General Absolution at a Nursing Home

Author: Father Edward McNamara


General Absolution at a Nursing Home

ROME, 21 FEB. 2006 (ZENIT) Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Please, I should like to know if it is correct to give general absolution to, say, a group of 15 elderly people living in a nursing home and brought together for Mass in a small room. Please note: (a) It is impossible to hear their confession individually as they are placed very close to each other in their wheelchairs. (b) When asked how many are going to receive Communion (to consecrate the necessary quantity of hosts) they all want to receive. Could I prepare them with a good act of sorrow and then give them general absolution, making it clear to the nurses and relatives that this absolution is not for them. And if general absolution is permitted in this case, what about the obligation of confessing grave sins later on? H.D., Melbourne, Australia

A: In his 2002 letter "Misericordia Dei" Pope John Paul II clarified the conditions for granting general absolution and the concept of "grave necessity." He said:

"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:

"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 convenience.'

"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. 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. ...

"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.

"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 permit.

"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 Ritual.

"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 sufficient necessity.

"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.'(21) 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."

In light of this text I believe that the case presented by our correspondent does not fulfill the conditions for a grave situation.

There are many other options open to the priest to resolve the situation. For example, he can arrange with those who bring the elderly people to Mass to see which ones would like to have confession and then arrive an hour or so before Mass to hear their confessions in a suitable place or, if necessary, visit them in their rooms.

I suppose that our correspondent also fears that asking how many desire to receive Communion might put undue pressure on those who for some reason might not be able to receive — with the consequent danger of promoting a sacrilegious Communion.

Since it is a very small group, instead of asking, he can resolve this difficulty by simply consecrating enough hosts for those present and, should there be too many, he may either give the last communicants two hosts or consume them himself. ZE06022121

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Follow-up: General Absolution at a Nursing Home [03-07-2006]

Following our commentary on general absolution in a nursing home (Feb. 21) a reader asked if it were possible or wise to give general absolution to young people with special needs.

He writes: "The first question I have is: If these young people (or adults) have severe learning difficulties, can they sin if they do not know what sin is? And then if they can't sin they surely do not need absolution. The second question is (I would not think that just because they have special needs they qualify for general absolution): If they can sin, they must have some level of communication, however basic, and therefore a priest working with them should be able, with pastoral sensitivity, to give them some form of individual confession."

I am reminded of what Cardinal John Wright once said when it was suggested that first confession should be postponed until after first Communion so as to be carried out with fuller comprehension: "What is easier for kids to understand: transubstantiation, or saying, 'I'm sorry'?"

I am in broad agreement with our correspondent. If these people are in such a severe condition as to be considered on a par with infants, then evidently they are incapable of sin and the practice of general absolution serves no purpose.

It does not even seem to make much pastoral sense, since general absolution is not a magical rite. It implies that those who receive it are sufficiently literate in catechesis to grasp the necessary conditions, such as the requirement to confess individually before receiving another general absolution (unless in imminent danger of death).

If, on the other hand, they are capable of developing some notion of sin, as well as some notion of repentance and of the priest's being able to forgive sins, then some form of individual confession is to be preferred.

Besides the priest's absolution, the three acts of the penitent -- repentance, confession and acceptance of the satisfaction — are essential to the validity of the sacrament, except in extraordinary circumstances such as when a person receives absolution in an unconscious state while in danger of death. ZE06030722

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