Confession without Confession? Sure!

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Some reactionaries are outraged by Pope Francis saying that absolution can be given to someone who can’t confess his sins. They quote Saint John Paul II in his Reconciliatio et paenitentia, to wit:

Whether as a tribunal of mercy or a place of spiritual healing, under both aspects the sacrament requires a knowledge of the sinner’s heart in order to be able to judge and absolve, to cure and heal. Precisely for this reason the sacrament involves on the part of the penitent a sincere and complete confession of sins. This therefore has a raison d’etre not only inspired by ascetical purposes (as an exercise of humility and mortification), but one that is inherent in the very nature of the sacrament.

Strong words to be sure. I’ve done otherwise 1000 times in my decades long priestly ministry. General absolution given to, say, a group of soldiers heading off to extreme danger, without hearing any of their sins, though reminding them that they must have the intention to go to individual confession, is both possible and recommended. I’ve never had occasion to do that, but I just wanted to insert that into the argument at the get-go. But I do want to say that I’ve granted absolution a 1000 times on, I think, pretty much every continent in the world, and in so many countries, to those who did not make, could not make a confession of sins in any way, that is, of those who were dying, who had suffered whatever form of violence, whatever.

If I’m shot and can’t speak, I hope that there’s a priest around to absolve me regardless of the idiocy of the traditional-ism-ists. Saint John Paul II was not one of those, and I’m sure that he’s done what I’ve done, as every priest I’m guessing pretty much without exception has done or will do in his lifetime of ministry, that is, grant an absolution expeditiously to those who are dying and cannot confess their sins in kind and number and aggravating circumstances with the due care by which this sacrament is honored. This sacrament is also honored when absolution is to be given regardless of oracular confession of sins.

Anecdote from Africa told to me, as I wasn’t there: A group of missionaries were detained by some warlords who had them standing in a big circle so as to interrogate them. They got tired of asking questions and said that they were just going to shoot them all. They were all Catholic and had a priest with them. One of the young men cried out, scared out of his mind, “Father, give the absolution! Give the absolution!” But the priest was so scared the words wouldn’t come out of his mouth. That intense fear seems to have melted the hearts of the warlords enough, or it was so humorous to them, that they just let them all go. The point is, however, that the priest could have given the general absolution.

Having said all that, I can imagine other examples perhaps more to the point, but what’s the use of speaking to those who are not priests, have never heard a confession in their lives, nor will they, but who only want to criticize and make sure that no one goes to confession by mocking pretty much all priests in the world as not being true priests since they were not ordained by this or that bishop of their liking? Just to say, I’ve been publicly mocked by this crowd, with them saying, in fact, that I’m not a real priest. Despite them: Go to Confession!


Filed under Confession, Mercy, Missionaries of Mercy, Pope Francis, Year of Mercy

5 responses to “Confession without Confession? Sure!

  1. Shelly

    Father, thank you for writing this. I have seen some of the complaints regarding the Holy Father’s statement, and I think in their zeal for orthodoxy they forget that this is dealing with human beings who are sometimes more fragile and vulnerable than we want to admit. I remember my first confession after 20 years away from the Church. I had left the practice of the faith because of trauma suffered as a teenager. Only face-to-face confession was available in this remote parish, and I was terrified … not that my sins were too big for God (pride) or what the priest would think (vanity), but of the situation I had to be in for confession. My courage held only for the naming of a couple of sins, then my courage broke and I was silent. I could not speak. Had that good priest not absolved me that day, I’m not sure I ever would have come back. It took nearly two more years before I was able to overcome that fear and make a full spoken confession of all my “old” sins, but the priest’s mercy that day assisted me more than he probably realized.

  2. Fr Ken Bolin

    Father and Shelly,
    I get it, and I also have been accused of not being a real priest by those whose mold I do not conform to (a convert-married priest in the Anglican Ordinariate). If I had to pick a label, I would be a traditionalist, but the bottom line is that I’m a Catholic, one who believes what the Church has received and taught. Thus, my only caveat regarding what you wrote and what the Holy Father said (having only read the translated transcript) is that he spoke of those who “do not want to speak.” Your example of the missionaries involves those who could not speak or have a full confession based on their situation (in this case, time and impending execution). There are so many other contexts in which this applies, but I don’t believe that this matches the Holy Father’s words. I concur with you, and like you, have proclaimed absolution for those in such circumstances. The fact that we may not want to speak, though, does not negate the fact that we need to speak. Capability and desire are not the same thing. For Shelly, there is no way that I or another priest would know what is in your heart, unless we have the gift of discernment on par with Padre Pio or St. John Vianney. The same is true regarding our interaction with each penitent, though. We trust in the Holy Spirit’s work upon each penitent to confess that which they need to confess, and truly rare are those situations in which we cannot proclaim absolution; if someone weren’t really repentent, they likely would not be confessing.

    So, let us not conflate capability to confess with desire to speak. May each of us be sensitive to God’s leading and in humility place ourselves before the seat of his judgment and mercy.

    • Father George David Byers

      Fr Ken Bolin – Yes, I agree. I was wanting to speak but I purposely held back, wanting to bait the opposition. I am bad and evil! Grant me pardon! You beat them to it for the point at hand. Having heard such words in the Sala Regia in Italian, it seemed to me that this was not something that involved the person refusing to speak when that was possible. If the priest knew that that was happening, that’s a different story, as that is an insult to the sacrament itself. Whatever the Holy Father meant, I mean, I don’t know, nor does anyone else! But it does seem to me and that he was referring to the case not even that such as Shelly’s, but rather to the case in which, as the Holy Father has repeated, in which the priest does understand fully. I could imagine a hypothetical case of someone having a problem with habitual sin who has made great improvement by leaps and bounds, is utterly distraught and who bawls his eyes out when he comes to confession, and hasn’t been seen for a while and then all of a sudden appears again crying away, and simply can’t speak, but he has only confessed just that one sin for years and you know why he’s there as he cries away. Honestly, just give him the absolution and send him on his way with advice and encouragement and telling him to confess that sin at his next confession. Right? I’ve never done that and I don’t think I’ll ever have to. I mean, the crowd I was baiting (sorry!), think that the Holy Father means that this is all about internal forum solutions for receiving Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried, even though the Holy Father has constantly said always, right through the Synod and so many times since, including just the other day, very clearly, that this just cannot happen. Anyway, I agree. That would be terrible if everyone coming to confession just sat there demanding an absolution but weren’t confessing anything out of belligerence. May Jesus have mercy on us all!

  3. It seems this is a case similar to when Jesus was criticized for ‘allowing’ His apostles to work on the Sabbath because they plucked a few heads of wheat as they walked with Him. He said the law was made for man not Man for the law.
    Seems to me (paraphrasing here) He was saying, ‘ use some common sense.’
    Likewise here in this directive on giving absolution. I humbly suggest that a man who is capable of being ordained should be capable of reading a situation and without the heavenly gift of reading of hearts – just common sense – be able to tell the difference between an stubborn fool adamantly remaining silent and a person in such distress that he/she is unable to comply with the normal protocol and act with the mercy of Christ.

    • Father George David Byers

      The case I gave is about the only possible example I could possibly come up with! Confession does need confession and people do need to speak if they at all can.

      I did look up the italian: “C’è gente che non può parlare”. The Pope doesn’t speak of people who simply don’t want to speak in the same way they they want this kind of ice cream and not the other, but people who for whatever reason cannot speak at all. That was my example in the comments. I have to repeat that one simply cannot trust the English translations given by the Vatican, particularly Vatican radio.

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