QUAERITUR: Writing sins on a card and burning it instead of confession.

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From a readerette:

I went to church this wednesday to a Lent conference. The guest Father organized a “write your sins in a card, be absolved and burn your sins” ceremony.

Is my understanding that you have to say your sins to a father in order to be absolved, so is this ceremony valid? I’ve never seen this in my life!

And I hope you never see it again!

I am amazed that priests still do this stupid and childish game-playing with the sacrament.

You are right. You have to confess your sins, all your mortal sins, to a priest confessor (a priest who has faculties to receive sacramental confessions).

Writing them on a card and burning them is not enough.

You have to communicate your sins to the priest.

Say, for example, you recently had your tongue cut out by brown-shirts of Pres. Obama’s new Domestic Security Force because you spoke out against the HHS mandate. You need to go to confession because you are angry that Kathleen Sebelius, a catholic, is abetting him in his massive power-grab and the erosion of your freedom. Since you know that there is a priest in hiding nearby, you want to confess your sins. Since the President’s brown-shirts cut out your tongue, you can write the sins down and give them to the priest to read. Has has to read them and he has to give you absolution vocally. He can’t write the absolution form.

This “writing your sins and burning them” instead of actual confession of those sins is a childish and dangerous distortion of one of the most important gifts Our Lord gave us.

I would write to your local bishop and ask him what he thinks of this.

Perhaps someone will correct this priest.  I want to give the poor chucklehead the benefit of the doubt.  I want to imagine that he thinks he is – all by his creative self – doing something “meaningful”.  But we don’t want Father to wind up in hell for deceiving people into thinking that doing this instead of actually confessing sins is a valid substitution.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. The Cobbler says:

    Sounds like voodoo/magic to me, this writing something down and then burning the writing to supposedly get rid of the thing. Now if that worked on cockroaches and other denizens of Washington D.C…. the Church would probably excommunicate you for trying it!

  2. mamajen says:

    Oh goodness. I do write down my sins to take with me into the confessional because I tend to forget, and I like the idea of burning the list after…but as a substitute for confession? No way! The prospect of having to confess to a priest helps keep me on track.

  3. The Cobbler says:

    “Ooga-boogah! Sin be gone!” *waves arms, sticks pins in abstract art*

    Nope, my conscience and my concupiscence both seem to be around still. Dang it.

  4. The Cobbler says:

    mamajen — Good point, after having Confession to actually get rid of the sin, burning any notes that you found helpful would be a decent safeguard and not a bad symbolic gesture. It’s the relying on our own symbolic gestures in place of the Sacraments that’s crazy!

  5. anilwang says:

    Even if it were possible to bypass the priest and confess just to God, that ritual does exactly the opposite of what it purports. The priest really needs to brush up on his Leviticus.

    When the Jews made a sacrifice, they made a sacrifice of their first fruits and their best sheep. Malachi 1:8 makes it clear that God is insulted by offering anything less than your best. To offer God your sins as a sacrifice is equivalent to offering the IRS your credit card debt as payment for your income tax. In both cases, you will go to jail and you will deserve what you get.

  6. Augustin57 says:

    We had that a few years ago at a nearby parish, albeit with a slight twist. A visiting priest came to give a mission after which Confession was to be offered. Rather than just saying everyone write your sins down and burn them (they had a place up near the altar with a fire going where folks would put their written sins. After which he gave general absolution. Then, he said if anyone really wanted to go to a priest, several would be available. Needless to say, I went to a priest, one-on-one, who was available.

    As we were leaving, I mentioned to a lady I knew that the sin writing and burning with the general absolution was wrong. She got mad at me and said it was, so I just left it alone and went my merry way. Luckily, that priest never came back, that I know of.

  7. Philangelus says:

    So help me out here. Let’s say Fred goes to this ceremony and is aware of a mortal sin he has committed, and Fred intends to utilize the sacrament of Confession to be rid of this mortal sin. Father Flameout tells him to write it on a card and be absolved. Fred goes away believing he has been absolved of his mortal sin and then lives the rest of his life behaving as if his mortal sin was absolved because he fully believes it was — after all, Father Flameout told him it was just fine to do things this way.

    What are the consequences for Fred’s soul, given that he goes on to receive Communion and make future Confessions with this unabsolved mortal sin on his soul?

