Please note that I have written an update to this post here. You may want to read this post first, then go to the new one for some further precision on this matter.
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.