QUAERITUR: Was absolution valid at this penance service?

I have had several emails about a youtube video posted by our friends at Rorate.  

The video in question shows a “penance service” at a parish in Portugal.  A priest with a green stole has put a shredder on the altar (which itself is a not a good thing to do).  Young people come up to him with pieces of paper, upon which I suppose they wrote one, some or all of their sins.  The priest reads the paper quickly and then puts the paper into the shredder and the next person comes up. At the end the priest has the congregation say a kind of act of sorrow and then he pronounces the formula of absolution.

Confession by writing sins?  That is the question.

And can you name that tune starting about about 1:30?  (Hint: The group who performed it gathers no moss.)


At Rorate they are chalking this up to Vatican II.  I think it is easier to chalk this up to stupidity.

Here’s the deal.

The matter of the sacrament is the communication of all the mortal sins to the priest.  Sins can be communicated to the priest by signs or gestures or, yes, writing.  The form of the sacrament is the formula of absolution spoken, not written, by a priest with faculties. For example, you could write your sins to a priest even by mail, but you could not be absolved in writing.  You have to be physically present to receive absolution validly when the priest pronounces the formula.  We leave aside here the question of whether a priest who is mute, without the ability to speak, can validly absolve by signs or gestures such as American Sign Language.  He cannot validly absolve by writing the form.


Having consulted manuals, for we ought to be unreconstructed ossified manualists from time to time, I believe these people in the video could have received absolution validly if, if, at the end, the priest, having faculties, pronounced the words of absolution and if, if, everyone had actually written all their moral sins, all they were aware of (confessions must be integral, as complete as is physically and morally possible), and the priest had actually read them all, and then received from the penitent some sign of sorrow for those sins.   St. Alphonsus Liguori says, for example, the penitent who had written sins and had given them to the priest to read could then in the presence of the priest kneel and say “Accuso me de omnibus peccatis quae legisti…. I accuse myself of all the sins which you have read.”  In this case the absolution would be valid.

We aren’t privy to what these kids wrote on those papers or how they were instructed to prepare them, but I’ll bet you all a whiskey sour that they were not told to write all the mortal sins in number and kind.  However, at the end of the filmette we see and hear from the congregation a kind of act of sorrow and see and hear the priest speak the formula of absolution.

So, aside from the fact that this might have been valid for some or all of them who did this paper thing, it sure raises doubts about the validity of the sacrament and, in my opinion, it causes scandal.  At the very least this sort of thing can lead to a lot of confusion about the matter of the sacrament (integral confession of all mortal sins in kind and number to the best of one’s ability).

I think this was a really bad idea.  Were I that priest’s diocesan bishop, I would have a serious talk with him about what happened (for example, were they were instructed to write all their mortal sins), why he did this this way (was he trying to save time?), and then tell him never to do it again.

Bonus video for those of you who read this far:


If only the official WDTPRS parodohymnodist could write some lyrics for this.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:


    Thank you for your comments.
    Those look suspiciously like oil-filled candles, with the removable containers. Is this yet another example of “if you have to tell the good father why he can’t wear a cheese block on his head to say Mass….”?

    God bless,


  2. Chris: Something along those lines. But even if Father wore a cheese block on his head, that would be a matter of bad taste rather than some that would make the sacrament invalid.

  3. acricketchirps says:

    I believe these people in the video could have received absolution validly … if, if, everyone had actually written all their moral sins, all they were aware of

    Do you mean to say EVERYone would have to in order that ANYone be absolved? [No.]

  4. BaedaBenedictus says:

    My God, 7 years of formation, where do these wacko priests COME from?! Rorate chalks it up to Vatican II; I think it’s more precise to chalk it up to the liturgical/anthropological/spiritual/theological earthquake that happened to *coincide* with Vatican II. The question of causation along with coincidence, that’s a discussion for the CDF and the SSPX.

  5. JP Borberg says:

    Would it be in bad taste if the block was tasty cheese?

  6. JLCG says:

    Rorate is certainly a diabolical enterprise [?!?] always ready to find fault with anything and actually everything in order to pollute our Holy Church. I believe it is a sin to read that fish wrap. [Okay, that’s a “no” vote for Rorate. And around here “fishwrap” designates one place and one place only, and it ain’t Rorate.]

  7. James Joseph says:

    Fr. Z.

    What does number and kind mean?

  8. Recently I posted an excerpt from von Hildebrand were he specifically used abolishment of auricular confession in an example.

  9. *an invalid example of a disciplinary action of the Church.

