Jun 29, 2020

Q: What is “general absolution”?

A: As the COVID-19 pandemic reached its height, there were discussions among bishops, pastors, theologians, and canon lawyers about potential use of “general absolution.” The term identifies the last of three possible forms of the Sacrament of Penance. The first form, the “Rite of Reconciliation of Individual Penitents,” is the normative form and the most familiar to Catholics. The second form, the “Rite of Reconciliation of Several Penitents with Individual Confession and Absolution,” takes place in many parishes or dioceses during the seasons of Advent or Lent. This form includes priest(s) and assembly gathered together to hear scriptural readings and preaching, includes a communal expression of contrition, followed by priests and penitents moving to individual confession and absolution, and, ideally, all returning together to express praise and thanksgiving to God for his mercy. The third form, the “Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents with General Confession and Absolution” (what we will call “general absolution” moving forward), follows the overall outline of form two, with a few notable exceptions, both in terms of circumstances and in the ritual itself.

As for the conditions under which general absolution may be given, there must be either 1) imminent danger of death and insufficient time for a priest or priests to absolve according to the “only ordinary means,” that is, individually, as described in the first form (Can. 961 §1, 1 ; Order of Penance, 31a), or else 2) a “grave necessity” exists (see Canon 961 §1, 2 ; Order of Penance, 31b). If death is imminent, the priest with proper faculties can administer general absolution; otherwise, the diocesan bishop determines whether a “grave necessity” exists (Can. 961 §1, 1). As for the penitents themselves—and for the sake of validity—each must be properly disposed (i.e., “rejecting sins committed and having a purpose of amendment” [Canon 987]) and also “intend to confess within a suitable period of time each grave sin which at the present time cannot be so confessed” (Canon 962 §1; Order of Penance, 33).

The “Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents with General Confession and Absolution” begins with brief Introductory Rites and a short Liturgy of the Word. During the homily, the rite directs the homilist to instruct those wishing general absolution about the necessary proper disposition and the intention to confess serious sins at the next celebration of individual confession and absolution; he also proposes some form of satisfaction. He next invites the penitents to say a general form of confession, such as the Confiteor. Following this, the priest announces the formula of absolution, or at least the words, “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, + and of the Holy Spirit.” If possible, all present offer some form of thanksgiving to God for his mercy.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the Holy See clarified the norms for general absolution in a March 20, 2020 note, saying: “The gravity of the present circumstances calls for reflection on the urgency and centrality of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, together with some necessary clarifications, both for the lay faithful and for ministers called to celebrate the Sacrament…. This Apostolic Penitentiary believes that, especially in the places most affected by the pandemic contagion and until the phenomenon recedes, the cases of serious need mentioned in Canon 961, § 2 CIC above mentioned, will occur.”

For this great sacrament, let us give thanks to the Lord, for his mercy endures forever.

—The Editors

The Editors