ASK FATHER: The priest said, “I forgive you” and not “I absolve you”

From a reader…


Is my confession valid if the Priest says, “I forgive you” instead of “I absolve you”? Everything else sounded normal. Thank-you

Once again we have an example of some jackass priest who thinks he is being more meaningful, or who condescendingly thinks that people don’t understand a hard word like “absolve”.  He could catechize and explain what “absolve” means in, you know, preaching and bulletin articles and classes.

So, another good person is left confused, wondering about the validity of the absolution.

Remember: You had your part to play in the Sacrament of Penance.  If you did your best and confessed your mortal sins in kind and number with a firm person of amendment you can be pretty confident in our forgiving God’s mercy.  However, you wanted sacramental absolution.

The Church teaches that if the key words of sacramental forms are changed, the validity of the sacrament is in question.  The gap of meaning that opens between the words can aggravate the problem.

“Forgive” and “absolve” do not mean the same thing.    Just as all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares, so too all absolutions are acts of forgiveness but not all acts of forgiveness are absolutions.   “Absolve” is a technical term.  I wrote about it in the context of the absolution given at Mass and also in the traditional form of absolution in the confessional.  If you want to get into the weeds, HERE.   Suffice to say that “forgive” is used to translate various technical terms.

Is “forgive” close enough to “absolve” as to mean enough of the same thing so that the absolution (not forgiveness) is valid?

I don’t think so.  I think that using “forgive” instead of “absolve” is probably invalid.

To absolve – absolution – has to do with releasing one from something that binds.  It will include the imparting of God’s forgiveness.  The priest confessor acts in persona Christi and the priest says “I absolve…” not “God absolves…”.   Forgive doesn’t necessarily mean the unbinding and removal of sin.

If this priest constantly says “I forgive” and will not use the proper form with “I absolve”, you should inform either the pastor of that parish, or the priest’s bishop or religious superior.   Priests should use the proper form.

BTW… priests of non-Latin Church, when serving at a Latin Church ought to use the Latin Church’s proper form of absolution lest they cause confusion and anxiety.

Fathers… use the proper form.

And all of you… all of us


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    I picture a smartphone app named Ego te absolvo with a recording of Father Z saying:

    CUT! Take it again from the top, Father. Please stick to the script: “I absolve you from your sins…”

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  3. Jean-Luc says:

    You wrote: “using “forgive” instead of “absolve” is probably invalid”, but in French, the official form of the sacrament of Penance uses “forgive” (“pardonner”) and not “absolve”.

    “Au nom du Père et du Fils et du Saint-Esprit, je vous PARDONNE tous vos péchés ».

  4. Jean-Luc says: pardonne

    Interesting. I respond….

    All the more reason to use LATIN.

    Also, are there Catholics in France going to confession to non-traditional community priests? A French priest friend once told me that he heard perhaps 10 confessions a year. (I responded that he ought to work on that.)

    Finally,… I don’t want to take a hard stand about the subtle meanings of French words. However, after checking a bit (for example HERE and HERE) it seems to me that “pardonner” means something more like “absolvo” than “ignosco”, more like “absolve” than “forgive”. And…

    Prov. ét esp. perdonar; port. perdoar; ital. perdonare; du latin per, et donare: proprement donner complétement, remettre.

  5. pjm88 says:

    À titre de renseignement:
    I was curé of four French parishes, for seven years, and the French official form is indeed, « je vous pardonne ». This is regrettable since there is a very good French word, « absoudre» for « to absolve ».

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  8. Simon_GNR says:

    Thankfully, I’ve never experienced a priest monkeying about with the words of absolution. It would distress me if it happened to me, and I hope I would have the self-confidence at the time to question the priest and ask him to absolve me correctly using the proper form.

  9. Michaella says:

    This happened to me not long ago, and it turned out to be an opportunity for me to recognize this priest’s virtue. I gently asked if “I forgive you” meant the same thing as “I absolve you”, and when the priest implied yes, I said I was concerned about the form of the Sacrament. The priest explained he thought he /had/ said absolve, and seemed inclined not to worry about it. He had just been trying to talk me out of scrupulosity, poor man, so it would have been understandable if he had been confident that he had done it correctly and just told me not to worry about it. He sensed my distress, however, and very paternally just said, “ok, let’s try this again.” He said the prayer from the beginning, careful to use the word “absolve”. I was blown away by his humility. This is a priest whose formation was clearly not doctrinally sound, and so I have disagreed with things he has said many times. But I have a newfound respect for him and the way he always shows up ready to serve however needed.

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