|The following norms were decreed by Pope John Paul II and issued
"Motu Proprio", reflecting the highest level of papal interest
and authority. They are excerpted from the Apostolic Letter "Misericordia
Dei" of 7 April 2002. The sub-titles are added.
Thus, after consultation with the Congregation for the Doctrine of
the Faith, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the
Sacraments, and the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, and after
hearing the views of venerable Brother Cardinals in charge of the
dicasteries of the Roman Curia, and reaffirming Catholic doctrine on the
Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation as summarized in the Catechism
of the Catholic Church, conscious of my pastoral responsibility and
fully aware of the need for this Sacrament and of its enduring efficacy,
I decree the following:
Individual Confession is the ordinary means
1. Ordinaries are to remind all the ministers of the Sacrament of
Penance that the universal law of the Church, applying Catholic doctrine
in this area, has established that:
a) "Individual and integral confession and absolution are the
sole ordinary means by which the faithful, conscious of grave sin, are
reconciled with God and the Church; only physical or moral
impossibility excuses from such confession, in which case
reconciliation can be obtained in other ways".
b) Therefore, "all those of whom it is required by virtue of
their ministry in the care of souls are obliged to ensure that the
confessions of the faithful entrusted to them are heard when they
reasonably ask, and that they are given the opportunity to approach
individual confession, on days and at times set down for their
Moreover, all priests with faculties to administer the Sacrament of
Penance are always to show themselves wholeheartedly disposed to
administer it whenever the faithful make a reasonable request.(14) An
unwillingness to welcome the wounded sheep, and even to go out to them
in order to bring them back into the fold, would be a sad sign of a lack
of pastoral sensibility in those who, by priestly Ordination, must
reflect the image of the Good Shepherd.
2. Local Ordinaries, and parish priests and rectors of churches and
shrines, should periodically verify that the greatest possible provision
is in fact being made for the faithful to confess their sins. It is
particularly recommended that in places of worship confessors be visibly
present at the advertised times, that these times be adapted to the real
circumstances of penitents, and that confessions be especially available
before Masses, and even during Mass if there are other priests
available, in order to meet the needs of the faithful.
3. Since "the faithful are obliged to confess, according to kind
and number, all grave sins committed after Baptism of which they are
conscious after careful examination and which have not yet been directly
remitted by the Church's power of the keys, nor acknowledged in
individual confession", any practice which restricts confession to
a generic accusation of sin or of only one or two sins judged to be more
important is to be reproved. Indeed, in view of the fact that all the
faithful are called to holiness, it is recommended that they confess
venial sins also.
General Absolution must in fact be exceptional
4. In the light of and within the framework of the above norms, the
absolution of a number of penitents at once without previous confession,
as envisaged by Can. 961 of the Code of Canon Law, is to be correctly
understood and administered. Such absolution is in fact
"exceptional in character" and "cannot be imparted in a
general manner unless:
1. the danger of death is imminent and there is not time for the
priest or priests to hear the confessions of the individual penitents;
2. a grave necessity exists, that is, when in light of the number of
penitents a supply of confessors is not readily available to hear the
confessions of individuals in an appropriate way within an appropriate
time, so that the penitents would be deprived of sacramental grace or
Holy Communion for a long time through no fault of their own; it is
not considered sufficient necessity if confessors cannot be readily
available only because of the great number of penitents, as can occur
on the occasion of some great feast or pilgrimage".
With reference to the case of grave necessity, the following
clarification is made:
a) It refers to situations which are objectively exceptional,
such as can occur in mission territories or in isolated communities
of the faithful, where the priest can visit only once or very few
times a year, or when war or weather conditions or similar factors
b) The two conditions set down in the Canon to determine grave
necessity are inseparable. Therefore, it is never just a question of
whether individuals can have their confession heard "in an
appropriate way" and "within an appropriate time"
because of the shortage of priests; this must be combined with the
fact that penitents would otherwise be forced to remain deprived of
sacramental grace "for a long time", through no fault of
their own. Therefore, account must be taken of the overall
circumstances of the penitents and of the Diocese, in what refers to
its pastoral organization and the possibility of the faithful having
access to the Sacrament of Penance.
