ASK FATHER: Dispensation or commutation of Mass obligation, penance

ask_father_q_box_title_smFrom a reader…


Can a bishop give the priests under his authority the faculty to dispense or commute a Mass obligation in the confessional? If I was unable to contact my pastor or out of town would I be able to ask for a dispensation or commutation during my confession?

Canon 1245 gives to pastors the right to dispense or commute the obligation of observing Sunday, a Holy Day of obligation, or a day of penance.

Canon 136 clarifies that the exercise of executive power (that’s  what a dispensation is) is valid over one’s subjects. even when they are outside of one’s territory, as well as over travelers who are present in one’s territory.

Many bishops grant this dispensing power to all priests, not just to pastors of parishes.

Hence, if you are looking for a dispensation or commutation, you generally need not look too far.

If you are outside of your parish, or not able to contact your parish priest for whatever reason, you might inquire of another priest.  Ask if he has the faculty to dispense or commute.  Otherwise, you can call the local chancery office and speak to the vicar general (who would have power to dispense), the chancellor (who would either have it or would know who does), or someone in the tribunal (who would usually know who has dispensing power).

This dispensation need not be done in the confessional.  As a matter of fact, dispensations aren’t strictly a matter for the confessional, which is the tribunal of mercy for sin, not for transacting other business like getting dispensations, seeking advice on local restaurants, obtaining sports updates, or engaging in social media commentary such as your thoughts about this blog.

Everyone: When you are in the confessional, stick to making a confession of your own sins. Be brief.

I hope this helps.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    This is interesting. i can’t think of a reason I would seek such a dispensation. I would be interested in hearing examples when this has been used.

  2. Ecclesiae Filius says:

    Does that mean the Sunday obligation to attend Mass under pain of mortal sin is not a matter of divine law, but of ecclesiastical law?

  3. raitchi2 says:

    Is it licit to get a dispensation for recurring obligations? I work in medicine and my shifts are such that I work two weekends every month, so that I am not able to attend either anticipated saturday or sunday masses at any of the 5 parishes near me (Most of the masses overlap in their times). Would it be licit to get a dispensation such that, “the obligation to attend sunday mass is dispensed when you have to work and can not reasonably attend a mass.”

  4. Fr. Timothy Ferguson says:

    The distinction I’ve always made is thus:
    The obligation to worship God is of natural law. Every human being has an obligation to worship his Creator.
    The obligation to worship God on the Sabbath is divine positive law. God has mandated that we worship Him on the Sabbath, which the Church, as the Body of Christ, has transferred to Sunday.
    The obligation to worship God on Sunday by hearing Holy Mass is ecclesiastical law. Therefore the Church has the authority to dispense or commute this obligation.

  5. un-ionized says:

    Raitchi2, I know many people who have received a dispensation for just that reason, work in hospitals. The priests involved have said it is licit, especially for the type of work.

  6. Nathan says:

    “…the confessional, which is the tribunal of mercy for sin, not for transacting other business like getting dispensations, seeking advice on local restaurants, obtaining sports updates, or engaging in social media commentary such as your thoughts about this blog.”

    I’m trying to imagine.

    “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been one week since my last confession. During that time, I snickered listening to Zuhlio three times, I neglected once to order a Clement XIV coffee mug, and I envied Father Z’s Chinese food more times than I can remember…”

    In Christ,

  7. Gustavo says:

    I wonder what´re the limits to such a dispensation. I know a couple of people, “traditionalist” ones, that, although they´re not members or associated with the SSPX, don´t attend Novus Ordo Masses even if there´s no Extraordinary Form Masses around. They got this dispensation by a diocesan priest priest.
    I find this completely odd.

    P.S.: The priest himself celebrates in both forms.

  8. anilwang says:

    raitchi2, is there a chaplain at your hospital or a nearby hospital or nearby nursing homes or nearby long term rehab centers or nearby universities with Newman Centres?

    If so, they may also have masses at times that work for you. If the chaplain exists but the mass time is inconvenient, you might as for another mass time for hospital shift workers.

    I work at the IT department in a hospital and I know there are daily and weekend masses at the hospital chapel. The “chapel” is basically a multipurpose bare room that has a table and some chairs, so it’s not my first choice for mass, but it is a valid mass.

    Your problem isn’t a unique one. Besides hospital shift workers, the poor who work two or three jobs, truck drivers, traveling salespeople, the home-bound, hospital bound, disabled and elderly have similar issues. I wouldn’t be surprised if some people here in such situations have creative ways to fulfill mass obligations.

    In the mean time, if you’re missing mass, the mass readings are available either on the Internet or down-loadable apps and there is always an opportunity to take time to pray (even if it’s just while you’re waiting for test results) and several priests place their homilies (either the audio or transcript) online, so I’d encourage you to do some devotion on the Lord’s day, even if you ultimately get that dispensation.

  9. Federico says:

    @Erick: “This is interesting. i can’t think of a reason I would seek such a dispensation. “

    This is a good question. Obviously canon 1245 is not intended for “I genuinely could not make it” since ad impossibilia nemo tenetur. The canon softens the law for “Just causes.” I will give you an example: two years ago I went salmon fishing in a remote island in Alaska. In planning the trip I conscientiously researched the availability of a Catholic parish in the area and found none. I discussed it with my pastor, and he thought it was reasonable to commute my obligation, so I booked the trip.

    Note that in this case I was not in an impossible situation — I had a choice not to go fishing in such a remote locale. But it was an una tantum situation and my pastor agreed it was a just reason.

  10. Giuseppe says:

    A friend had similar Sat/Sun work issues in a hospital (8am-9pm) 1-2 times a month with no early morning masses nearby. Her priest told her to go to mass on Friday or Monday, on her “day of rest,” or to watch an evening mass on EWTN. It sounded like a reasonable solution.

  11. erick says:

    @Federico: very helpful. Thank you.

  12. hwriggles4 says:

    It’s been a while, but I remember a few times I have been at a Saturday afternoon Catholic wedding and at the conclusion of Mass (provided the wedding was a full Mass), the priest will sometimes mention that those who are Catholic have fulfilled their Sunday obligation. I think this is basically a dispensation from the Sunday obligation.

    Also, I live in the South, and every few years we get a bad ice storm, which makes travel difficult since drivers download here are inexperienced in snow and ice. There have been some rare occasions where CCD was cancelled and times the Bishop dispensed the Sunday obligation – I would say twice in 15 years. So this is not routine.

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