Formula of Absolution

A friend was commenting to me at dinner recently about an experience he had with a priest who did not use the proper formula of absolution when he went to confession. The formula that he used, in fact, was invalid.

I have had a similar experience on one or two occasions (incidentally, in foreign countries, though I knew the language and knew that I had not been properly absolved). Why a priest would do this is beyond me, and it is needless to enter into speculation or hand-wringing about this.

There is absolutely no good reason that a priest should be unfamiliar with the proper sacramental formula for each of the sacraments he celebrates. In other words, there is no room for non-culpable ignorance in such questions. There could be, however, simple human reasons that enter in, such as fatigue or forgetfulness. (If a priest is too tired to “do confession right”, he should probably go rest rather than force the issue, but anyway…)

So what must the priest say to give a valid absolution in the sacrament? The basic, bare minimum is:

I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.

If a priest were only to use this short, bare-minimum form, he is probably being abusive in his administration of the sacrament. Ordinarily (like, most of the time) he should be using the full long form (which, incidentally, is printed in Catechism # 1449):

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; 
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.

Of course, since in the Latin/Roman Church it is permitted also to celebrate the sacraments using the “older” books (i.e., those that were in use in 1962), a priest could give absolution in that form alternatively:

Misereatur tui omnipotens Deus,
et dimissis peccatis tuis,
perducat te ad vitam æternam. Amen.
Indulgentiam, absolutionem, et remissionem peccatorum tuorum
tribuat tibi omnipotens et misericors Dominus. Amen.
Dominus noster Jesus Christus te absolvat:
et ego auctoritate ipsìus te absolvo
ab omni vinculo excommunicationis, [suspensionis], et interdicti,
in quantum possum, et tu indiges.
Deinde ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis,
in nomine Patris, et Filii, + et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.

It says in the old ritual that “for a good reason” the priest could omit the first five lines above (i.e., he would just start from the words “Dominus noster Jesus Christus”). The word “suspensionis” is in brackets because it is only used when the one being absolved is a cleric.

It’s especially important to note that in the older form, the priest would often say everything up to the word “Deinde” while the penitent was reciting his/her Act of Contrition. So, in effect, the penitent would often only hear the words, “I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” – that is, the essential form of the sacrament.

If a priest does not say “I absolve you from your sins” and invoke the Trinitarian formula, then it’s possible that no absolution has actually been given. Here we must be careful about jumping to conclusions, because it’s possible that he changed a word or two but the formula was still valid (i.e., if its meaning was unchanged). Thus if he said, “I forgive you your sins in the name of etc…”, that is probably valid (there is not agreement among theologians on this, though). However, if he were to say something like, “I forgive you your sins in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifier”, this would not be valid, because it changes its meaning so greatly, involving a Trinitarian heresy.

Priests must NOT mess around with the formulas of the sacraments!

There is much more that could be said about all of this, but let’s try to wrap this up. So what do you do if – God forbid – a priest does not use a valid formula? You ask him politely if he would use the proper formula. And if he doesn’t or won’t? Then you write a letter to his Bishop or Superior stating charitably and concisely that you went to confession with him, he did not use a valid formula (you include the formula he DID use, if possible), that you asked him to use the correct one and he declined (i.e., just the facts, no airing of dirty laundry); then you go to confession again to a priest who will do it right.

There are possibilities for further recourse if, again God forbid, recourse on the local level does not produce favorable results. However, I cannot imagine that a Bishop or Religious Superior would not take such a matter seriously. Although I can’t imagine why a priest would use an invalid formula either.

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9 Responses to Formula of Absolution

  1. Judy Silhan says:

    Thank you once again for an important aspect of our faith. Also, I love when you include the Latin. It forces me to try and remember what I learned centuries ago; but is still beautiful. Additionally, if I may, your homily was great, especially where you emphasized the need for teaching, including the Kiosk in the back, adult formation, and Formed. As a previous Parish Consultant, I saw the value of Formed very early on. It is just so sad that many priests will not consider having it in their parishes, and yes, I have had the door slammed in my face when I kept an appointment with such a priest, God bless you Fr.Jerabek. You are truly a soothing “balm” if you will, to what I experienced before coming to St. Paul.

  2. J.M.J. Thank you, Father Jerabek. Very well done.
    Over the years, I have encountered, as a penitent, many variations, especially:
    1.) “I absolve you from your sin (singular), in the Name . . . ”
    2.) “I absolve you, in the Name . . . ”
    3.) “I absolve you from your sins, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
    4.) “I absolve you from your sins, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
    5.) One particularly troubling variation involved someone who seemed to imply that he was unable to absolve: “God, the Father of mercies, through the Death . . . through the ministry of the Church
    may God give you pardon and peace, and absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, + and of the Holy Spirit.”
    None of the above, of course, is correct.

  3. Kathy says:

    Sometimes it is possible to be overly book learned and miss why priests are here in the first place. Absolving penitents of their sins does not require an exact formula. Christ himself in the Bible used the simple phrase “You are absolved of your sins.”

    • If a priest uses an invalid formula, then he is missing why he is there in the first place: to hand on faithfully what he has received, using the formula that the Church — founded by Christ and exercising his authority in regulating the sacraments — instructs him to use. Such a priest lacks the minimum book learning necessary to do his job right. As many of the saints have written, a priest who administers the sacrament of confession poorly seriously endangers his own soul, to say nothing of those to whom he ministers.

      One of the reasons that we have confession is so that we can morally certain that our sins have been forgiven. The Church, for her part, insists on certain formulae so that the faithful can achieve that moral certainty. This is not rocket science, and if a priest cannot get it right he should have his faculties revoked.

  4. John Palmer says:

    Hello Father, I believe the priests I’ve been going to are using the proper formula, but two confessors I regularly go to decline to assign penance. Is that proper? I usually go into the Church afterwards and offer some prayers anyway (for the Pope’s intentions on the last occasion), but it feels a little awkward to just walk out and not pay my respects, or at least pause to give thanks for the gift of mercy…

    • John, you might find a different confessor if possible. Otherwise, I think you are handling it well. If even after you ask he won’t give you a penance, then it’s on him. It’s still appropriate to assign yourself one, since we always have to do penance for our many sins and the one given in confession is just a token anyhow. So you’re handling it well.

  5. Cathy Johnson says:

    Thank you so much for your blogs. I have learned so much from reading them and look forward to the next!

  6. Matt says:

    I’ve had it happen to me at least three times when the priest gave invalid absolution (unless *ecclesia supplex* intervened.)

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