ASK FATHER: In confession, instead of Act of Contrition, Father asked questions

Artgate_Fondazione_Cariplo_-_Molteni_Giuseppe,_La_confessione 945From a reader…


I went to confession at a nearby parish recently. This is the first time I’ve done confession with this particular priest. Obviously in a hurry to keep the confession line moving as quickly as possible, [bless him] the priest, rather than asking me say an Act of Contrition, asked me the following two questions:

Priest: Are you sorry for your sins?
Me: *caught off guard* Uh….yes.
Priest: Do you want to be a better man?
Me: …Yes
Priest: Then I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

While I’m sure the confession was valid given that he used the proper words of absolution (albiet he omitted most of the formula), is this an acceptable form of doing an Act of Contrition?

First, good for you for making use of the Sacrament of Penance.

Everyone… examine your consciences and GO TO CONFESSION!

Next, good for the priest for keeping things moving.  Just the other day I was hearing confessions during a Mass – LOTS of confessions.  The place I was usually has long lines and this was no exception.  I moved things along quickly and, happily, there were only a few less-than well-prepared ramblers.  People are really well-instructed at that parish.  However, by judiciously curtailing a few scrambled and agonized Acts of Contrition, and by starting the Form of Absolution as the pentitents confidently launched into their prayer, I was able to get in at least a half dozen more penitents before Holy Communion time for sure.  How frustrating it is for people to wait and wait and wait when the line is long and the clock is ticking.  Mind you, I make sure that everyone gets all their mortal sins out.  But I don’t chat.

FATHERS: For the love of God and penitent neighbor, save your sermons for the pulpit.

To the question: Is that an acceptable act of contrition?

Before a priest can give absolution, he should be morally certain that the penitent is sorrow for her sins and that she intends to amend her life.  If he is not morally certain, he can elicit clear statements from the penitent by means of a couple questions.  For example: “Are you truly sorry for your sins?”  It doesn’t have to be complicated.

Of course the classic Act of Contrition expresses sorrow for sin (contrition, based on love of God and/or attrition based on fear of punishment, less perfect than the former, but adequate) as well as a firm purpose of amendment.

EVERYONE: MEMORIZE a classic Act of Contriition!

It can also happen that once a penitent has stumbled once or twice over her Act of Contrition, the priest will simply put her out of her misery in trying to remember and ask a couple of questions, such as those which you were asked.

Also, a priest with two brain cells, empathy and some experience can tell when someone is sincerely penitent.

For my part, with those who stumble or who don’t know an Act, I will simply ask “Are you truly sorry for your sins?  Do you intend to amend your life (or “promise to stop doing those things” in the case of a little kid)?  Then I launch into the Form of Absolution (99% of the time in Latin).

Remember: The confessional isn’t The Rack.  When a person doesn’t know an Act of Contrition and you can tell that he is sorry for his sins, don’t torture himi by dragging some long Act out of them.  Two little questions and absolve.  It doesn’t have to be painful.

As far as omitting some or most of the Form of Absolution is concerned, consider the following.

Many priests will start the Form of Absolution before the penitent is entirely finished with his Act of Contrition because, by then, he has heard enough to be sure that the penitent is truly sorry and wants to amend his life.  Thus, sometimes all the penitent hears of the Form is the final, essential part.

If the priest says clearly and accurately the essential part of the Form, then the absolution is valid.

However, let’s stipulate that using the Form of Absolution, as published in official books, is a good thing.  Okay?  Sticking to the official Form is good because no priest on earth should ever want any penitent ever to wonder if he received absolution with the proper form.  This is SOOOO EASY!  Just Say The Black and Do The Red.  Right?

That said, I often use the older, traditional Form of Absolution rather than the new-fangled (and entirely valid) Form, especially when I am in the context of a traditional parish or Traditional Mass during which confessions are being heard.  Makes sense, right?

The older Form includes explicit words by which the priest, to the extent that he can and to the extent that it is needed, lifts any censure that the penitent might have occurred.  Therefore, it is important that the priest say the whole Form of Absolution (unless there is a really good reason not to).