  8. thereseb says:

    There is a well known wiccan spell which can easily be googled where you write down problems , and burn them in a ritual with candles and scatter their ashes. I will not say more .

  9. Mary Jane says:

    I feel sorry for the priest who pulled this stunt. I can’t even bear to think of all the people who will skip confession because they think they’ve been absolved. That’s on the priest’s shoulders now. *shudders*

  10. DLe says:

    The closest thing I’ve heard/had to this was a Confirmation retreat where we were all to write our faults/sins onto a little piece of paper and tack it to an (aluminum foiled) cross. Then we all went to confession, and afterwards the papers were lit, resulting in a flaming spectacle that resulted in all the papers disappearing, leaving behind an intact cross.

    Point is, there was still confession.

  11. Clinton R. says:

    And this is the problem with novelties. This is not our Church to play around with. This is the Lord’s Church that He founded upon St. Peter. Priests need to follow Church history and tradition and not meddle with the Sacraments just to satisfy their whims. Thank you to Father Zuhlsdorf and faithful priests who truly care about the salvation of our souls.

  12. Paul says:

    DLe, please tell me that they didn’t light a cross on fire? The symbolism to the Klan’s ceremony is simply too similar. Can you imagine if that story and picture made it onto the internet?

  13. guatadopt says:


    There is no way for us to know the state of one’s soul at all, let alone with this type of debacle of a situation. However, in order to be in a state of mortal sin one needs to have knowledge that the sin committed was in fact mortal (and of course, the sin itself has to be grave) and has to act freely to commit said sin. In this situation, hearing from a priest that your sins are forgiven and truely believing that would negate, IMHO, one of the requirements of being in mortal sin. I would like to say that the mortal sin transfers to the goofball priest who perpetuated such a horrendous scandal, but I’m not sure it works that way!

  14. Lady Catcliffe says:

    Thank you, Father Zuhlsdorf, for addressing this issue. Children of confession age (Grades 3 to 6) in my son’s CATHOLIC elementary school “confessed” in this manner during Advent; he said later he saw all the sheets with the sins in a recycling bin after this “penance” service! (Not only that, when the children were to say the Our Father communally as their penance, they were to use the orans gesture; objecting to the gesture, my son kept his hands folded. When a teacher came over and tried to force his hands up, he switched to the Pater Noster!)
    Unfortunately, out of cowardice (which is not of the Holy Spirit, I know), I did not complain the pastor, let alone the ordinary, about this irregularity. I didn’t even complain to the teacher or school administration.
    However, this school is scheduled to have its Lenten confessions this coming Monday, 26 March. Please pray for a miracle, that confessions will be auricular. I will give a “progress report” on Monday.

  15. The Cobbler says:


    While that’s the way it works for committing mortal sins, I don’t know that that’s exactly the deal for being forgiven of them… That said, however, I have heard that if you honestly don’t remember some past mortal sin (say, because you honestly thought it was forgiven!) and make a good Confession, in which you reject mortal sin in general et cetera, then, while you may still be obliged to Confess those sins again should you remember them later, if you don’t you’re pretty well covered on grounds that you made a Confession with the intention of rejecting and being absolved of all mortal sin and only failed to specifically mention these because you honestly forgot about them. That… sounds more complicated than it is — boiled down, basically, next Confession in which you intend to Confess all sins you are aware of in order to be freed from all sin would probably take care of any you honestly thought you’d been previously forgiven. At least, if what I’ve heard is correct. Perhaps somebody who’s an actual theologian and not just, like myself, a youngster who hung out with theology students for years can chime in.

  16. Laura98 says:

    I saw this done on a science fiction TV show once… they wrote down their sins on scrolls and burned them in a communal fire before a renewal prayer service. Never thought I’d hear about it for Catholic Confession! How truly horrifying!

  17. jeffreyquick says:

    Yep, it’s Neo-pagan. Been there done that. If I ever see it in a Catholic church, I will tell Father where I saw it before.

  18. guatadopt says:


    I, like you am just a youngster who pretends to be a theologian because I have library of hundreds of books I’ve read since I was 12 :)

    I think on some level, if you firmly believe (and are made to believe by a priest confessor) that your sins are forgiven, how could you then be held liable for them? Similarly, what if a priest is hearing confessions without the proper jurisdiction? That confession is neither licit nor valid, yet the penitent has no knowledge of that. You would think Almighty God could not possibly still hold that person accountable…but I am in no position to speak for Him.

