ASK FATHER: Another nitwit priest changes words of absolution. Wherein Fr. Z rants.

PenanceFrom a reader…


During my recent confession, the words the priest used to absolve me was: “I release you from your sins in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” Is it a big deal saying “release” instead of “absolve”? Was my confession still valid? Friend, I am so sorry you had this experience.  Please don’t iet it put you off going to confession.

I am not the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is the dicastery that makes determinations about the validity of sacraments in specific, concrete circumstances.

That said, I suspect that the absolution was valid.  I suspect your sins were forgiven.  If you are not sure, go to confession again, explain what happened, and confess your sins, preferably to a different priest.

There are any number of little variations which would not invalidate the absolution. Lest people who are on the scrupulous side freak out every time they hear or THINK they hear some little variation… again… tiny little variations usually won’t affect the validity of the sacrament.

BUT… BUT… priests have a book with an approved form. FOLLOW THE BOOK. Why cause any problem for any soul in such a circumstance as the forgiveness of sins? Why do this to people? Say the black and do the red.

If opportunity presents itself, I would calmly and respectfully ask the priest why he uses words for absolution that are not in the book.  If you are distressed and worried and this is going on everytime you go, despite your inquiries,  ask your local bishop if that absolution was valid.

You have the right to ask.  You have the right properly celebrated sacraments.

During confession you can, by the way, tell the priest that you would prefer that he use the actual words of absolution as they are printed in the approved book.  Perhaps take a copy with you, just in case.

At this point, however, I will repeat what I have said a zillion times here.

Priests should stick to the words in the book.

For the love of God… WHY IS THIS HARD TO DO?

When priests make changes on their own authority they run the risk of leaving the faithful in doubt about what just happened.

We are not talking here about changing a word in a collect, or riffing in some part of the Eucharistic Prayer.  We are talking about the actual form of a sacrament… the Sacrament of Penance.

The Sacrament of Penance is the point of contact for a Catholic and mystery in which a Catholic is at his most vulnerable.  Why introduce an illicit change, in some cases invalidating change, which could cause a person to a have doubts about having been forgiven their mortal sins?

If a priest can’t follow the book for the forms of sacraments, at the moment of the consecration during Mass, during the pouring of water at baptism, when absolving a penitent… then perhaps the bishop should remove that priest’s faculties until he is made to understand both what to say and do and why he says it and does it.

Just say the black and do the red and you avoid all of this.  It is so easy.

Here’s my little love letter to clerics:

Dear Reverend Fathers and Most Reverend Bishops,

These are my suggestions to you when it comes to the forms of sacraments, especially the Sacrament of Penance.

Review the form of the sacrament, the words of absolution.

If you are surprised by what you find, I suggest memorizing them and then using them as they are written.

If you aren’t surprised but think you are going to improve on them: think it through again.

Just say the words as they are.

Otherwise, an increasingly well-informed member of the lay faithful may just challenge you and, unsatisfied and thoroughly irritated with your arrogant and probably wide back-side, may also write a letter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith… from whom you do not want to hear.   I know some of the people who work there. They are very interested in stories like this.

If you are, reverend gentlemen, changing the words of absolution, pull your heads out of that dark place and knock it off.

With fraternal respect,

Fr. Z

This sort of thing makes me see the red and think the black.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    Had a similar problem a few months back. The priest didn’t ask me to make an Act of Contrition, but fave me absolution. I asked him if I can give my Act of Contrition, but said it was not needed since he gave me absolution. I didn’t press the issue further and said my Act of Contrition along with my penance. Needless to say, I won’t be going back to this priest in the near future.

  2. lmgilbert says:

    I have a related issue, where the priest did follow the correct verbal form in baptizing my grandson (the black), but I wondered then and wonder now if my grandson was baptized. For the pouring of water ( the red) , the priest dipped his hand into a bowl of water, and imagined he poured water over that baby’s head, but by the time his hand reached my grandson’s head it had precious little water in it, and it seemed to me it was a question of a few drops of water dripping down the side of my grandson’s head.

    Am I being picayune? I thought that one of the big ideas after Vatican II was to be more generous with the sacramental elements. I wanted to stand up and say, “For the love of God, will you get a pitcher and pour some water over that child’s head.” Anyway, I trust that somehow he was baptized, if only through the desire of his parents that he be baptized ( the baptism of desire).

  3. TWF says:

    It isn’t really a comparable situation. You were contrite and the priest gave you absolution- thus it was a valid confession. In the example at hand, the priest changed the actual words of absolution.
    The Church doesn’t require any particular form of contrition- only that you express contrition before absolution was given. Saying a particular act of contrition is a pious and laudable practice, but it isn’t required for a licit and valid confession.

  4. BenjaminiPeregrinus says:

    Tim- don’t worry about validity your sins were absolved. I Frequently confess at an eastern rite church and the act of contrition is absent from their practice/tradition (you must have contrition of course). If this was a Latin priest he should have had you say it though.

  5. frjim4321 says:

    It’s a disservice to change the words of absolution. The rephrased formula above is most likely valid. It would, however, be upsetting to a person who has a more scrupulous outlook. Why go out of one’s way to upset people? I make it a point to pray the words of absolution exactly. Hopefully the new ertsatz “ICEL” and “Vox Clara” won’t ruin them.

  6. robtbrown says:

    I don’t think it’s necessarily a matter of scrupulosity–there can be changes in the Sacramental Form that invalidate it. Of course, not all changes are invalidating.