  10. Maltese says:

    The playful attitude makes a game of the confessional. Do you think one of these kids would write more than just a few sins (possibly making the priest read them for more than a moment)?

    This is akin to general absolution, which should only happen if, say, you are on a rapidly sinking Titanic.

    What this priest has done is make foolery of penance.

    What I would have done is shown up with a ream of paper, with sins written-out single-spaced!

  11. amenamen says:

    Weird Al presides at a penance service, but without music from the Rolling Stones.
    The faithful express joy.

  12. robtbrown says:

    JLCG says:

    Rorate is certainly a diabolical enterprise always ready to find fault with anything and actually everything in order to pollute our Holy Church.

    In this matter, Rorate merely described what happened. What objection do you have to that?

    I believe it is a sin to read that fish wrap.

    Based on what?

  13. ljc says:

    “At Rorate they chalking this up to Vatican II”

    If a meteor fell from the sky injuring an old lady Rorate would find a way to chalk it up to Vatican II.

  14. NoTambourines says:

    I’d be the kid the darned shredder would jam on, I just know it: BZZZZZZZ–clink! “Uh, Father?”

    Seriously, though, this sort of thing drives me batty. The remotest possibility of legibility would discourage me from being complete and frank in my confession. (I’d also be the kid asking “Father, is that a crosscut shredder?”) I wonder how many of the kids are weighing the possibility of their friends snatching a glance of a word on the paper, or who generalized or left stuff out to be on the safe side there.

    Same thing goes with confessions not held in confessionals with a door, but a few priests posted around the church in the open with soft music playing, as my Catholic high school used to do. I don’t have a quiet voice. Not a fan of that arrangement. I wonder if the priests draw straws to man the confessionals with the door at those parish penance services. Those are the ones with the longest lines, by far. I wish parish architects would give people what they want: more “real” confessionals.

    It might also discourage things like we see above.

  15. mrsschiavolin says:

    Something similar went on at a parish near me. I didn’t investigate, because there were 6-8 priests hearing normal confession. But in the main church there were two lines of people bring papers up to be burned in a silver bucket. Since we are in the worst drought of 1000 years I’m surprised they took that risk! But I also had no idea if absolution was being offered in the burn lines or not. Priests were receiving and burning the papers.

  16. Dorcas says:

    Maybe he is the only priest available… there were so many kids there, it looks like a school service. This may have seemed like a good way to get everyone through Confession. At least he reads each list with the kids standing there, if he had to ask questions or something he could have.

  17. frjim4321 says:

    Interesting. as previously posted I have a pet peeve about the rarity of seeing the First Form done correctly. For example the penitents should have the option of a screen. I have not read anything about a door tho. Oddly as I considered this, it seemed obvious that the absolutions were valid but in poor taste and possibly illicit. But, reading the sins and shredding them MIGHT be better that several confessors close to each other within earshot. I am not advocating this but saying it could be worse.

  18. Prot. n. 700/00/l — CIRCULAR LETTER

    2. The divine constitution of the Sacrament of Penance requires each penitent to confess to a priest all mortal sins, as well as any specifying moral circumstances that he remembers after a diligent examination of conscience. For this reason the Code of Canon Law states clearly that “individual and integral confession and absolution is the sole ordinary means by which a member of the faithful who is conscious of mortal sin is reconciled with God and with the Church. Physical or moral impossibility alone excuses from such confession“. In specifying this obligation, the Church has insistently reiterated that “all the faithful who have reached the age of discretion are bound faithfully to confess their mortal sins at least once a year”. “Energetic efforts are to be made to avoid any risk that this traditional practice of the Sacrament of Penance fall into disuse.” Indeed, in this Jubilee Year Catholics are called in a particular way “to encounter anew the uniquely transforming experience that is individual, integral confession and absolution”. 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.

    [Very helpful. Link to the document HERE]

  19. NoTambourines says:

    FrJim– sorry if I misspoke there on requirement vs. preference re: the door. I’m just always happy to see one when it’s there. My home parish used to have a heavy curtain over the penitent’s entrance to the confessional before they downsized on confessionals in renovations.

  20. Maltese says:

    @ NoTamborines: The remotest possibility of legibility would discourage me from being complete and frank in my confession.

    Imagine if one of the kids had written their confessions in Latin; the priest’s eyes would have been popping in and out of his skull!

  21. Here’s the link on vatican.va


  22. robtbrown says:

    ljc says:

    “At Rorate they chalking this up to Vatican II”

    If a meteor fell from the sky injuring an old lady Rorate would find a way to chalk it up to Vatican II.

    There are some many good things in Vatican II, but there are also texts that have attracted the cockroaches.