The newer Form doesn’t have those aforementioned explicit words about censures.  Instead, the newer form gives a little homily which, though nice, doesn’t effect anything except, maybe… rarely… a good feeling or two.

Good feelings are great, okay?  But there is a striking difference between the mindset of the older and of the newer forms.

Here’s the newer form:

God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; [mini-sermon ends here] through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, + and of the Holy Spirit.

Nice, right?  And entirely valid.  First we tell a nice story and then we absolve the penitent.

Here’s the older form usually delivered in Latin:

May our Lord Jesus Christ absolve you; and by His authority I absolve you from every bond of excommunication (suspension – for clerics) and interdict, so far as my power allows and your needs require. Thereupon, I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, +and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Note the difference: Mini-Sermon v. Orderly Business

The mini-sermon in the newer form adds nothing to the validity of the absolution.  The stuff about censures and faculties in the older form does add something, insofar as the priest lifts anything that would prevent the person from receiving the absolution properly.

These days, NB, the Church says that in the newer form the censures are lifted with the absolution, so there is nothing to worry about that.

Different ways of seeing things: one quite orderly and explicit, the other is less concerned with all that stuff.

BUT WAIT! There’s more!

In the older, traditional form, after giving absolution the priest usually adds in the vernacular the following consoling prayer:

May the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, the merits of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, the good thou has done, and the ill thou has endured profit thee unto the remission of sin, increase in grace, and reward in eternity.  Amen.

Nice, huh?  So, I guess the older form isn’t cold and mean and only business like after all.

But back to the issue at hand.

Yes, sometimes the priest will elicit expressions of sorrow and amendment by questions.  That’s okay.

Yes, sometimes the priest will omit part of the Form and cut directly to the entirely valid and essential part of the Form.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    The confessional in the St. Francis Chapel in the Prudential Center in Boston has a wooden kneeler. Taped to the top of the kneeler is a printed Act of Contrition.

  2. greenlight says:

    I was in a similar situation where the priest was held up over half an hour (!) with one penitent (a long story but I feel certain the priest felt like he couldn’t cut it short). When he finally got around to the rest of us he was moving us along at a brisk clip and he said to me “Now when you make your act of contrition, which you’ll do outside after I give you absolution…”

    I was taken aback by that. I understood the need to keep things moving but I can do the act of contrition pretty quickly and that seemed like an odd thing to rush.

  3. Aquinas Gal says:

    I love that final consoling prayer. In my experience only older priests have used it.

  4. wolfeken says:

    “That said, I often use the older, traditional Form of Absolution rather than the new-fangled (and entirely valid) Form, especially when I am in the context of a traditional parish or Traditional Mass during which confessions are being heard. Makes sense, right?”

    Yes! Absolutely. I am always surprised at how many diocesan TLMs (that is, not personal parishes, but local churches that have the TLM) use the post-Vatican II form of absolution at their confessions. Perhaps it’s because the laity have not requested the traditional form of absolution, as they have the right to do under Summorum Pontificum. [While I am not sure that they have a right to the older form, they have the right to ASK for it. We must be a little careful when throwing around the term “right”.]

    Before this went out of stock (and maybe it will be for sale again…) , we bought this for our pastor:

  5. Bthompson says:

    I do that when someone does not know the Act:
    Are you sorry for all you sins? Do you intend, with God’s help, to avoid sin in the future? Do you believe that through his passion, death, and resurrection, Jesus Christ has given the Church the power to forgive your sins?

  6. majuscule says:

    I had the interesing experience of being asked to say x number of Acts of Contrition outside the confessional as my penance. Father did use the correct form of absolution but did not require the Act while inside the confessional.

  7. Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick says:


    The Sign of the Cross, and absolution go:

    [I]n the name OF THE Father, AND OF THE Son, AND OF THE Holy Spirit…

    Some blessings and prayers:

    …almighty God, the Father, AND THE Son, AND THE Holy Spirit…

    “…the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…” is never correct in any liturgical context.

  8. Pat_H says:

    Isn’t the Act of Contrition in the Eastern Rite extremely short?

