QUAERITUR: Priest ad libs words of absolution

From a reader:

I have never worried about the words of absolution in confession before, but after coming to know that many of your readers worry about whether or not their sins have been forgiven due to the form variations, it got me thinking.

Tonight I attended the Lenten Reconciliation service at my parish. [Oh dear.] When I sat down with the priest, I somehow gathered up the courage to ask him upfront to use the words “I absolve you…” because the proper form for absolution would make me feel better. He obliged, although he wondered why I asked, and said “well I always say that.” [Oh dear oh dear…] Anyway, when it came time for absolution, he said, “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, RESOLVE AND EMBRACE, and I absolve you from ALL THE SINS YOU SAID AND MAY YOU HAVE PEACE, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Arrrrrggh!!!!

Arrrrgh indeed.

Perhaps I ought to make a coffee mug which has the words of absolution – in Latin and English side by side in the manner of my can. 915 mug.  You could give to priests who don’t seem to be able to Say The Black and Do The Red.

Some priests, who don’t think you are very bright, imagine they have to make everything more “meaningful” all on their own authority.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    Recently, I have asked the priest in the Confessional twice to give me absolution and one forgot a penance until I reminded him. Also, a few times, I had to remind the priest to hear my “Oh my God, I am heartily sorry…”–Act of Contrition, etc. This involved three different priests.

    I do not mind correcting priests gently and kindly in order to receive the sacrament properly. Only one said I did not have to say the Act of Contrition, but I said it anyway. [The priest has to be convinced that you are adequately sorry for your sins. The Act of Contrition is one way to convince him.]

  2. philologus says:


  3. philologus says:

    Some priests I’ve found simply don’t take the sacrament very seriously and I’ve gotten the impression not infrequently that the priest thinks I’m something of a rube for confessing my sins to him. Very annoying.

  4. Darren says:

    There are some priests where I often go to confess who do not ask me to say an act of contrition. I just say it when I get outside, just before I say my Our Father(s)/Hail Mary(s) as prescribed.

    I do recall one time I went to confession at a parish I go to on occasion, and after my Act of Contrition, the priest absolved me in Latin. It caught me by surprise, but when all was done, I thought to myself, “pretty cool.”

  5. Nicole says:

    Supertradmum – Are you suggesting that omission of the Act of Contrition prayer makes the Sacrament of Penance illicit? [I am sure she is not.]

  6. APX says:

    My understanding the A of C can be said afterward outside of the Confessional if the priest is certain the penitent has, at minimum, attrition for the sins committed before giving absolution.

  7. Facta Non Verba says:

    I’ve had to ask for penance on more than one occasion, too.

  8. Choirmaster says:

    There’s a Church where I go to confession (when, in my culpable weakness, I steel myself to go at all) and, by the grace of God, I have had the fortune of getting the same guy the few times that I have gone in the past three years. The first time I went there I was very concerned about what I would encounter, the previous confession being over a year before that, and over a decade lapse before that!

    Needless to say I was on a mission for a doubt-free absolution, and I devised a plan to make that happen without presuming to instruct the priest in his own craft. If you own a Daily Missal (as published by Angelus Press) there is an excellent formula for confession in there. That is the formula I used for the opening remarks (“Bless me father…”) and my closing remarks (“…for these sins….beg penance from you, father…”) and basically turned my confession into a Say The Black moment. That was my plan: to approach the Sacrament not with commentary and conditions, but with traditional formality.

    The priest, outside of a little too much chit-chat that seemed inappropriately similar to a free psychological counseling session, reverted to form as well! He must have realized (maybe I said something) that I didn’t expect or desire any psychology and instead said a few perfunctory words of actual advice, and began the words of absolution! The real words!

    If you want the priest to do the right thing, sometimes you have to do your own “right thing” first and let your actions speak for themselves.

  9. acardnal says:

    My understanding is that the actual prayer, the “Act of Contrition” – which I do say – can be expressed alternatively by some other expression of sorrow. Simply saying, “I am sorry for . . . “, or “I am sorry for these sins and all the sins of my past” is sufficient as long as you say that to the priest so he knows you have compunction. I know that for me I say the word “sorry” several times while confessing my sins.

  10. Some of these accounts might make one wonder whether all priests today actually believe they have the power to forgive sins. [Good point.]

  11. Allan S. says:

    Fr. Z, I think that is an EXCELLENT idea for a mug! Brilliant, in fact.

    At my “Spirit of Vatican 2” liberal parish, the pastor is not a big fan of confession, so I go to confession downtown near work. My Pastor said that your sins are fogiven as soon as you are sorry for them.

  12. AnAmericanMother says:

    Lenten Penance Service last night at our parish too (I wish we had more frequent regular confession times, but we are short handed right now by two priests and a deacon and the remaining clergy are stretched very thin already).
    I must say that it was handled very well, with a brief introductory prayer and scripture reading, then some instructions for the congregation and everybody dispersed to the confessionals (if they preferred confessing behind the screen) or to chairs set up at intervals in the side aisles and transepts. Everyone lined up down the center aisle so that penitents who weren’t using the boxes had privacy. The music director provided appropriate (that is to say, classical and Catholic) background music, and the deacons handled crowd control. :-)
    The two visiting priests that my husband and I confessed to Said the Black and Did the Red, but instructed us to say our Act of Contrition before we said our penance. No creative penances, and no touchy-feely comments. This may be an OF parish, but it’s a straight-up, old-fashioned one.

