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John Paul II wants to revitalize the Sacrament of Penance

on Wednesday, 01 May 2002. Posted in Confession

Motu proprio “Misericordia Dei” on certain aspects of the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance

Individual confession of our sins to a priest remains the ordinary way to obtain forgiveness for our sins


divine mercyJesus as He appeared to Sister Faustina

There is a crisis in the Church as regards the Sacrament of Penance: less and less people go to the confessional to confess their sins to a priest, and in many places, individual confession is replaced by general or collective absolution, where people do not confess their sins, but think that they can be forgiven anyway. In other words, what was supposed to be exceptional (collective absolution) has become the normal way, leading to the disappearance of the Sacrament of Penance.

On May 2, 2002, the Vatican released a letter written by Pope John Paul II about the Sacrament of Penance, which explains that individual confession of sins to the priest remains the normal way, and that general absolution can be used only in exceptional cases. Written in a form of a “Motu Proprio” (Latin words that mean “by his own initiative,” the letter “Misericordia Dei” (God's Mercy), addressed to all the Bishops of the world, is dated April 7, 2002, the Second Sunday of Easter, which is also the Feast of Divine Mercy, according to Jesus' Message to Saint Faustina Kowalska of Poland.

In this letter, the Pope asks the Bishops to remind all the priests to apply the Catholic doctrine in this area, which established that “individual and integral confession and absolution are the sole ordinary means by which the faithful, conscious of grave sin, are reconciled with God and the Church.” (Canon 960.) The letter continues: “Therefore, 'all those of whom it is required by virtue of their ministry in the care of souls are obliged to ensure that the confessions of the faithful entrusted to them are heard when they reasonably ask, and that they are given the opportunity to approach individual confession, on days and at times set down for their convenience'.” (Can. 986, §1.)

When the Vatican presented the Pope's letter, Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out that “it is not in the power of the Church to replace personal confession with general absolution... The duty of confession was instituted by Our Lord Himself, and so not left to the disposition of the Church, not even the Pope.”

Here are other excerpts from this important letter of the Holy Father:

“In order that the minister of the Sacrament may know the dispositions of penitents with a view to granting or withholding absolution and imposing a suitable penance, it is necessary that the faithful, as well as being aware of the sins they have committed, of being sorry for them, and resolved not to fall into them again, should also confess their sins. In this sense, the Council of Trent declared that it is necessary `by divine decree to confess each and every mortal sin.'

“In the present circumstances of the care of souls, and responding to the concerned requests of many Brothers in the Episcopate, I consider it useful to recall some of the canonical laws in force regarding the celebration of this Sacrament, and clarify certain aspects of them... This seems especially necessary, given that in some places there has been a tendency to abandon individual confession, and wrongly to resort to general or communal absolution. In this case, general absolution is no longer seen as an extraordinary means to be used in wholly exceptional situations. On the basis of an arbitrary extension of the conditions required for grave necessity, in practice there is a lessening of fidelity to the divine configuration of the Sacrament, and specifically regarding the need for individual confession, with consequent serious harm to the spiritual life of the faithful and to the holiness of the Church...

“I therefore decree the following:

“Since ‘the faithful are obliged to confess, according to kind and number, all grave sins committed after Baptism of which they are conscious after careful examination and which have not yet been directly remitted by the Church's power of the keys, nor acknowledged in individual confession’, any practice which restricts confession to a generic accusation of sin, or of only one or two sins judged to be more important, is to be reproved. Indeed, in view of the fact that all the faithful are called to holiness, it is recommended that they confess venial sins also.

“In the light of and within the framework of the above norms, the absolution of a number of penitents at once without previous confession, as envisaged by Can. 961 of the Code of Canon Law, is to be correctly understood and administered. Such absolution is in fact ‘exceptional in character’ and ‘cannot be imparted in a general manner’ unless:

  1. the danger of death is imminent, and there is not time for the priest or priests to hear the confessions of the individual penitents;

  2. a grave necessity exists, that is, when in light of the number of penitents a supply of confessors is not readily available to hear the confessions of individuals in an appropriate way within an appropriate time, so that the penitents would be deprived of sacramental grace or Holy Communion for a long time through no fault of their own; (but) it is not considered sufficient necessity if confessors cannot be readily available only because of the great number of penitents, as can occur on the occasion of some great feast or pilgrimage.

“As regards the personal disposition of penitents, it should be reiterated that:

  1. ‘For the faithful to avail themselves validly of sacramental absolution given to many at one time, it is required that they not only be suitably disposed but also, at the same time, intend to confess individually the serious sins which at present cannot be so confessed’.

  2. “As far as possible, including cases of imminent danger of death, there should be a preliminary exhortation to the faithful ‘that each person take care to make an act of contrition’.

  3. “It is clear that penitents living in a habitual state of serious sin, and who do not intend to change their situation, cannot validly receive absolution.

“The obligation to confess serious sins at least once a year (Canon 989) remains, and therefore a person who has had serious sins remitted by general absolution is to approach individual confession as soon as there is an opportunity to do so before receiving another general absolution, unless a just cause intervenes.

“I decree that everything I have set down in this Apostolic Letter issued Motu Proprio shall have full and lasting force, and be observed from this day forth, notwithstanding any provisions to the contrary.”

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