QUAERITUR: Is “I absolve you” alone sufficient for validity?

From a reader:

Dear Fr. Z
I recently went to confession, the priest said everything correctly (atleast, im pretty sure he did anyway) up until the part where he is suppose to say “I absolve you of you’r sins.” but, all he said was “I
absolve you.” I know its really just 3 words…but is it enough to tamper with the validity?

This is another example of why priests should SAY THE BLACK and DO THE RED.

People should never have to doubt that they were validly absolved, even for a moment.

Why on earth do priests fool around with the words of absolution?  Why? WHY
do they do something so abysmally stupid?  WHY would they want to run even the slightest risk of leaving a penitent in doubt about being absolved?  WHY?

If what you report is true, that was illicit as a form of absolution though probably it was a valid formula for absolution of sins.  That said, it seems to me that the absolution should refer to what is being absolved. He isn’t absolving a censure, after all.  The confessional is the place to confess, primarily, sins, though censures are also absolved.  From this it can be argued that you don’t have to mention sins explicitly.

The formula in its short form is “Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis, in nomine Patris +, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti… I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father +, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”   This is the very last part of a longer formula, “God, the Father of Mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”  The short version suffices by itself in a pinch.  More priests these days are using the older, traditional form of absolution as well.

That said, St. Thomas Aquinas argues (though his opinions are not the equivalent of the Church’s Magisterium – never forget that) that “Ego te absolvo”  is the form of the sacrament (ST III, Q. 84, Art. 3).  If he is right, then that may suffice.

The Catechism of the Council of Trent, reliable and surely an expression of the Church’s Magisterium, and surely working from Aquinas has this:

Pastors should not neglect to explain the form of the Sacrament of Penance. A knowledge of it will excite the faithful to receive the grace of this Sacrament with the greatest possible devotion. Now the form is: I absolve thee, as may be inferred not only from the words, whatsoever you shall bind upon earth shall be bound also in heaven, but also from the teaching of Christ our Lord, handed down to us by the Apostles.

That said, it seems to me that these days the minimum form in the Latin Church (the Eastern Churches have their own somewhat different practices) is “Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis… I absolve you from your sins.”  As far as I can tell, this is what most authors stand by.  Because I am an Unreconstructed Ossified Manualist, I consulted several manuals (e.g., Tanquerey, Prümmer, Sabetti Barrett).  They all come to the same basic conclusion.  “Absolvo te a peccatis tus” is certainly valid, and “Absolvo te” is probably valid, but if possible the longer form should be repeated to be sure.

Part of the problem I see in this whole discussion – aside from the arrogance of priests who screw around with the form of absolution – is the notion of what the bare minimum is, as if to suggest that perhaps the rest is not so important.

Certainly we need to know what constitutes a valid absolution. In some cases of emergencies that can be important. In most cases, in most confessionals, there is no need to reduce the form of the sacrament to the bare minimum.  If there is need to save some time because of long lines, etc, or even if he simply wants to adhere to the old stricture of not delaying absolution the priest can always start with the whole formula while the penitent is saying the Act of Contrition, reserving the core of the form of absolution for when the penitent is finished.

I caution against reduction of sacramental forms or the administration of sacraments with the bare minimum.  It seems to me this leads to all manner of liturgical abuses over the past few decades.  “So long as we do this minimum part right, its valid!  The rest we can fool around with.”

If you confess to a priest who regularly does something dodgy with the form of absolution, I would politely bring it up. People are within their rights to have the form of absolution spoken as it is in the book. Ask the priest to give you absolution with the proper form. Do not be nasty or aggressive about this.  If that doesn’t help, talk to the pastor of the parish and/or the local bishop. If that doesn’t produce results, send a copy of your correspondence to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (not Divine Worship) and seek a clarification.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    Hi Fr. Z,

    I understand and agree with you and I might be bothered like the person asking you was, but doesn’t context play a role? In a confessional, the context is absolving sins, not absolving a censure. [Not always.]

  2. KAS says:

    I love it when a priest in the confessional is using the older longer version. It is so reverent and focuses so much on the who and why of the Sacrament. I never doubt with that fuller versions because it is so clearly spelled out!

