Is My Confession Valid, If the Priest Changes the Words of Absolution?

Q: Could you please go over the laws and minimum requirements for the valid celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation.  I fear that a lot of Catholics go to confession and hear all kinds of things in place of the standard prayer of absolution.  Could you please tell us what the minimum requirements are?  And whether it is valid if the priest says, “your sins are forgiven,” and nothing more, or “I absolve you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” and nothing more, or “Jesus absolves you of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” or, mumbles his words or silently prays them so that the penitent does not even hear them?

Must the word “absolve” be used, or can the word “forgive” be substituted?

Is the sacrament valid if it takes place in the church parking lot or another public place? For example, the priest is walking out to his car (you’re running late to confession) and you catch him in the parking lot before he leaves and ask him to hear your confession and he does, is it valid?  Are you forgiven?  If the priest hears your confession in his office?  Or a penitent sees a Catholic priest in an airport and asks him? –Mike

A:  In general, we Catholics know how the sacrament of Penance is ordinarily supposed to work.  We go to church at the time when confessions are regularly heard, enter the confessional and tell the priest our sins, indicate that we are penitent and intend to try to avoid committing them again, and receive absolution from the priest.  But sometimes, as Mike indicates, elements of the situation are different—and that can prompt us to wonder, as he did: What exactly is necessary for a confession to be valid?

We saw in “Confession and General Absolution” that canon 960 lays out a general rule concerning this sacrament: Individual and integral confession and absolution constitute the sole ordinary means by which a Catholic in grave sin is reconciled with God and with the Church.  The phrase “individual and integral confession and absolution” is key here, so let’s take it apart.

1.  Confession must be made individually, which means a penitent speaks one-on-one with a priest. As was previously discussed in the article just cited, in extremely rare and grave circumstances a priest can grant absolution to multiple Catholics all at once, without each of them having first confessed his sins (c. 961). But as we also saw in that article, the mere fact that a large crowd of the faithful want to go to confession, and only one or two priests are available, does not in and of itself justify the granting of general absolution.

2.  Confession must also be integral, meaning that the penitent must mention every grave (mortal) sin of which he is aware. (It’s great to mention venial sins too, of course, but there is no requirement that we remember/recount every single one of them—humanly speaking, this would be impossible!) Deliberately refraining from mentioning a grave sin in confession, out of embarrassment or for some other reason, means that a person’s confession is not entire, or integral.

Speaking of which, the penitent must be truly sorry for having committed all the sins he confesses, and have a sincere intention to try to avoid committing them again in future.  That is, after all, why he’s referred to as a “penitent”!  Even if he later ends up sinning in the same way again nonetheless, this genuine repentance is a necessary component of the sacrament.  As we saw in “Can a Priest Refuse to Hear Your Confession if He Knows You?” if it is evident to the priest-confessor that the penitent is not really penitent at all, and intends to continue his sinful activities, the priest shouldn’t grant him absolution—which theologians will tell you would not be effective anyway.

3.  Absolution is a vital part of the sacrament of penance: without it, the sacrament is not celebrated. It is, therefore, pretty important for a priest to grant absolution properly. This of course brings us back to the first part of Mike’s question.

There is only one formula of absolution, which means that its use is not optional.  Priests can, of course, find it in the Roman Ritual; but since most ordinary laypeople don’t have a copy of that, it is convenient that it’s also found in the Catechism:

God, the Father of mercies, through the death and the resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; 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. (CCC 1449).

Sadly, as Mike points out, there is a disturbing tendency in some parts of the world among some confessors to play fast-and-loose with the wording of the formula of absolution.  Apart from that, it can happen sometimes that a foreign—or very new, or very old, or very tired—priest-confessor misspeaks, and changes the wording by accident.  So what happens when a priest doesn’t say the required words of absolution exactly as they are written?  Which words are necessary for the validity of the absolution, and which are not?

The Code of Canon Law does not directly address this question, but the answer is contained in the Church’s 1974 Rite of Penance, found in the Roman Missal (the text can be found online here).  This rite is still in force, and it tells us specifically what is “essential”:

…[T]he priest extends his hands, or at least his right hand, over the head of the penitent and pronounces the formulary of absolution, in which the essential words are: I ABSOLVE YOU FROM YOUR SINS IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER AND OF THE SON AND OF THE HOLY SPIRIT.  As he says the final phrase the priest makes the sign of the cross over the penitent.  (19, emphasis in original)

There we have it!  Every priest is supposed to use the full wording of the formula of absolution as we saw earlier—but the part that really affects validity is this specific phrase in capital letters.  Note that it doesn’t matter if the priest is mumbling, or if the penitent can’t hear him clearly for some other reason; what matters is that these words are said.

It seems that a lot of the abuse one hears about involves replacing the pronoun “I” with “Jesus” or “God,” or otherwise re-wording the sentence so that it doesn’t sound like the priest himself—the “I” in the sentence—is the one doing the absolving.  Lots of protestant Christians object to the notion that a priest, a mere man who is sinful like the rest of us, can assert the authority to absolve penitents of their sins.  But it’s not clear why a Catholic priest would fail to understand why he must say this, because as the Catechism tells us, the Church has always taught that there is nothing inconsistent about this:

Only God forgives sins.  Since he is the Son of God, Jesus says of himself, “The Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” and exercises this divine power: “Your sins are forgiven” (Mk. 2:5, 2:10; Luke 7:48).  Further, by virtue of his divine authority he gives this power to men to exercise in his name (cf. Jn. 20:21-23).