  19. heway says:

    I don’t believe that the congregation was told that the burning was enough for the forgiveness of sins. I do believe that the writer may have misunderstood the instructions. I have seen this done somewhere in the past?? The writing down is an old study form. If you want to committ something to memory, write it down. After confessing properly, you may then burn your notes. I may have seen it on a retreat, not in a church.

  20. acardnal says:

    I have been to Confession a few times where the priests did not use the EXACT words of absolution. When it came to the key operative statement of absolution in the formulary, they omitted the words “of your sins” and instead said “I absolve (of your sins) in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” I mentioned this to another priest later and he said not to worry. That it was the priests’ intention to forgive you. That I had made a sincere Confession to God and was forgiven because – to paraphrase – “the Church provides what is lacking in such cases.” So. . . . .if a penitent made an honest and sincere Confession in good faith to a priest even though it may have been illicit and invalid unbeknownst to the penitent, I believe God forgave his sins and that the “Church provided what was lacking” in this case.

  21. Peter in Canberra says:

    So this ‘classic’ still lives on.

    It was a stock in trade of the side-kick priest of the renegade, and now left the Church, Fr Peter Kennedy, in Brisbane (Australia).

    In fact I saw it done in the chapel of what was then the Brisbane seminary

  22. DLe says:

    Paul–it was a small, rudimentary cross probably fashioned together from cardboard, wrapped with aluminum foil. It was no more than, say, two feet in length. The only thing that burned (and for only one second, at that!) was the collection of pinned-on papers. Nothing like those sorts of cross burnings, thankfully!

  23. Mary Jane says:

    @ acardnal:

    God can choose to forgive the penitent – He is not bound. However, Church laws are clear and formulas are there for a reason. If the formula isn’t right, if the matter isn’t right, or if something else is missing (like jurisdiction), I don’t think we can assume that the Church will provide what is lacking. If we could assume that, then we could also assume that SSPX confessions are valid because the Church would provide what is lacking (that is, the jurisdiction).

    I think if one were to find out after the fact on that a confession was not valid due to one thing or another, one should seek out a priest who could absolve – and one who could do it right – and explain the situation.

  24. acardnal says:

    No……there really is some very long standing moral theology on this. I may have gotten the phrasing wrong but it’s very close. Perhaps some wise clergyman can chime in to clarify.

  25. Father K says:

    Am I misunderstanding something, but why would ‘You need to go to confession because you are angry that Kathleen Sebelius, acatholic, is abetting him in his massive power-grab and the erosion of your freedom.’ Why on earth would you need to go to confession about that? Remember Our Lord in the Temple getting angry with the money-changers.

  26. acardnal says:

    @Mary Jane,
    please note I said “unbeknownst to the penitent.” I am not speaking of some one intentionally going to Confession to a priest without faculties or who performs the Sacrament illicitly! Moreover, my own personal Confessions happened so long ago I couldn’t possibly remember what sins I confessed.

    Have ever gone to some big huge Catholic convention or conference where priests from all over show up to hear Confessions? How do you know they have their faculties or are even a PRIEST?! I know from first-hand conversations with a priest I know that imposters (nut cases) show up sometimes as priests. Do you really think that penitents who went to Confession with the imposters were not forgiven by our merciful God?

  27. Mary Jane says:

    @ acardnal – Sorry, I should have been a little more clear. I certainly didn’t mean to make you feel bad either! I apologize if I gave that impression.

    What I meant was, if it is obvious that there is a problem (the penitent knows the priest doesn’t have jurisdiction, or knows that the wrong matter/form was used), then I just meant that we cannot (and should not) assume that the Church will provide for whatever was missing. Now, if the penitent is not aware of a problem that exists (like a lack of jurisdiction or the priest using incorrect matter/form), then I would imagine that God would not hold the penitent responsible. We are not culpable for things we are not aware of.

    So again, just to clarify, I meant that if we are aware that there is a problem or we find out after the fact that there was a problem, then I don’t believe we can assume that the Church provides. I believe that in this situation we have an obligation to at least talk to a knowledgeable priest about the situation and try to rectify it.

