BY LUKE COPPEN
POPE JOHN PALL II has asked the world's bishops to stamp out the abuse of general absolution and to encourage Catholics to return to the confessional.
In his most important statement on penance for more than a decade, the Pope said priests who granted absolution routinely to congregations after a communal confession of sins were damaging the Church. General absolution, he said, should only be used in "wholly exceptional circumstances" where individual confession was impossible.
The Pope made the comments in an apostolic letter, Misericordia Dei ("God's Mercy" ), which was sent to the world's bishops last week. The 15-page letter restates the Church's teaching on penance in the light of what the Pope calls a "crisis of the Sacrament" of Reconciliation.
The letter, which was issued on the Pope's personal initiative, or motu proprio, calls for a "vigorous revitalisation" of confession and asks bishops to proclaim publicly that individual confession and absolution is the "sole ordinary means" by which the faithful are reconciled with God and the Church. The Pope said the letter, signed on April 7, Divine Mercy Sunday, was necessary because "in some places there has been a tendency to abandon individual confession and wrongly to resort to 'general' or 'communal' absolution". He said the practice was not only unfaithful to God's plan for the sacrament, but also caused "serious harm to the spiritual life of the faithful and to the holiness of the Church".
Although there are no statistics available on general absolution, anecdotal evidence suggests it is practised widely within the English-speaking world, where it is also known as the "third rite of penance".
At a press conference last week, Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for Sacraments, said it was wrong for priests to use the term "Rite Three", because it made general absolution sound interchangeable with the first two rites, which both involve individual confession. To "equate collective absolutions with the, ordinary way of celebrating the sacrament of penance is a doctrinal error, a disciplinary abuse and a pastoral harm," the Cardinal said.
He added that his office planned to remove general absolution from the main text in future editions of the Roman Ritual, an official book of prayers and ceremonies used in administering the sacraments, and put it into an appendix "to underline that this is an exceptional and extraordinary form". Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, told reporters that the abuse of general absolution had "contributed to the progressive disappearance of this sacrament in some parts of the Church". The Pope's letter, he said, was not meant to "add a new burden to the backs of Christians", but rather to defend the personal character of confession and absolution. "It is not within the power of the Church to substitute personal confession with general absolution," he said.
In his letter, the Pope asked bishops to ensure the faithful were given the opportunity of making individual confessions. Priests, he said, must be "wholeheartedly disposed" to administer the Sacrament, whenever the faithful make a "reasonable request".
Priests should not ask penitents to make a "generic accusation of sin" or to name only one or two sins. The faithful, the Pope said, Continued on Page 2