Christ has willed that in her prayer and life and action his whole Church should be the sign and instrument of the forgiveness and reconciliation that he acquired for us at the price of his blood.  But he entrusted the exercise of the power of absolution to the apostolic ministry which he charged with the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18).  The apostle is sent out “on behalf of Christ” with “God making his appeal” through him and pleading: “Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20). (CCC 1441-1442)

In 2015, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments issued a document called “Rediscovering the ‘Rite of Penance’,” which restates much of what is contained in the 1974 Rite of Penance found in the Roman Missal.  It reiterates the “essential words” of absolution (which haven’t changed), and adds, “The priest who says ‘I absolve you’ is speaking here in persona Christi.”

The priest-confessor has the power to forgive sins, only because God has given it to him by virtue of his reception of the sacrament of Holy Orders.  And God wants him to use it!  Thus it is quite wrong to think that there is something arrogant about a priest claiming to be able to forgive sins, or to suggest that it is more “humble” to change the words of absolution to say that “Jesus absolves you” instead.  In actuality, the most humble thing that anyone can do is to obey the Church’s directives, and do what we are told to do when celebrating Penance or any other sacrament.

So what does a penitent do, when a priest-confessor fails to recite the essential words of absolution?  Well, there’s certainly nothing wrong with pointing out to him right then and there that he didn’t use the required wording.  It could very well be that the poor man is so exhausted or ill that he genuinely misspoke; or a foreign-visitor priest may wrongly think that what he just said in English was correct; or a polyglot-priest may have been speaking in one language while thinking in another, and doesn’t even realize what just came out of his mouth.  If the penitent doesn’t bring it to the priest’s attention by inquiring, the priest obviously can’t correct it.

And if it was a genuine mistake, presumably the confessor will want to correct it!  But in those bewildering circumstances where a priest regularly and deliberately changes the wording of absolution-formula so that it’s invalid, and insists that it’s fine and refuses to say the valid wording instead… a penitent should have a word with the priest’s hierarchical superior.  If the confessor is an assistant pastor (or more accurately a parochial vicar), it’s appropriate to inform the pastor of the parish—who likely has no idea what is going on.  If the confessor is himself the pastor, then it’s appropriate to contact the diocesan bishop, who’s even less likely to know that this is happening.  It’s worth noting at this point that not only does the willful granting of invalid absolution make a mockery of the Sacrament of Penance, and deprive the faithful of the graces of the sacrament which they seek; but it’s also illegal under canon law.  Canon 1379 tells us that a just penalty is to be imposed on one who pretends to administer a sacrament—and a priest who deliberately fails to use the formula of absolution that is required for validity is doing exactly that.  Sacraments are not games, and we can’t change the rules for celebrating them merely on a whim.  This of course holds true for both the minister of the sacrament, and the one receiving it.

Mike also raises the question of the location for hearing a confession.  In a nutshell, the validity of a confession isn’t affected by the place where it is made; but canon 964.1 asserts that the “proper” place for hearing confessions is in a church, which isn’t terribly surprising.  Another paragraph of the same canon, however, adds that confessions are not to be heard elsewhere than in a confessional, except for a just cause (c. 964.3).

As we saw in “How Can a Priest Transfer to Another Diocese?” the term “just cause” isn’t formally defined anywhere in the Code of Canon Law.  We simply have to bear in mind that a “just cause” is a lower standard than a “grave cause,” but a higher one than no cause at all—and then apply some common sense.  Generally, a cause that is “just” is one that is reasonable.  If an elderly parishioner is physically unable to come to church for confession, for example, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the priest going to him/her, and hearing the confession at the parishioner’s home.  This clearly constitutes the “just cause” required by the canon, and as most of us know it happens all the time.

There are many less clear-cut, impromptu sorts of situations which arise, that can prompt a priest to hear a confession in a location other than the confessional.  Let’s say that a priest is waiting in the airport, and strikes up a conversation with the person sitting next to him.  That person turns out to be a lapsed Catholic, who tells the priest when and why he stopped practicing his faith—and they end up having an unplanned, in-depth discussion about Catholicism.  Eventually the person decides that he needs to return to the Church, and asks the priest to hear his confession right there, on the spot.  Sure, an airport isn’t the “proper place” for hearing a confession; but under the circumstances, why on earth would a priest refuse?  This scenario is akin to the one seen in “Can the Pope Validly Marry People on an Airplane?” in which Pope Francis married a couple right then and there, and later told the press, “Why not do what you can today?  Waiting until tomorrow would perhaps have meant waiting another ten years.”  It’s infinitely more important to bring a non-practicing Catholic back to his faith now, than to get hyper-legalistic and tell him to go to church later and make his confession there—which he may very well never end up doing.

If, on the other hand, a person is perfectly capable of going to church for confession at the regularly scheduled time, and there’s no particular urgency about it, then it makes little sense to collar one’s parish priest at (say) the golf course on his day off, and expect him to drop what he’s doing simply to suit someone’s fancy.  This imaginary scenario would hardly meet the definition of a “just cause”!  It would not be unreasonable, in such a situation, for the priest to decline and tell the person to come to church at the regular time when confessions are heard (something that was discussed in greater detail in “Can a Priest Refuse to Hear My Confession?”).

By now the basic requirements for a valid confession should be clear.  While there is a lot of leeway regarding the circumstances and location where it may be heard, the need for the correct formula of absolution is vital and cannot be tinkered with.  It’s not hard to receive this sacrament validly; priest and penitent need simply to follow the very basic rules.

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