  3. BV says:

    I recall that once a priest absolved me in Latin… caught me by surprise (not a church where the Extraordinary Form is available).

    I also recall the first time a priest said the words of absolution while I was praying the Act of Contrition. I was wondering why he dismissed me suddenly, then I realized he was saying something while I was praying… then it hit me.

    Another time, a priest at my parish (where I rarely go to confession, partly because other parishes offer confession are more convenient earlier times on Saturday – I am fortunate to have many times available in my area).. a priest at my parish just sort of sat in silence after I finished confessing, and I made it clear I was finished… (you’d think he never heard those sins before, but I am sure he heard them thousands of times – he is a priest for over 20 years) … then he said something, asked me to say an Act of Contrition, and when I was done, he said, “Go in peace”. I was pretty sure he mumbled something when I was praying the Act of Contrition, but I walked out of there sort of wondering what had just happened.

    I have my favorite priests for confession, and ones I avoid unless they are the only ones available, then I relent and go to them, always mindful of the words of one favorite priest who used to be at my parish, “Those who wait until the eleventh hour to confess their sins will die at ten o’clock!”

  4. Legisperitus says:

    Recently I confessed to a priest who is not a native English speaker and seems to struggle with the pronunciation. It sounded as if he omitted the “I” so as to say “may God give you pardon and peace and absolve you from your sins…” But I believe he could have undetectably slurred the “I” into the “absolve,” and he clearly wasn’t up to anything, so I trust God will sort that one out. :)

    (I do still wonder, though, about the validity of an EF Mass where I was a server and heard the elderly priest say “Hic est enim calix mei,” accidentally omitting “sanguinis.”)

  5. Phillip says:

    I hate it when priests mess around with sacramental formulas. When I was new to the Church, a priest to whom I had never confessed before mangled some of the “God the Father of mercies…” stuff and then said, “I absolve you from your sins, in the name of Father…Son…Holy Spirt,” leaving out the articles. I was worried about an hour as to whether or not the absolution was valid until someone who knew a bit more theology than I did assured me that it was. I still never went back to that priest for confession unless he was the only confessor I had access to when I needed one (the next time I went he did it by the book, though). It just makes you feel like the whole thing isn’t important to the priest when you’re busy worrying about the state of your soul, you know? I was still kind of uncomfortable in the confessional, and it just seemed like he didn’t care. Little things DO matter. Confession isn’t always easy. It’s even harder if you get the sense that the priest can’t be bothered to do it right. If he doesn’t care, why should I? (The answer to this question is obvious, but when you’re looking for any excuse NOT to go to confession for whatever reason…these things stand out in one’s mind, bad excuse though that might be.)

  6. “Because I am an Unreconstructed Ossified Manualist, I consulted several manuals (e.g., Tanquerey, Prümmer, Sabetti Barrett). ”

    You read my mind, Pater, and just saved me looking it up to be sure. fyi, I add two canonists, Regatillo and Cappello, and the theologian Halligan to my auctores probati list.

  7. Mary Jane says:

    Usually the priests I go to confession to (EF form) say the longer form of absolution, in Latin, after I say the Act of Contrition. A couple months ago however there was a visiting Franciscan priest who said the shorter form (in Latin) and that was the first time I had ever heard the short form. Even though the confession took place in an EF only parish, I left the confessional a little confused and I had to ask someone I trusted, “Hey are priests allowed to say just ‘Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis, in nomine Patris +, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti…’?” I was assured yes that was alright. So I know that feeling of wondering, Hey! Was I really absolved? It’s an awful feeling.

    Don’t mess around with the words of absolution! Say the black, do the red. Fr. Z’s mugs would make great Christmas gifts for your favorite priests, by the way…

    [Do I hear an “Amen!”?]

  8. Joseph-Mary says:

    My confessor uses the long form–thanks be to God!

    But in the past I have had more than one time where I needed to call my long distance spiritual director to check to see if the sacrament was valid because of things not properly said or done–no Act of Contrition or no penance or some different words used to absolve, etc.

