General Absolution - worries of a young priest

A young priest sent me the following by email. I am happy to post it with little in the way of comment except the following:

1. The priest concerned will bring this matter to the attention of the local ordinary. Do not underestimate the difficulty that faces him.

2. It is a shame that young clergy who are happy to live in obedience to their Bishop and cultivating a solid interior life have to face these problems.
One of the highest pastoral priorities for me as a Priest is helping people to receive God’s forgiveness in Confession or Reconciliation. Hearing Confessions can be demanding and tiring, but I love this sacrament – both as minister and penitent.

I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if, through laziness, I denied the people their right to encounter the mercy of God through this sacrament. It’s one of the main reasons why I became a Priest. I could even say that it’s what I live for!

A lot of my preaching and pastoral work is done with the hope of helping people to feel welcome and encouraged – so that they can meet Christ in Reconciliation and be forgiven.

I like to think that I go the extra mile in putting up with people being difficult with me, remembering that I am an ambassador for Christ, who makes the appeal through me, “Be reconciled to God!”

I always wear clerical dress so that I am available for people. I find that I have many encounters of reconciliation – in different ways – as I travel about.

My experience teaches me that in coming to Confession people feel a sense of relief. Especially if they are able to go to Confession anonymously, they are able to broach difficult areas of their lives in safety. So, even with its demands and difficulties for people, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a hugely pastoral sacrament. This sacrament, when it celebrated as the Church intends, gives Priests the best opportunity of reaching out to the lost sheep, being available for them.

I’m a Priest working in England. Recently we have been discussing the problem of the breakdown of marriage and family life among Catholics.

In the sacrament of Confession people of all ages are enabled to come and find Christ’s forgiveness and have the advice that will help them to keep their lives on the right track.

Young people who are undergoing temptations can come and receive the guidance which will help them to keep their lives on the right foundations. Very often I have been able in the sacrament of Reconciliation to encourage young people to confide in their parents or to avoid destructive and unwise patterns of behaviour. I could write pages along these lines – but I think that in no other area of my ministry have I been able to do more to help young people to prepare for happy marriages in the future.

So if we want to know how to help Marriage and Family life, the correct celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a good place to begin.

I’ve spent the whole of Lent – in the homilies I’ve given – trying to help people prepare to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

The reason I’m writing all this is because my Parish Priest has just informed me that he plans to do ‘general absolution or something like that…’ at the Penitential Service this evening. I don’t want to speak more about the details of this situation. It's not my place to judge my Parish Priest. He is a kind man who has done his best to encourage and make me welcome in my appointment.

But I don’t think he or others have the slightest idea how upset I and other Priests feel about the ways in which the sacrament of Reconciliation is undermined.

It’s very hard for Parish Priests who find that their parishioners – whose Confessions they offer to hear – disappear to a neighbouring parish where some sort of easy, but illicit (if not invalid) form of the sacrament is taking place.

I’m not a cry-baby, but this morning I burst into tears of frustration at what is being done to me and to the people. What is really happening is that they are being sent away with something which is easy, but not satisfying. They have asked for bread…

Of course, the people can go to Confession in the normal way somewhere else, but many of them probably won’t. They trust Father. And with our fallen condition we are always tempted to do what is easy, especially when someone in authority has said it is all right.

I suppose it may seem to some people that I’m just being bolshy in declining to have anything to do with tonight’s proceedings. Perhaps it seems as if I’ve got a 'legal' approach to ministry.

And in a certain way I do. Sometimes we do have to obey. The fact that recent Popes (even recently in Sacramentum Caritatis) have repeatedly reminded us that we need to help people to make an integral Confession seems a good reason not to water down the sacrament.

But there is more to it than that. What is really happening is that I am being denied the chance to exercise a very important part of my Priestly ministry.

It’s not that there is a shortage of Priests. The offer of finding enough Priests for this evening (and on other occasions in other parishes) was declined.

It’s not the first time this has happened to me. In one parish where I worked the people were encouraged to ‘confess one sin’. Personally I think this ‘rite two and a half’ (as it is commonly referred to by the clergy) is even more damaging than general absolution. It is certainly just as frequently done here in England.

In another parish where I worked the Priests gave individual absolution without the penitent confessing anything. This, too seems to be quite frequently done.

The result is that in the Deanery where I am now working, out of the small number of people who go to Reconciliation at all this week, probably only a third or a quarter will receive the sacrament in the way the Church intends.

Last year, during the time the reconciliation service was going on, was a very demoralizing time for me. It didn’t seem right to stay in the parish. I would have seemed to be a sign of contradiction – and I try to be loyal to the Priests I work with. I was (like this year) given very little notice of what was going to happen at the Reconciliation service. My friends were all busy or unavailable, so I walked around the streets to kill the time.

All of this reminds us that it’s good for us to pray for our Priests and for the Bishops!

May the Lord grant us always shepherds who will walk in his ways and whose watchful care will bring us his blessing. (Collect for the election of a Bishop)

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