  23. robtbrown says:

    Should be: There are some good things in Vat II . . .

    I’m watching Downton Abbey at the same time I’m writing this.

  24. JLCG says:

    Where I find malice is in the accumulation of data that viciously displayed or interpreted ridicule the Church.
    Lately we had the archbishop of Vienna portrayed holding a balloon, we had a statement about a friar that distributed a pamphlet with prayers and in it one being Islamic.,. These and many more may have happened but their presentation repeatedly vitiate the view of a church spread over the world doing her task.
    Why was the archbishop pictured in a ridiculous way? Why wasn’t the complete pamphlet distributed by the friar published? The blogger of Rorate knows English, for everything else he relies on translations. So I gather that he belongs to a network, that is the enterprise, that feeds him views devoted to ridiculing the church.
    Naturally I have no defense against the charge that I am complaining about something that actually happened. But my point is that whoever manipulates Rorate is bent on the destruction of the Church however their devotions to the pope may be. The pope is not the Church, the Church is not the Pope. We and the pope are the Church. Our unity is willed by Christ. Our soul is the animation by the Holy Spirit. There is where the diabolical aims, at the destruction of the work of God. To attempt to ridicule and destroy the church is an attempt at ridiculing and destroying the work of Christ. There is where Satan acts.

  25. Isn’t it interesting that Prot. n. 700/00/l — CIRCULAR LETTER CONCERNING THE INTEGRITY OF THE SACRAMENT OF PENANCE is post-Vatican II and pre-Summorum Pontificum…

    The hermeneutic of continuity is found in obedience to the Tradition and legislated practice of the Church before, during and after the Council. Some of that legislation is not only disciplinary, but is also based on doctrine of the sacraments.

    No one can survive the temptation to be bitter upon being scandalized unless one looks to Him who was crucified so as to have the right in all justice to have mercy on us… to the point: “Father, forgive them! They know not what they do!”

    We have all of us crucified the Son of the Living God with our sins, without exception. Let us pray for each other. We are not against each other. We are against the fallen spirits. We are to try to encourage each other in the faith, to flee the bitterness of Satan, and to know the goodness and kindness of our Lord Jesus.

  26. While the whole affair is a serious concern, the fact that a camera was in the sanctuary recording the kids’ “confessions” could be a potential violation of the seal. At one point at the beginning (I only watched to 1:30 to see what mossless-rock song they chose), the camera got close enough to the paper being shredded to see the ink on the other side of the paper. Call me scrupulous, but I don’t think it would be hard to make out what sins this particular penitent confessed, thus violating the seal of the confessional.

  27. BaedaBenedictus says:


    Rorate isn’t trying to destroy the Church, only shining light on the scandals and abuses that are so often tolerated or encouraged by so many wayward shepherds. Allowing the negligent pastors around us to continue business as usual would be destroying the Church, for the widespread chaos and confusion and heresy and abuses are DEATH to the Church’s witness. Virtually my entire family has apostasized in the wake of the destruction of Catholic identity.

    So Rorate is doing a service in shining light on abuses. Publicity might actually prod hesitant clerics to DO something about scandalous abuses. And there is nothing wrong with prodding our shepherds to act—St. Catherine of Siena was a master at it.

    As for depicting Cardinal Schönborn with the balloon, they are only reproducing a screenshot from a sacrilegious disco-balloon Mass he celebrated several years ago. Is it Rorate’s fault that His Eminence sometimes profanes the “source and summit” of our Church? If His Eminence doesn’t want to be depicted holding a balloon, perhaps from now on he can abstain from flashing lights, disco balls, garish music, colorful balloons, and leavened snack-food hosts during Holy Mass.

  28. pj_houston says:

    What Stone’s song was that again?

  29. JLCG says:

    Well Baeda Benedictus, you buttress my case splendidly. The picture of the Archbishop was taken several years ago you say. What is its present informative function except the ridiculing that I have mentioned?

  30. AnAmericanMother says:

    There’s an old legal adage that past behavior is better evidence of future behavior than mere promises to behave. And given His Eminence’s present predicament, it seems to apply here.

  31. Filipe says:

    Well, not proud of what went on…
    However, let me at least try and defend the Rolling Stones song. This is not a new adaptation, the lyrics have existed since forever. In fact, and I’m not exactly musically ignorant, I didn’t even know the original was Rolling Stones until I read about this case.
    I remember learning and singing this song when I was a kid. Call it naive if you will, but I’ll bet pretty much nobody there knew it was Rolling Stones… anyway, not that that is the main problem, of course.

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