    I’m very much open to being corrected on any of this. This is just what I have been told and learned.

  28. acardnal says:

    Mary Jane,
    In my case I called the priest out on at least two occasion within the confines of the confessional that they omitted the words “of your sins”. This was a risky. They were momentarily at a loss for words. I don’t think they honestly realized they omitted those words. (All the more reason to have the absolution prayer written down in front of them.) In any event, their intent was to absolve me of my sins. They probably through just plain misspeaking, inadvertence, having a bad day, or just their own humaness – no one is perfect – they omitted the words “of your sins.” Instead they said “I absolve you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” What else could they be absolving me from but my sins? It’s a Confessional after all! When I left the confessional I thought of all those who had gone before me and all those in line behind me and wondered if they gave the same absolution to all of them and if they and me were indeed absolved. This is why I mentioned this to a solid orthodox priest who told me that we all were forgiven. The fault was on the priest not us. We bared our souls before God. And the “Church made up out of its treasury of graces” for what was lacking in form….not because of anything willful on the priest’s part but more due to his being a human and inclined toward inadvertent mistakes as we all are.

  29. Father P says:

    Usually in these ceremonies the list is handed to the priest who reads it. I don’t remember the document, I’m sure someone could find it, but the Congregation for the Sacraments issued a statement about 10 years back saying that the penitent HAD to make an oral confession for the valid matter of the Sacrament unless the penitent was physically unable to speak.

  30. Father P says:

    Found it. “In accord with the law and practice of the Church, the faithful must orally confess their sins (auricular confession) , except in cases of true physical or moral impossibility (e.g., extreme illness or physical condition inhibiting speech, speech impediment, etc.). This disposition would exclude communal celebrations of the sacrament in which penitents are invited to present a written list of sins to the priest confessor. It should be noted that such innovations also risk compromising the inviolable seal of sacramental confession.”

    Circular Letter on the Integrity of the Sacrament of Penance.

  31. Lili of the fields says:

    Definitely a Wiccan practice, I wonder what kind of books that priest is reading on his free time…

  32. One of those TNCs says:

    Shades of 1975! A “hip and with-it” priest at the college Newman Center did this at a communal penance service. We ignorant tail-end-of-the-Hippies-Era college students thought it was so “meaningful” and “spiritual” and “cleansing.” It must have been a penance service on Ash Wednesday, because the priest used the ashes of those papers to mark our foreheads. I remember that they were still warm. That doesn’t make any sense, unless his innovation was even more bizarre than I remember…

    But I’m pretty sure that service also ended with individual confessions. At least, I hope it did.

  33. Dave N. says:

    We used to have these all the time in my old parish where this particular process was used to speed up confession during Lenten penance services (one priest only, hundreds of people wanting to confess). I have often wondered–were the absolutions, which were individual, not general, invalid or simply illicit? One’s penance was drawn from slips of paper in a bowl at the end of the process–sort of like “secret Santa.”

  34. catholicmidwest says:

    Parlor games.

  35. CarpeNoctem says:

    acardnal: I don’t know how ‘wise ‘ this clergyman is, but the principle the befouled confessor from your original post is trying to articulate, I think is “ecclesia supplet”… that the Church will ‘supply’ what is missing when a sacrament is botched in matter or form or whatever.

    The problem is that, according to the training I received, “ecclesia supplet” only works in cases of jurisdiction and perhaps other non-essential matters with respect to the sacraments. The essentials of matter and form can never be ‘supplied’ by the intention of the Church. For example, if a priest were to celebrate marriage or offer absolution and, through no fault of his own, did not know that he had no jurisdiction to offer these sacraments, the Church would supply that jurisdiction to make good on what was done. My guess is that E.S. might give a mechanism for the validity of SSPX confirmations, which currently take place without legitimate episcopal jurisdiction, at some future time of reconciliation.

    Ecclesia supplet can never be used for a formal or material defect in a sacrament. For example, if one accidentally consecrates grape juice instead of wine, while there was (hopefully) no intention to commit the error and while the desire may be to ‘do as the Church does’, no canonical slight of hand will ever give you (in absolute sacramental terms) the Blood of Christ. Yes, God could always do whatever he wanted to in terms of supplying for what was lacking out of his grace and desire to make up for what might be lacking, and we may have the deep desire to believe that he acts in this way, but we can never have the comfort of knowing in any objective way about this. If in certain reason and observation we know that the sacrament is fouled up because the matter is not correct, I think we can be certain that there is no sacrament present on the grounds that God wants the Church to have certainty, not doubt or wishful thinking, about his presence in sacramental encounters.

