What is the problem with general absolution?
I have never been on a cruise before but one of my friends has. He told me a great story about his experience. He said that as they sailed the seas and were looking at the sunset, everyone on the boat could see a bearded man on a small island, jumping up and down, waving his arms in the air and shouting. My buddy said he turned to the captain and said, “I wonder who that is.”
The captain said, “I have no idea. But every year when we pass that island, he goes crazy.”
Missin’ the boat – that’s the idea we are going to look at in this issue of FAITH Magazine.
Dear Fr. Joe: A friend of another denomination asked me: If I am saved through my baptism, then why do I need to go to a priest for confession?
Well, that’s a good question but there a few issues that need to be addressed.
Are we saved through baptism? The answer, interestingly enough, is yes and no. Baptism offers us salvation, but it demands a response from us. Through baptism, God reaches out to us and offers us His unconditional and perfect love. Now, such an intense act of love on the part of God demands a response from us. The ritual of baptism itself demands a response from us. For us to receive baptism and not respond through communal and private prayer, and a life of loving God and neighbor, is to condemn ourselves. A part of this is obviously reconciling with God and the world around us.
So, why go to a priest? Take for example the following hypothetical situation:
Now, let’s say there is a priest who is a HUGE University of Michigan fan living in East Lansing. And, just for the sake of continuing the example, let’s say this priest writes a question and answer column for a magazine. Suppose said priest is given questions months in advance and is to turn in his column on a specific date. Say it is now two months after a specified deadline and three or four threatening phone calls have been received by said priest/U of M fan from the editor. So, under severe strain from the need to get that particular month’s issue out, the editor goes into a rage and hits said priest over the head with a baseball bat, rendering him unconscious and out of commission for two weeks.
Later, being a man of conscience, the editor goes to the priest in the hospital and asks his forgiveness. Because this priest is a man of great kindness and compassion, slow to anger, quick to forgive and abounding in generosity, he forgives the editor. Now, for the million dollar question: Does the priest’s head still hurt?
Of course it does!
Not only that, but people who counted on that priest during the two weeks he was out of commission are STILL without a priest.
Basically, this sin – like all other sin – is on the AT&T plan: it reaches out and touches someone – in fact, lots of people. All of our sins work that way. Each sin affects us in ways that we never think about and hurts people we may never even have met!
What do we need to do? We need someone to stand in the place of all those affected by our sin and forgive us for the consequences we will never know. To offend someone and ask for God’s forgiveness is being naive as to the nature of the sin. Thus, one reason we go to a priest for forgiveness is because he stands in persona ecclesia – in the person of the Church – and forgives us on behalf of all those affected by our sins.
The other issue concerning your question is found in Scripture and tradition. In the Gospel of Luke it says, “Jesus breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you hold bound on earth are bound in heaven, and whose sins you say are loosed on earth are loosed in heaven.’” Jesus gave the disciples that specific power of forgiveness that the disciples then passed it onto their successors. It has been passed on – from generation to generation – until we get to Bishops Carl Mengeling and Kenneth Povish, who have passed it on to the priest at your parish. A 2,000-year-old unbroken chain carries those words of Jesus to our present day. This system of sacramental confession was given to us by none other than Jesus.
Dear Fr. Joe: What is the problem with general absolution?
Before I answer this question, let’s take a look at what general absolution is. When we celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation, there are three ways to do it. The first way is the one we are most familiar. It is when we go to a priest and confess individually. This is rite one.
The second way we can celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation is within the context of a reconciliation or penance service. Here, the Church recognizes the impact of sin on both the individual and community. After a Celebration of the Word, individual confession and absolution takes place. This is the way we celebrate reconciliation when we go to penance services during Lent and Advent. This is rite two.
General absolution is when the priest is so outnumbered there is no hope of hearing the confessions of all of those present. Specifically, this would be in a situation where a large number of people are going into combat, or some other situation where lives are at risk. In this situation, the priest will take the group through an examination of conscience and then do one prayer of absolution for everyone present. This is rite three.
So, technically, there is no “problem” with general absolution. The problem is when it is used inappropriately – when general absolution becomes the norm instead of the exception.
Enjoy another day in God’s presence!