c) The first condition, the impossibility of hearing confessions
"in an appropriate way" "within an appropriate
time", refers only to the time reasonably required for the
elements of a valid and worthy celebration of the Sacrament. It is
not a question here of a more extended pastoral conversation, which
can be left to more favorable circumstances. The reasonable and
appropriate time within which confessions can be heard will depend
upon the real possibilities of the confessor or confessors, and of
the penitents themselves.
d) The second condition calls for a prudential judgment in order to
assess how long penitents can be deprived of sacramental grace for
there to be a true impossibility as described in Can. 960, presuming
that there is no imminent danger of death. Such a judgment is not
prudential if it distorts the sense of physical or moral
impossibility, as would be the case, for example, if it was thought
that a period of less than a month means remaining "for a long
time" in such a state of privation.
e) It is not acceptable to contrive or to allow the contrivance of
situations of apparent grave necessity, resulting from not
administering the Sacrament in the ordinary way through a failure to
implement the above mentioned norms, and still less because of
penitents' preference for general absolution, as if this were a
normal option equivalent to the two ordinary forms set out in the
f) The large number of penitents gathered on the occasion of a great
feast or pilgrimage, or for reasons of tourism or because of today's
increased mobility of people, does not in itself constitute
5. Judgment as to whether there exist the conditions required by Can.
961 §1, 2 is not a matter for the confessor but for "the diocesan
Bishop who can determine cases of such necessity in the light of
criteria agreed upon with other members of the Episcopal
Conference". These pastoral criteria must embody the pursuit of
total fidelity, in the circumstances of their respective territories, to
the fundamental criteria found in the universal discipline of the
Church, which are themselves based upon the requirements deriving from
the Sacrament of Penance itself as a divine institution.
6. Given the fundamental importance of full harmony among the Bishops'
Conferences of the world in a matter so essential to the life of the
Church, the various Conferences, observing Can. 455 § 2 of the Code of
Canon Law, shall send as soon as possible to the Congregation for Divine
Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments the text of the norms which
they intend to issue or update in the light of this Mote Propriety on
the application of Can. 961. This will help to foster an ever greater
communion among the Bishops of the Church as they encourage the faithful
everywhere to draw abundantly from the fountains of divine mercy which
flow unceasingly in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
In this perspective of communion it will also be appropriate for
Diocesan Bishops to inform their respective Bishops' Conferences whether
or not cases of grave necessity have occurred in their jurisdictions. It
will then be the task of each Conference to inform the above-mentioned
Congregation about the real situation in their regions and about any
changes subsequently taking place.
7. As regards the personal disposition of penitents, it should be
a) "For the faithful to avail themselves validly of
sacramental absolution given to many at one time, it is required that
they not only be suitably disposed but also at the same time intend to
confess individually the serious sins which at present cannot be so
b) As far as possible, including cases of imminent danger of death,
there should be a preliminary exhortation to the faithful "that
each person take care to make an act of contrition".
c) It is clear that penitents living in a habitual state of serious
sin and who do not intend to change their situation cannot validly
8. The obligation "to confess serious sins at least once a
year" remains, and therefore "a person who has had serious
sins remitted by general absolution is to approach individual confession
as soon as there is an opportunity to do so before receiving another
general absolution, unless a just cause intervenes".
9. Concerning the place and confessional for the celebration of the
Sacrament, it should be remembered that:
a) "the proper place to hear sacramental confessions is a
church or an oratory", though it remains clear that pastoral
reasons can justify celebrating the Sacrament in other places.
b) confessionals are regulated by the norms issued by the respective
Episcopal Conferences, who shall ensure that confessionals are located
"in an open area" and have "a fixed grille", so as
to permit the faithful and confessors themselves who may wish to make
use of them to do so freely.
I decree that everything I have set down in this Apostolic Letter
issued Motu Proprio shall have full and lasting force and be observed
from this day forth, notwithstanding any provisions to the contrary. All
that I have decreed in this Letter is, by its nature, valid for the
venerable Oriental Catholic Churches in conformity with the respective
Canons of their own Code.
Given in Rome, at Saint Peter's, on 7 April, the Second Sunday of
Easter, the Feast of Divine Mercy, in the year of our Lord 2002, the
twenty-fourth of my Pontificate.