    I really appreciate my priests as I do not have to make those calls any more. I do not have to check on the validity of the innovations at Mass either like I used to have to do. Many a time I would repeat to myself after one of these interesting interpretations of the holy Mass: illicit but valid, illicit but valid.

    I prefer both licit and valid myself.

  9. I’ve gone to priests who could say the whole long formula in just about one breath, so I’m pretty sure that time is not a constraint. Memory, maybe. :)

    Re: articles, I suggest that, in the phrase “of the” in prayers, the unvoiced “the” is often nearly silent in rapid speech. Like people from Tokyo who pronounce “-su” endings with no audible “u” detectable by an outside observer without detection equipment — most people actually do say the “the”, but subtly and without much air or tone behind it. Other people sorta turn “of the” into “of” with a glottal stoppish “the”. You notice that kids still learning to speak, or still learning basic prayers, often leave out the “the” from the Sign of the Cross; that’s often because they are still working on detecting and remembering that “the”, which adults are often eliding a lot more than they think. (What you and I think I said, because we both know each other’s speech habits, and what a recording reveals about what phonemes I actually produced — well, it can be quite different.)

    Enunciation is useful for priests, of course; but they are mortal flesh and glottis like everybody else.

  10. alexandra88 says:

    I remember confessing to a German priest this summer (where I was at the time, the Anglo priests were occupied) and he gave a mighty brave go at the words of absolution in English and totally muddled up. Bless his heart, he clearly wasnt trying to do anything wrong. I know that God Himself completely understood, but I did have some doubt in my mind about the situation itself from a human perspective. A few days later, I confessed to a different priest. Just as he was raising his hands to give absolution, I was presuming he was going to say it in English, a language he may not have had a complete grasp of. I did not want any doubt WHATSOEVER in this confession, I suddenly said, “Father, if you feel more comfortable, I would love to hear you say the absolution in your native Italian”. He gave a huge smile and said, “Really? Wonderful!” Sweet absolution, and in a beautiful melodic language no less.

  11. Legisperitus says:

    Recently I confessed to a priest who is not a native English speaker and seems to struggle with the pronunciation. It sounded as if he omitted the “I” so as to say “may God give you pardon and peace and absolve you from your sins…” But I believe he could have undetectably slurred the “I” into the “absolve,” and he clearly wasn’t up to anything, so I trust God will sort that one out. :)

    I have this wretched problem all the time. But with English speakers! It’s so frustrating. Fr Finigan is about the only persona able to talk sense in the UK about these things. He also recently had an article in the Herald.

    Re your suggestion Fr, to politely bring it up. I tried that once. It went down like a lead balloon! I just go and make the confession again somewhere else. But in the UK if you bring this up, priests think you’re a crank. And you have to bring it up if you’re making a confession again, really. One priest at W. Cathedral told me he thought I had a problem!

  12. Stephen D says:

    One of the priests in my local parish fails to ask me to recite an Act of Contrition before giving absolution. Is this valid? Would somebody please reply? I have asked this question previously on this site without response and am concerned.

  13. Mary Jane says:

    @ Stephen D – I have never encountered what you described, but thought I’d try to help out: contrition is necessary, but I do not believe a formal recited ‘Act of Contrition’ is (someone correct me if I’m wrong). Regardless it’s probably still a good idea to say it, whether in the confessional or in the pew afterwards.

  14. Banjo pickin girl says:

    Stephen D, no sweat, that is done to save time. It is the absolution that does it, not your saying the act of contrition or even performing the penance.

  15. PostCatholic says:

    I’m so disappointed the referenced Guido wasn’t Sarducci.

  16. Nun2OCDS says:

    Recently I went to confession to a priest who used the longer form in Latin. I had only heard this form a couple of times previously but understand that any censures are lifted as well as sins forgiven. I am no Latin scholar but know enough to recognize the words of absolution. As I expected he was saying the prayer while I made the Act of contrition but he said the words of absolution before I was finished. Should I have cut the act of contrition short and stopped when I heard him say, “ego te absolvo..” ?

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