|ROME, 28 OCT. 2008 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father
Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum
Q: What would be the consequences of a priest who did not use the
formula of absolution during a confession
maybe no formula, much less the correct one? If this invalidates the
sacrament, what should the penitent do? Would it be necessary to repeat
the confession in the case of mortal sin? What about a "devotional"
confession or one where only venial sin was confessed?
B.H., Iron Mountain, Michigan
A: A slight lapse or omission in reciting the formula of absolution
would not affect its validity, provided that the words "I absolve you
from your sins" are said. While a priest should always recite the
complete formula of absolution, in urgent cases, especially when there
is imminent danger of death, the above essential words would be
sufficient for validity.
Of course, here we are dealing with the Roman rite. Eastern Catholic
Churches have other valid formulas, most of which do not contain the "I
absolve you" expression.
It is a liturgical abuse to shorten the absolution formula because there
are many penitents awaiting confession. It is legitimate in such cases,
however, to encourage the faithful to use one of the brief acts of
contrition found in the rite of penance.
As the formula of absolution is the form of the sacrament of
reconciliation, the recitation of its essential part is required for
validity and its complete omission would void the sacrament.
In this case God would certainly restore a sincere penitent to the state
of grace in spite of the priest's omission. But this would not remove
the obligation of confessing a mortal sin again and receiving
absolution. It would not be necessary in the case of venial sin.
If a penitent realizes that a priest has not granted absolution or has
omitted the essential words, then the proper thing to do is to tell the
priest immediately and request absolution before leaving the
confessional. It is probable that such an omission is the result of a
momentary distraction or fatigue and not some perverse theological or
spiritual reason. In these cases the priest will more than likely
apologize and grant absolution immediately.
We must remember that the faithful have a right to receive the Church's
sacraments from the sacred ministers, and the ministers have a
corresponding duty to provide that sacrament to any member of the
faithful not impeded by law or censure.
If, unfortunately, the absolution was skipped due to some personal
difficulty of the priest (such as lack of faith in the sacrament) and he
persists in his refusal after being remonstrated with by the penitent,
then the penitent should inform the bishop so that he may take
appropriate action in helping this minister to overcome this crisis and
return to a truer vision of his sacred mission.
If, as has sadly happened at least once, a priest undergoing a spiritual
crisis deliberately attempts to deceive the faithful by reciting a
blessing or some other formula instead of absolution, then he commits
the very grave crime of simulating a sacrament.
This particular case of simulation is extremely rare and so is not
explicitly mentioned in canon law. However, if a priest doing so was
sufficiently sane of mind to know what he was doing, then he could be
punished with suspension and other just penalties.
Follow-up: Missing or Faulty Forms of Absolution [11-11-2008]
In the wake of our Oct. 28 discussion of a priest not using a valid form
of absolution, some readers suggested that I should have also dealt with
the case where absolution is denied due to some defect or impediment on
the part of the penitent.
Actually, in my earlier reply I deliberately omitted this very
complex subject as it would have taken me away from the immediate
question. I preferred to limit myself to the question at hand because it
was clearly a case of lack of proper sacramental form by the priest and
did not concern his being obliged to deny absolution.
It is, however, important to remember that there are times when a
priest must necessarily deny absolution. This would be the case, for
example, if it is clear that the penitent lacks contrition or is subject
to excommunication or some similar censure. In such cases, the priest
must, in conscience, inform the penitent why he is unable to grant
absolution, and then tell the penitent what he or she needs to do to be
It would be a grave injustice toward God, the Church and the penitent
himself to lead him to believe he has received absolution when in fact
it could not be granted. If the priest also simulates the form of
absolution while not actually giving it, then he commits a grave fault.
A reader from Singapore asked what the minimal formula for absolution
was. St. Thomas Aquinas and the majority of classical theology manuals
held that the nucleus of the formula was the expression "I absolve you."
A few also sustained that the words "from your sins" were also
necessary. All agreed that the Trinitarian invocation and the other
prayers were not required for validity but were necessary for the
sacrament's licit celebration in non-emergency situations.
Something similar could be said for elderly priests who never learned
the new formula of absolution. Any absolution formula that was once
officially approved would certainly be valid. They would probably also
be licit if never formally abrogated.