ASK FATHER: In confession, instead of Act of Contrition, Father asked questions

Artgate_Fondazione_Cariplo_-_Molteni_Giuseppe,_La_confessione 945From a reader…


I went to confession at a nearby parish recently. This is the first time I’ve done confession with this particular priest. Obviously in a hurry to keep the confession line moving as quickly as possible, [bless him] the priest, rather than asking me say an Act of Contrition, asked me the following two questions:

Priest: Are you sorry for your sins?
Me: *caught off guard* Uh….yes.
Priest: Do you want to be a better man?
Me: …Yes
Priest: Then I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

While I’m sure the confession was valid given that he used the proper words of absolution (albiet he omitted most of the formula), is this an acceptable form of doing an Act of Contrition?

First, good for you for making use of the Sacrament of Penance.

Everyone… examine your consciences and GO TO CONFESSION!

Next, good for the priest for keeping things moving.  Just the other day I was hearing confessions during a Mass – LOTS of confessions.  The place I was usually has long lines and this was no exception.  I moved things along quickly and, happily, there were only a few less-than well-prepared ramblers.  People are really well-instructed at that parish.  However, by judiciously curtailing a few scrambled and agonized Acts of Contrition, and by starting the Form of Absolution as the pentitents confidently launched into their prayer, I was able to get in at least a half dozen more penitents before Holy Communion time for sure.  How frustrating it is for people to wait and wait and wait when the line is long and the clock is ticking.  Mind you, I make sure that everyone gets all their mortal sins out.  But I don’t chat.  FATHERS: For the love of God and penitent neighbor, save your sermons for the pulpit.

To the question: Is that an acceptable act of contrition?

Before a priest can give absolution, he should be morally certain that the penitent is sorrow for her sins and that she intends to amend her life.  If he is not morally certain, he can elicit clear statements from the penitent by means of a couple questions.

Of course the classic Act of Contrition expresses sorrow for sin (contrition, based on love of God and/or attrition based on fear of punishment, less perfect than the former, but adequate) as well as a firm purpose of amendment.

Many priests will even start the Form of Absolution before the penitent is entirely finished with his Act of Contrition because, by then, he has heard enough to be sure that the penitent is truly sorry and wants to amend his life.

It can also happen that once a penitent has stumbled once or twice over her Act of Contrition, the priest will simply put her out of her misery in trying to remember and ask a couple of questions, such as those which you were asked.

Also, a priest with two brain cells, empathy and some experience can tell when someone is sincerely penitent.

For my part, with those who stumble or who don’t know an Act, I will simply ask “Are you truly sorry for your sins?  Do you intend to amend your life (or “promise to stop doing those things” in the case of a little kid)?  Then I launch into the Form of Absolution (99% of the time in Latin).

Remember: The confessional isn’t The Rack.  When a person doesn’t know an Act of Contrition and you can tell that he is sorry for his sins, don’t torture them by dragging some long Act out of them.  Two little questions and absolve.  It doesn’t have to be painful.

As far as omitting some or most of the Form of Absolution is concerned, consider the following.

If the priest says clearly and accurately the essential part of the Form, then the absolution is valid.

However, let’s stipulate that using the Form of Absolution, as published in official books, is a good thing.  Okay?  Sticking to the official Form is good because no priest on earth should ever want any penitent ever to wonder if he received absolution with the proper form.  This is SOOOO EASY!  Just Say The Black and Do The Red.  Right?

That said, I often use the older, traditional Form of Absolution rather than the new-fangled (and entirely valid) Form, especially when I am in the context of a traditional parish or Traditional Mass during which confessions are being heard.  Makes sense, right?

The older Form includes explicit words by which the priest, to the extent that he can and to the extent that it is needed, lifts any censure that the penitent might have occurred.  Therefore, it is important that the priest say the whole Form of Absolution (unless there is a really good reason not to).

The newer Form doesn’t have those aforementioned explicit words about censures.  Instead, the newer form gives a little homily which, though nice, doesn’t effect anything except, maybe… rarely… a good feeling or two.

Good feelings are great, okay?  But there is a striking difference between the mindset of the older and of the newer forms.

Here’s the newer form:

God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; [mini-sermon ends here] 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.

Nice, right?  And entirely valid.  First we tell a nice story and then we absolve the penitent.

Here’s the older form usually delivered in Latin:

May our Lord Jesus Christ absolve you; and by His authority I absolve you from every bond of excommunication (suspension – for clerics) and interdict, so far as my power allows and your needs require. Thereupon, I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, +and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Note the difference: Mini-Sermon v. Orderly Business

The mini-sermon in the newer form adds nothing to the validity of the absolution.  The stuff about censures and faculties in the older form does add something, insofar as the priest lifts anything that would prevent the person from receiving the absolution properly.

These days, NB, the Church says that in the newer form the censures are lifted with the absolution, so there is nothing to worry about that.

Different ways of seeing things: one quite orderly and explicit, the other is less concerned with all that stuff.

BUT WAIT! There’s more!

In the older, traditional form, after giving absolution the priest usually adds in the vernacular the following consoling mini-homily:

May the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, the merits of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, the good thou has done, and the ill thou has endured profit thee unto the remission of sin, increase in grace, and reward in eternity.  Amen.

Nice, huh?  So, I guess the older form isn’t cold and mean and only business like after all.

But back to the issue at hand.

Yes, sometimes the priest will elicit expressions of sorrow and amendment by questions.  That’s okay.

Yes, sometimes the priest will omit part of the Form and cut directly to the entirely valid and essential part of the Form.