  13. wmeyer says:

    Questions of form are one thing. I have had the unhappy experience of being told in confession that a “more nuanced view” of a particular sin is called for. With all respect to any priest, I shall have to rely upon Church teaching, in the CCC, to know what is sinful, and not on some well-intentioned but arguably dissident view of the confessor.

  14. Andy Milam says:

    Fr. Z,

    You said, “Some priests, who don’t think you are very bright, imagine they have to make everything more “meaningful” all on their own authority.”

    I have to say, this is the “king fruit” of Vatican Council II. In Southeast Asia, they call the Durian, the “king fruit,” but in actuality, it is a disgusting fruit which smells like turpentine and dirty gym socks. Some find it to be a delicacy, most find it to be disgusting. That, in my opinion is a good allegory.

    Bottom line on this are your last4 words….on. their. own. authority. They don’t have the authority to do that, yet they just take it. That is the biggest scandal to come out of and from Vatican Council II. For all the good the Council may have done, this unravels it all. The pure disobedience of the vast majority of priests has undermined every single aspect of Holy Mother Church. And it has pushed the orthodox priests into either exile or outright persecution.

    My prayer for today is that the Church re-asserts her authority, in a temporal way. It is needed.

  15. Dr. Eric says:

    Yesterday, I was at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, IL. There were over 13 of us in line for the confessional before the 11:30 am Mass. One of the workers came down and said that he would get a priest or two down to the chapel right away. A priest showed up and we all did “number and kind” and each penitent was in and out in less than a minute (it seemed.) When my turn came up I realized why. Father prudently heard the confession, immediately gave absolution with out counsel, and then said, “Make an act of contrition in the chapel along with your penance of an Our Father.” The confession was over. I thought this was a wise thing to do with so many penitents who were there for confession and the Eucharist.

  16. dbqcatholic says:

    So… since he said “I absolve you from ALL THE SINS YOU SAID” does that in fact limit the absolution to those just confessed?

  17. catholicmidwest says:

    When I go to confession I do my part, and if the priest messes up or sins against his vocation by deliberately doing things he’s not supposed to do, regardless of the fact he’s had years of training, it’s his responsibility before God. It’s his responsibility no matter what the cause is. He can answer for it, and I believe that he will. It’s his vocation that’s on the line, not mine. I refuse to take responsibility for the bad behavior of people I can’t control. I’ve got enough to do making myself behave without being big sister to the whole world.

    I also believe in avoiding trouble when possible, so if I have a bad confession experience, I go to a different priest after that. There are some priests who are real pieces of work in the confessional and I never go to them. I don’t need the trouble, nor do I need to have anything to do with their shenanigans. It’s just that simple.

  18. dans0622 says:

    The “Rite of Penance” calls for the priest, after hearing the confession of sins and offering appropriate counsel, to “ask the penitent to express his sorrow” (See the Introduction to the Rite, #45) and even in the “shorter rite” he is to “always retain…the invitation to contrition” (ibid., #21). So, it seems it could be said that it is illicit when the act of contrition is omitted entirely. I don’t know what the former Rite called for in this regard.

  19. acardnal says:

    I disagree, dans0622.

    It is illicit – and probably invalid – if the penitent does not express sorrow for his sins. He does not have to pray the Act of Contrition.

  20. dans0622 says:

    Yes. I should not have said “the act of contrition” since that signifies a particular prayer. The Rite states that the pentitent is to express contrition “in these or similar words” and then gives a (somewhat) traditional act of contrition, other options, or “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (#45). So, I will now modify my statement and say that complete omission of some words of contrition immediately before absolution is illicit.

  21. acardnal says:

    Here’s another way to put it: One must make an act of contrition (express sorrow), but one is not required to say the “Act of Contrition” prayer for the sacrament to be valid.

  22. Clinton R. says:

    This is so tragic that there are priests who endanger the faithful’s souls just because they want to play around with the Sacrament or are too lazy to say the words of absolution properly. The gates of hell are banging louder and louder. Oh Lord, have mercy upon us. +JMJ+

  23. acardnal says:

    In the end, priests who “endanger the faithful’s souls” will have to answer to God one day. I would hate to be in standing in the souls, I mean soles, of their shoes!

  24. AnnAsher says:

    It’s the Cult of Meaningfulishness. Sigh.
    I’m still troubled by my 9 year old daughters experience last December in the confessional with a priest we had never met nor confessed to prior. She went early to Mass with my husband to go to Confession. Ever since her first Confession she has self regulated when to go and goes about every 4-6 weeks. She knows the format. She has been to traditional priests and novus Ordo only priests. She has been to priests in states east to west and north to south while we travel. She has not encountered any troubles. Until this occasion where after beginning in the priest leaned around the screen to ask her how old she was. Then said ” so what do you want to tell me”. She said she was confused and shocked but she went back to her confession. She didn’t hear any more words from the priest, she began her act of contrition, he interrupted and have her a pennance. Then she waited in silence not knowing what he wanted feeling nervous and confused mostly by his rough manner and leaning around the screen to talk to her. She waited in silence while he stared straight ahead. (it’s a well lit room and one can actually see through the screen). She then got up- not receiving absolution and left the confessional in tears. Thankfully this beast of a priest has not deterred her from her zeal for her faith or the Sacrament of Pennance. The next week I took her to our tlm priest.

  25. acardnal says:

    That is so sad, AnnAsher. It should not have happened. That priest will face his Maker one day. God help him! And you are a good mother for caring about this matter.

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