Saturday, November 24, 2012

7 Quick Takes (Vol. 18): Communal Penance and General Absolution

The Diocese of Rochester (NY) has been a pretty liberal diocese. In recent years, priests at many parishes have fallen into the habit of giving general absolution at the conclusion of a communal penance service, without any individual confession taking place.

The bishop overseeing our diocese recently reiterated that this is not an acceptable practice. Canon law says that, in ordinary circumstances, the sacrament of reconciliation is to include individual confession. "Only physical or moral impossibility excuses from confession of this type" (see canon law 960 and following).

The Catechism reminds us that "confession to a priest is an essential part of the sacrament of Penance" (1456). Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote a number of apostolic letters on this sacrament, including Misericordia Dei, which states, "in some places there has been a tendency to abandon individual confession and wrongly to resort to “general” or “communal” absolution... [resulting in] a lessening of fidelity to the divine configuration of the Sacrament...with consequent serious harm to the spiritual life of the faithful and to the holiness of the Church."

With such clear opposition to general absolution as the ordinary form of the sacrament, why did it become so pervasive? I suspect it was with good intentions. People find individual confession to be daunting and choose, perhaps, to avoid the sacrament altogether rather than venture into a confessional. Priests believed that by granting general absolution, they could draw back those who were skittish of individual confession.

I hope that the directive to diocesan priests has positive results. My fear is that priests will tell their parishes, "We can't do communal penance services anymore. The bishop said they are not allowed." This would be incorrect and deprive these communities of a wonderful opportunity for experiencing God's mercy. It would also sew discord and dissent against the Church.

How can parishes have penance services without granting general absolution? There are a few models I have seen in other dioceses. The service can simply conclude with an invitation to individual confession. Times for individual confession can be announced and/or priest(s) may be available immediately following the service. Alternately, particularly with a small community or when many priests are available, individual confession and absolution can happen within the service, which then concludes simply with a prayer.

I hope and pray that parishes in my diocese are able to continue penance services while accepting the directive to avoid general absolution as an ordinary form of the sacrament. We all have so much to gain from a communal recognition of our sinfulness and God's mercy.


  1. I think you're right that the priests will have to approach it in such a way that the people understand the importance of one on one confession. We have Advent and Lent penance services here and it's like you said... there are a few readings, songs, prayers, and then the priests scatter throughout the church and people get in lines near them for confession.

    1. I've since learned that our diocese has been asked to focus on renewed catechesis about Reconciliation, so hopefully it will be done with a good will and bring us all closer to God.