    This correct understanding of E.S. heads off lots of stupid stuff. For example, the Chuch can never ‘supply’ the Real Presence for well-meaning folks going to a womynpriest “mass”, under the principle that one’s (womynpriest’s) own interpretation of orders is simply an advancement of the Church Christ intended, and until the Church comes along, it makes everything OK through ecclesia supplet. This is not merely a jurisdictional issue, but a fundamental sacramental issue callling into question who the Church calls to orders. As much as I might ‘want’ to believe that God made the Eucharist present during my practice/dry Masses as a deacon… even for a good or fitting ”reason’, it just wasn’t possible. As much as a protestant minister ‘wants’ to do what the Catholic Church does in making the Eucharist present (and goes to great expense and fanfare to get the vestments and vessels and right-sounding words), it just ain’t so.

    E.S. also heads off careless or ‘innovative’ sacramental celebrations like the ones we are talking about here. ES is not a way to accept that ‘anything goes’ if we have the right intention. Intentionality is only a part, not the whole or even the essential part, of confecting the sacraments.

    I have commented before on how hard it is to actually ‘break’ a sacrament… and it really is hard… not because of the supposed ‘supply’ of the Church and the ‘possibilities’ of correction of these defects through extraordinary means, but instead because of the faithfulness of God who avails himself in an absolute way to the materials of this world and the prayer of the Church.

  36. MargaretC says:

    Hello, Father — I was rather entertained by your example. I myself have had to confess twice this Lent to an uncharitable desire to slap Kathleen Sebelius upside the head.

    You will be relieved to hear that confessions at my parish are handled according to the rules. And we have lovely carved wood confessionals with doors that close.

  37. ContraMundum says:

    Maybe this year I should fill out my tax forms and burn them, then pretend that that’s the same thing as submitting them.

  38. Father P says:


    You are correct, ecclesia supplet is not the correct principle. A better principle is Deus providet. Which is not a technical term but is the “principle” behind Baptism of desire or Spiritual Communion. The Church does hold that in cases of physical or moral impossibility of the reception of a Sacrament, the authentic desire for it (which is itself a previenent grace) is a vehicle through which God provides the grace of the Sacrament. What is not provided, though, is the “external” results of the Sacrament: the Sacramental Presence (Eucharist), Character (in Bapt, Conf, Orders) or Bond (Marriage). Which is why a person who desires Baptism may be saved by Baptism of desire but only the Sacrament of Baptism imparts the character. In the case of a person defrauded by a false priest or through an error (intentional or not) by the minister, the desire for the Sacrament as shown by presenting oneself for it suffcies. If the error is discovered within a reasonable amount of time then the person should make a good confession. However, we should not be afraid that even if the Church cannot supply, God will not provide. The priest who intentionally defrauds the faithful by playing with the matter and form of the Sacraments, he should be very afraid.

  39. acardnal says:

    Thank you CarpeNoctem & Father P for your explanations.

  40. Why would somebody not want to hear the words of absolution or not participate in this most awesome sacrament? Of course now I’m all wise about it. I do go with a list in hand that I compile beforehand because I get really nervous. However that has become a slight problem bc I would use my journal to keep my list or I would keep the list tucked away for a long time not wanting to get rid of it. I did get rid of a whole like of them one day. But I have more around here. I’m thinking today may be a good day for getting rid of those too.

  41. Father P says:

    In most cases I’m familar with of this abuse the writing out and burning sins does not replace the Sacrament (except the writing out of sins, but let’s give the priest the benefit of the doubt that he is unaware of the Pastoral Letter) the priest does READ the list (as I said, thinking wrongly but still thinking he is fulfilling the requirement of the Sacrament), give a penance, and give individual absolution, and then the list is burned (adding an illict “explanatory rite” to the Rite).

    Priests and Penitents I know who once used this form (prior to the decree from CDW) claim the writing of sins led to a more integral “confession” because they were able to write down what they couldn’t say.

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