ASK FATHER: Can “General Absolution” be scheduled in advance?

From a reader…


Our Dean plans to hold ‘The Rite of Reconciliation of several
penitents with General Confession and Absolution‘ as part of the Jubilee Year of Mercy. In a note inserted in our parish newsletter, [Good… it’s in print.] he writes: ‘Pope Francis encourages us to experience this jubilee first-hand as the favourable time to heal wounds by offering everyone the way of forgiveness and reconciliation. The symbolism of opening the doors to God’s mercy and throwing the net wide is well provided for in this Rite… ‘Those wishing to received sacramental absolution in this form will be required to bow their heads in quiet prayer. In this way we are confessing that we are all sinners, and acknowledging together our vital need of God’s grace. The Service (lasting slightly less than an hour) will consist of the Liturgy of the Word, a homily and an examination of conscience. A litany of repentance then encourages us to renew out love in a heartfelt desire to amend our lives. We say together the ‘I confess’ and then General Absolution is bestowed by the laying on of hands as the priest prays over us. [No individual confession?] ‘A proclamation of praise and thanksgiving expresses our joy of forgiveness and we conclude by joining hands to say the Our Father, before sharing with each other a sign of peace. ‘Should anyone wish to speak with a priest about any matter, we will be available at the end.’  [This does not seem to include individual confession of sins (aka auricular confession).  Not good. NB: Pope Francis encourages people to GO TO CONFESSION, not to go to General Absolution (aka Form Three).]

My understanding of CCC 1480-1484 tells me that this… it’s not so good. I feel it would be a sin of omission for me to do nothing but what can I, a housewife, do about this other than beg St Teresa of Calcutta’s intercession? If you advise speaking to him, I’m happy to, but how on earth do I go about phrasing it?

I hope that the priest in question has good intentions, but this is just plain wrong.  You are right to be concerned.  It is also your right and duty to make your concerns known to your pastors. Canon 212 § 3 says that the faithful (which includes both lay people and clerics) have the right and, sometimes, the duty to make heir concerns know to their pastors. about those things which pertain to the good of the Church, according to their knowledge, competence, and dignity.   With regard to liturgical worship and the sacraments, Redemptionis Sacramentum 183 and 184 strengthen the explanation that the faithful can, and sometimes must, make their concerns know about abuses.

General Absolution (absolution given without individual confession of sins) is to be given in cases of grave necessity, emergencies (e.g., airplane about to crash, earthquake traps people under rubble, listeners are around in a hospital ward, battle is about to begin, 1000 people show up in the village when the missionary arrives on his circuit, etc.).

Canon 961 establishes that a grave necessity exists (outside of the clear case of danger of death) when…

“given the number of penitents, there are not enough confessors available properly to hear the individual’s confessions within an appropriate time, so that without fault of their own the penitents are deprived of sacramental grace or of Holy Communion for a lengthy period of time.”

All those conditions would need to be present for general absolution to be given licitly.

Telling people to “come back next week” would NOT deprive them of sacramental grace for a “lengthy period of time,” which most manualists – and we like manuals – would say is a month or more.

Furthermore, the Motu proprio of 7 April 2002 Misericordia Dei, 5 clarifies that

“judgment as to whether there exists the conditions required by canon 961 is [Note bene] not a matter for the confessor, but for the diocesan bishop who can determine cases of such necessity in light of the criteria agreed upon with other members of the Episcopal Conference.”

The local bishops lay down the conditions.  They may vary from place to place.  In Africa, for example, a missionary priest might arrive at a place to find a thousand people waiting.    That conference will lay down the proper conditions for the priest.  In the USA, these problems don’t exist.  Bishops have laid down the conditions (which repeat the point about a month or more – HERE).

The scheduling of General Absolution is, therefore, as wrong wrong wrong as wrong can be.  You cannot schedule an emergency in advance!

Since you don’t say when this is scheduled emergency is scheduled to take place (next week? next month? etc.), depending on your time frame you might try the following.

We are reminded in Redemptionis Sacramentum 183 and 184 that we should, ideally and if possible, bring concerns first to our  local pastors.  While we always have immediate recourse to the Holy See, it is fair and fitting first to address concerns to your parish priest, then to your local bishop, then to the Holy See.

However, and keep this in mind, all of us, no matter who we are – layman or priest – have the right always to address ourselves first, directly, to the Holy See!  No one can accuse us of cutting someone out or going over their heads.  Again, it’s usually better to work up the ladder, but it isn’t obligatory.

If there is a space of time to work in, you might ask this Dean to clarify whether or not there are going to be individual confessions before absolution is imparted.   It doesn’t seem like there is.  Also, it may be that he simply doesn’t know that the bishop, not he, lays down the conditions of General Absolution.  You might say something along the lines of, “What you described in the bulletin does not seem to include confession of sins before absolution.  However, that doesn’t seem to be permitted except in the case of emergencies. Otherwise the Bishop has to approve it before hand.  This isn’t an emergency that warrants General Absolution.  Is the bishop on board with this?”  If you can get a response from the Dean in a letter of some kind, that would be best.

If he blows you off, write to the bishop if there is time.