    I’ve thought of using that one, as it is an Act of Contrition, but I can never quite recall what it is. Anyhow, as long confession lines are a good sign in and of themselves, perhaps putting up the Eastern Rite one in the confessional might be a good idea, and additionally require people to think about what they are praying in the Act of Contrition.

  9. Charles E Flynn says:

    The people waiting in line might consider praying for the others in line, especially the ones taking a long time, and for the priest who must deal with one thing (possibly of eternal consequences) after another.

  10. iamlucky13 says:

    I recall one confession when I was not too much older than when first received the sacrament where I forgot the Act of Contrition. The priest instead asked me to say the Agnus Dei, and of course, recommended I memorize an act.

    I have also on a couple occasions had the priest instruct me to say an Act of Contrition outside the confessional.

  11. Mary Jane says:

    A thought about waiting in line for those taking a long time in the confessional–you never know, that person taking 20 minutes or more might just be returning to the church and this might be the first confession they’ve made in years and years.

    [Yes, perhaps. However, often when people who have come back after many years have shorter confessions… they can’t possibly remember everything, after all. The confessor gauges the occasion, the penitent, and makes a call. Penitents returning after a ver long time, can bring themselves up to date, as it were, as they remember things, over time. Meanwhile, our merciful Savior reads hearts and the absolution of the priest works wonders.]

  12. (X)MCCLXIII says:

    I agree with you, Father – but I rather like “God the father of mercies…”

    [It’s a nice text.]

  13. Southern Baron says:

    I had never heard the older extra prayer about the good we do and ill we endure until recently; the priest where I live now adds it to the new formula. Afterwards I always say “Thank you Father” and he says “Thanks be to God!” I appreciate the reminder, but I suppose I can thank them both for their respective roles in the process.

  14. bushboar says:

    The last several times I’ve been to confession, the priest has told me to say the Act before I start my penance. I assumed that it was to keep the line moving.

    The older priest who normally celebrates the TLM in my area says “May our Lord Jesus Christ absolve you of your sins” instead of saying “I absolve you of your sins.” Is that valid? I’ve started going elsewhere for confession because I thought that the form required that the priest himself give absolution rather than pray for it.

  15. wolfeken says:

    bushboar — Are you sure the priest is not reciting the entire paragraph (see above), which starts with those words before the actual absolution?

  16. bushboar says:

    wolfeken – I am quite sure. He says “May our Lord Jesus Christ absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.”

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  18. DrP says:

    VETO! I write this note with upmost respect and love. This is the first time I have taken exception to one of you “rants” (sic). But I do, strenuously object to both its tone & its message.
    Having been on the receiving end of just the kind of confessional experience that you describe–a sort of fast food, assembly line sacramental mockery–I want you to know that this approach is empty and vacuous.
    Yes, some of us are “ramblers”. Some of us are kids, shaking in our boots. Some of us stumble on our words. Some of us are scared to death. Some of us are wounded. Some of us are just plane old and slow. All of us are needy.
    We approach you as one who is “in persona Christi”. We assume that we will have your full attention and that you will not be focused on the “ticking clock” and the number of bodies that you can move through the box.
    We don’t expect Padre Pio, but we do expect to be heard fully and not talked over. We don’t expect a “mini sermon” but we do expect empathy, patience, respect and support. We don’t need you to “chat”, but we do expect you to use more then “two brain cells” and give us a little (just a little) of your time and wisdom before you cut us off.
    If you are going to administer this hugely important sacrament, do it right. Slow down. Maybe schedule 15 minutes more so you are not rushed. People will wait for a good confessor. Try to treat each of us like we are family.
    The best way to “put us out of our misery” and get us off the “rack” is to be as meticulous with this sacrament as you are with the way you offer mass. The Sacrament of Penance sets us apart as Catholics. When it is done with reverence and love, it can heal and inspire. Otherwise, it is straw.
    God bless you, Fr Z. Thank you for all you do and thank you for listening to my rant.

    [This is easy to launch in the direction of a priest who may have 20 people in line and 10 minutes before Mass begins.]

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