he would do the same. All of the priests we have had agreed to do this.
    General absolution! Haven’t heard of one in about 10 years and that was in an urban area.

  7. Elizabeth D says:

    Isn’t anointing of the sick effective for absolving mortal sin only if the person is truly unable to make a confession (ie because they are in a vegetative state, unable to speak, close to death, etc)? I don’t think it is even effective as absolution except in that case.

    My dad’s parish has an annual service with the anointing of the sick administered to anyone who feels they are sick in any way. I am not sure what to think about it, though I understand one need not be at death’s door for the sacrament to be valid.

  8. Ralph says:

    Excellent advice Father. Thank you.

    My freind’s son attended a “catholic” high school. They had General Absolution once a quarter. My friend and his son would argue at length about the validity and appropriateness of this practice. The son is now in college and, thankfully, has moved on to a more orthodox practice of the faith and left the General Absolution stuff behind him. ;)

  9. Tom Ryan says:

    Can a confession be heard if it is known that the seal will be violated?
    I’m thinking of person dying in the presence of others who insists on not getting general absolution or a tyrannical regime. What if those who hear the priest and the penitent are known to not understand the language used?

  10. Gail F says:

    Tom Ryan: I think you’re confused. A confession does not have to be heard in secret to be valid. Someone else can better explain the reason for the Church’s insistence on the seal of confession — but the validity of the sacrament isn’t it. If someone accidentally hears a confession, it’s still valid. If someone is hit by a car and the EMS people hear his/her confession, it is still valid. If for some reason I insist on screaming my confession at the top of my lungs, it is still valid (assuming I’m sane when doing so). In the early church, confession was public. The practical considerations — very few people wanted to do it — of this were one of many reasons that one-on-one confession in privacy developed.

  11. Tom Ryan says:

    I think you’re confused. A confession does not have to be heard in secret to be valid.

    My question wasn’t about validity.
    Would, could, should a priest hear a confession knowing the seal will be violated.

  12. Lori Pieper says:

    Two different things are involved here. a) whether someone hears or overhears the confession. b)whether the priest deliberately tells someone about the confession.

    It’s my understanding that he seal of confession explicitly refers to the priest deliberately revealing anything about a person’s confession to anyone. So if someone overhears the confession, this doesn’t involve breaking the seal. My opinion was that if the need is grave, a priest should always hear a confession in these circumstances.

  13. Tom Ryan says:

    If a priest knows someone will hear it does that break the seal?

  14. chiners says:

    With the shortage of priests, it has become common, and often essential, for EMHCs to take the Blessed Sacrament to the housebound and those in nursing homes. I have become aware that there does not seem to be any mechanism in place in some parishes, at least,for these people to make their confession on even an annual basis.
    I was fortunate enough this summer to have the opportunity and the free time to serve a parish as all priests would want to – visiting the infirm, not just those in extremis . It was humbling to see their gratitude for actually seeing a priest after many months or years.

  15. ray from mn says:

    There is such a thing as personal, private, General Confession.

    I was away from the Church for about 22 years, between ages 18 and 39, mostly due to sloth, not any problems that I had with the Church or its teachings or requirements.

    Thanks to the grace of God, I found myself in a parish one day retreat and without any major examination of conscience, made a heartfelt weepy confession, blurting out some of the major things that I had done or not done during that period. The priest absolved me and I felt truly absolved.

    But over the years, I was plagued by thoughts of things that I had done that I had not confessed during that reversion confession. I continued to go to confession, making examinations of conscience but never considering or confessing those omitted sins of my past.

    Finally, maybe 15 years later, I sat down and made a printed examination of conscience over a period of weeks and then arranged to make a General Confession, face to face, with a priest of my acquaintance. It took about an hour in his office. I used my printed list as my “cheat sheet.” But when it was all over, he absolved me, gave me a penance and then I destroyed my list, including the copy on my computer. If I had to, I couldn’t tell you more than a couple of the things that I had confessed that day. And I no longer am plagued by thoughts of any of them.

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