Otherwise, you could bring your concern directly to your local bishop without talking to the Dean.  If time is short, you could send, immediately, by fax or scanned attachment to an email, or by hand delivery (best), the printed material with the description of what is scheduled to the office of your diocesan bishop. Keep copies of everything.  Include a brief (one side of one sheet of paper), respectful cover letter. Include a question along the lines of: “Have you (i.e, the Bishop) given permission for this scheduled General Absolution according to can. 961 and according to the Motu proprio of 7 April 2002 Misericordia Dei, 5?  Is it permissible to attend such a scheduled General Absolution?”

If this is a very short time frame before the scheduled event, as you approach the bishop, you can also send a fax of the same to the Congregation for Divine Worship in Rome, with a brief (one side of one sheet of paper) description of where this is to take place.  You might say in such a letter something like, “I send this information for the Cardinal Prefect’s opportune knowledge.  This scheduled ‘General Absolution’ has caused questions and wonder.”

When writing to a Congregation (or any Vatican office) you always write directly to its head.  In this case…

His Eminence
Robert Card. Sarah
Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments
Palazzo delle Congregazioni

Fax:  (from these USA 011-39-06-

Always, when writing to Church authorities, be brief and be kind.  Do not write angry words about anyone.  Keep it simple and stick to facts.  Include any and all printed matter, etc.) which will support your claims.  Assure them of your respect and promise of prayers.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. PhilipNeri says:

    I worked with an elderly friar once who would refuse communion to those kneeling, yet regularly gave general absolution. When refusing the kneelers he would cite the directives of the bishops. When giving general absolution he would invoke “pastoral necessity”. . .despite the fact that we had scheduled confession times twice a day. I once asked him about his inconsistency when invoking episcopal authority. He muttered something about agreeing with the bishops when they were right and ignoring them when they were wrong.

    Fr. Philip Neri, OP

  2. Volanges says:

    This query took me on a trip back in time. From about 1994 ’til 2001 Penitential Services with General Absolution were all we knew, in at least 3 parishes. Almost no one availed of private confession at any other time, I was no exception. I vividly remember a class of First Communicants whose first “Confession” was the annual Lent Penitential Service, yes, with General Absolution. Never was it ever mentioned that grave sins were to be confessed at the earliest opportunity.

    In 2001, our Bishop decreed that there was to be no more General Absolution. The next Penitential Service, with private confession, was a bit smaller than usual but by the time we held the last one, ten years later, the attendance had dropped to about 20 (a parish of 1500).

    Our last pastor refused to do Penitential Services at all, saying that it reinforced the idea that Confession was a twice a year thing. He didn’t go for my suggestion that we have them once a month, but honestly I like form two. I like a directed examination of conscience. I’d happily attend one every month.

  3. Elizabeth M says:

    Thank you for the details of why this scheduling of General Absolution is wrong. I’ve seen it many times announced almost monthly usually after a healing mass (whatever that’s supposed to be). Yes the Bishop knows about it and no he doesn’t do anything to clarify or change it.

  4. frjim4321 says:

    General Absolution always seemed too much like “cheap grace” to me. I’ve never done it. I’ve seen it done; it was during a Lenten Communal Penance for a day school and a funeral was coming in. It was one of those things where they were churning grade school children through “confession” whether they needed it or not. The funeral cohort was coming into the church and the pastor herded the remaining children to the front of the church and “absolved” them. Probably validly, certainly illicitly, and moreover, stupidly. I don’t know what he thought he was teaching the children about the sacraments. No wonder we have people who see the sacraments as “magic.”

  5. bethv says:

    What I have continually found frustrating in this Year of Mercy is that there hasn’t been any definition of what Catholic Mercy actually entails, and no mention of the Spiritual Works of Mercy, only the Corporal ones. How easily Church leadership ignores the parts of the faith that they don’t like – it’s like the Sunday reading that leaves out the actual destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and only tells the part about Abraham bargaining with God about how many faithful must be found so that God will save the cities and distorts the meaning. There are, of course, many, many other examples to give. How deceitful it all is. How wonderful it would have been to hear and see some support for, say, admonishing the sinner and instructing the ignorant. Of course, maybe Pope Francis thought he was doing that, and giving an example by all his bashing of faithful Catholics – whom he refers to as “rigid”, among other things. So, this example of General Absolution fits right in with how the hierarchy thinks and behaves. I hope this church is reported – at the very least there will be the self-knowledge that the person did the right thing in trying, but there may also be the satisfaction of stopping such blatant ignoring of church law. One can hope. If it has to go up to Cardinal Sarah, so be it.

  6. MattH says:

    Fr. Jim’s summary of this type of use of general absolution seems pretty accurate: “Probably validly, certainly illicitly, and moreover, stupidly.”

    I once had the opportunity to spend an extended period of time in a combat zone, and it was interesting to see how even there, priests differed in their approach to general absolution. (In that environment, the “Misericordia Dei” requirement for the bishop to determine whether the conditions exist to justify general absolution did actually exist – the Archdiocese for the Military Services naturally does have guidelines on such things).

    Anyway, one chaplain decided to make use of the permission very frequently – at the beginning of every Mass, he simply granted general absolution to everyone present. Considering the difficulty in doing individual Confessions and the very real risks, probably OK. However, the other Catholic chaplains used it more sparingly, taking into account the varying threat level and the varying duties people had. However, these priests also made themselves VERY available for Confessions. One, for instance, had a little office in an old bombed-out building, and made it known he would hear Confessions at any time that his light was on. And it was on from 0600 to midnight whenever he was not traveling to visit Soldiers on the smaller bases. People went to Confession at all hours – because he made it accessible for them to do so.

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