    I heard a good homily a few weeks ago whose theme was that the Word of God is Efficacious. With all the emphasis in the past 40 years on personalized liturgy, that principle seems often to have been forgotten. And with it, the understanding that every celebrant is, as St Thomas says, an instrument of Christ.

    During the years I was educated, I had no more than a handful of extraordinary teachers. All had extraordinary command of their subjects to the point that they could see the principles from the outside in–not merely from the inside out. Consequently, they all had an even more important thing in common: When they taught, it was as if the subject itself was speaking to us, and so the teacher was not drawing us to himself but rather was the midwife of knowledge and insight.

  7. colospgs says:

    I heard these “words of absolution” once: “Christ forgives you, and I forgive you.” That was it! The next day I took this issue to an FSSP priest in his confessional who told me there was “some doubt” as to the validity. He had me re-confess to him and I was absolved. He also told me to inform the bishop, which I did. Would it have been wrong of me to offer my services to the bishop as a confessional “spy” to see if his correction of the original priest had any affect?

  8. Grumpy Beggar says:

    Thank-you for the smiles Padre .
    I counted at least 3 of them in the piece, once the “love letter” began : 2 medium smiles and one extra large LOL . . .

    “Otherwise, an increasingly well-informed member of the lay faithful may just challenge you and, unsatisfied and thoroughly irritated with your arrogant and probably wide back-side. . . ”

    “If you are, reverend gentlemen, changing the words of absolution, pull your heads out of that dark place and knock it off.”

    “This sort of thing makes me see the red and think the black.”

    I appear to have been rather fortunate : All the times I’ve been to Confession (and that’s a lot of times) the confessors have never really messed with the words of absolution , although, on occasion, several of the penances I had been assigned were rather, um, inventive .

    In the case at hand, if one were tempted to contemplate the argument that God is merciful and could therefore overlook the incongruity of a confessor where the penitent is contrite ; or the true (but sometimes ill-applied) argument that God is not bound by his sacraments, then it might be the advisable time to have another look at what’s really going on – in the OP’s words:

    “When priests make changes on their own authority they run the risk of leaving the faithful in doubt about what just happened.

    We are not talking here about changing a word in a collect, or riffing in some part of the Eucharistic Prayer. We are talking about the actual form of a sacrament… the Sacrament of Penance.”

    As Fr Jim said, changing the words of absolution is a “disservice” . . . principally to the penitent. If it causes any doubt in us as to whether our mortal sins have been forgiven, how in the world could that be pleasing to God ? Doubt is an antithesis of faith.

    We humans need the sacraments precisely because they are sense perceptible. If we liken the sacrament of Reconciliation to our Blessed Lord’s parable of the prodigal son, then that defining moment of absolution would have to be when :
    ” his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.”

    Why would anybody want to place an obstacle in the “father’s” way which would prevent the returning son from experiencing His embrace and His kiss ?

  9. Tantum Ergo says:

    We have a rather kindly elderly priest who uses these words: “…and I absolve you from ALL your sins” and sometimes adds “past and present.”

  10. joshua.n says:

    You have my sympathy. Following a period of enduring (and fruitlessly complaining to the deacon, priest, and eventually bishop of) liturgical abuse, sacrilege, and horrific disrespect of the sacrament(s), I recently determined to take my family to the SSPX chapel a good hour’s drive away from our home in Boise, ID.

    There one can rely upon finding a reverent celebration of the Mass of ages (no liturgical dance!), helpful spiritual guidance (no sermons asserting “Jesus was a heretic”!), and actual access to the sacrament of Penance (whose validity no amount of tendentious ‘analysis’ by Jimmy Akin can convince me to be lacking).

    There also, you need not endure the sight of communicants holding up two fingers to request from the “extraordinary minister” an extra Eucharistic host “to go,” as though they were at a drive through window (the topic of my fruitless in-person discussions with the deacon, the priest, and the bishop).

    After much reflection, I have decided to trust that the local SSPX priest does, in fact, have jurisdiction to validly grant absolution (and, though not relevant to me, to marry) in view of the 1983 Code of Canon law (particularly convincing to me was Can. 1335: “If a censure prohibits the celebration of sacraments or sacramentals or the placing of an act of governance, the prohibition is suspended whenever it is necessary to care for the faithful in danger of death. If a latae sententiae censure has not been declared, the prohibition is also suspended whenever a member of the faithful requests a sacrament or sacramental or an act of governance; a person is permitted to request this for any just cause.“)

    Fr. Z, a while back you deferred an answer to the question of jurisdiction of SSPX priests to Jimmy Akin, linking to one of his posts on the topic that was subsequently (very ably and convincingly) rebutted by Chris Jackson (at Would you consider revisiting the topic in view of that response? It seems to me that the topic is of such importance to the eternal fate of so many serious and well-meaning Catholics that it would justify more attention and time than, say, anything found at this link:

    I ask because of how influential your blog was in my own journey of discovering the beauty of our Traditions and Orthodoxy, and in the hope it can be as helpful to others who grew up with as defective and incomplete a catechesis as I had.

  11. Mike says:

    joshua.n, you are in my prayers. The metropolitan of your diocese (probably either the Archbishop of Denver, of Portland, of San Francisco or of Seattle — look up your diocese in Wikipedia to get an indication) would be worth appealing to, as would the Papal Nuncio and the Holy Father. Millions of imperiled souls languish in such conditions as you describe, and the spiritual benefit of your perseverance in appeal could be well-nigh immeasurable.

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