ON CERTAIN ASPECTS
OF THE CELEBRATION
OF THE SACRAMENT OF PENANCE
mercy of God, the Father who reconciles us to himself, the Word took flesh in
the spotless womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary to save "his people from their
sins" (Mt 1:21) and to open for them "the way of eternal salvation".(1) By
identifying Jesus as "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (Jn
1:29), Saint John the Baptist confirms this mission. In all his deeds and
preaching, the Precursor issues a fervent and energetic summons to repentance
and conversion, the sign of which is the baptism administered in the waters of
the Jordan. Jesus himself underwent this penitential rite (cf. Mt 3:13-17), not
because he had sinned, but because "he allows himself to be numbered among
sinners; he is already ´the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world´ (Jn
1:29); already he is anticipating the ´baptism´ of his bloody death".(2)
Salvation is therefore and above all redemption from sin, which hinders
friendship with God, a liberation from the state of slavery in which man finds
himself ever since he succumbed to the temptation of the Evil One and lost the
freedom of the children of God (cf. Rom 8:21).
Christ entrusts to the Apostles the mission of proclaiming the Kingdom of God
and preaching the Gospel of conversion (cf. Mk 16:15; Mt 28:18-20). On the
evening of the day of his Resurrection, as the apostolic mission is about to
begin, Jesus grants the Apostles, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the
authority to reconcile repentant sinners with God and the Church: "Receive the
Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain
the sins of any, they are retained" (Jn 20:22-23).(3)
Down through history in the constant practice of the Church, the "ministry of
reconciliation" (2 Cor 5:18), conferred through the Sacraments of Baptism and
Penance, has always been seen as an essential and highly esteemed pastoral duty
of the priestly ministry, performed in obedience to the command of Jesus.
Through the centuries, the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance has developed
in different forms, but it has always kept the same basic structure: it
necessarily entails not only the action of the minister -- only a Bishop or
priest, who judges and absolves, tends and heals in the name of Christ -- but
also the actions of the penitent: contrition, confession and satisfaction.
I wrote in my Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte: "I am asking for renewed
pastoral courage in ensuring that the day-to-day teaching of Christian
communities persuasively and effectively presents the practice of the Sacrament
of Reconciliation. As you will recall, in 1984 I dealt with this subject in the
Post-Synodal Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, which synthesized the
results of a General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops devoted to this question.
My invitation then was to make every effort to face the crisis of ´the sense of
sin´ apparent in today´s culture. But I was even more insistent in calling for a
rediscovery of Christ as mysterium pietatis, the one in whom God shows us his
compassionate heart and reconciles us fully with himself. It is this face of
Christ that must be rediscovered through the Sacrament of Penance, which for the
faithful is ´the ordinary way of obtaining forgiveness and the remission of
serious sins committed after Baptism´. When the Synod addressed the problem, the
crisis of the Sacrament was there for all to see, especially in some parts of
the world. The causes of the crisis have not disappeared in the brief span of
time since then. But the Jubilee Year, which has been particularly marked by a
return to the Sacrament of Penance, has given us an encouraging message, which
should not be ignored: if many people, and among them also many young people,
have benefited from approaching this Sacrament, it is probably necessary that
Pastors should arm themselves with more confidence, creativity and perseverance
in presenting it and leading people to appreciate it".(4)
With these words, I intended, as I do now, to encourage my Brother Bishops and
earnestly appeal to them -- and, through them, to all priests -- to undertake a
vigorous revitalization of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This is a
requirement of genuine charity and true pastoral justice,(5) and we should
remember that the faithful, when they have the proper interior dispositions,
have the right to receive personally the sacramental gift.
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,(6) 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".(7) The Church has always seen an essential link between the
judgment entrusted to the priest in the Sacrament and the need for penitents to
name their own sins,(8) except where this is not possible. Since, therefore, the
integral confession of serious sins is by divine decree a constitutive part of
the Sacrament, it is in no way subject to the discretion of pastors
(dispensation, interpretation, local customs, etc.). In the relevant
disciplinary norms, the competent ecclesiastical authority merely indicates the
criteria for distinguishing a real impossibility of confessing one´s sins from
other situations in which the impossibility is only apparent or can be
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 -- in a spirit of communion with
the responsibility proper to the entire Episcopate(9) with a view to a better
administration of the Sacrament. It is a question of ensuring an ever more
faithful, and thus more fruitful, celebration of the gift entrusted to the
Church by the Lord Jesus after his Resurrection (cf. Jn 20:19-23). 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,(10) 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.
Thus, after consultation with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,
the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and
the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, and after hearing the views of
venerable Brother Cardinals in charge of the dicasteries of the Roman Curia, and
reaffirming Catholic doctrine on the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation as
summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church,(11) conscious of my pastoral
responsibility and fully aware of the need for this Sacrament and of its
enduring efficacy, I decree the following:
1. Ordinaries are to remind all the ministers of the Sacrament of Penance that
the universal law of the Church, applying Catholic doctrine in this area, has
a) "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; only physical or moral impossibility excuses from such confession,
in which case reconciliation can be obtained in other ways".(12)
b) 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".(13)
Moreover, all priests with faculties to administer the Sacrament of Penance are
always to show themselves wholeheartedly disposed to administer it whenever the
faithful make a reasonable request.(14) An unwillingness to welcome the wounded
sheep, and even to go out to them in order to bring them back into the fold,
would be a sad sign of a lack of pastoral sensibility in those who, by priestly
Ordination, must reflect the image of the Good Shepherd.
2. Local Ordinaries, and parish priests and rectors of churches and shrines,
should periodically verify that the greatest possible provision is in fact being
made for the faithful to confess their sins. It is particularly recommended that
in places of worship confessors be visibly present at the advertised times, that
these times be adapted to the real circumstances of penitents, and that
confessions be especially available before Masses, and even during Mass if there
are other priests available, in order to meet the needs of the faithful.(15)
3. 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",(16) 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.(17)
4. 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"(18) 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; 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".(19)
With reference to the case of grave necessity, the following clarification is
a) It refers to situations which are objectively exceptional, such as can occur
in mission territories or in isolated communities of the faithful, where the
priest can visit only once or very few times a year, or when war or weather
conditions or similar factors permit.
b) The two conditions set down in the Canon to determine grave necessity are
inseparable. Therefore, it is never just a question of whether individuals can
have their confession heard "in an appropriate way" and "within an appropriate
time" because of the shortage of priests; this must be combined with the fact
that penitents would otherwise be forced to remain deprived of sacramental grace
"for a long time", through no fault of their own. Therefore, account must be
taken of the overall circumstances of the penitents and of the Diocese, in what
refers to its pastoral organization and the possibility of the faithful having
access to the Sacrament of Penance.
c) The first condition, the impossibility of hearing confessions "in an
appropriate way" "within an appropriate time", refers only to the time
reasonably required for the elements of a valid and worthy celebration of the
Sacrament. It is not a question here of a more extended pastoral conversation,
which can be left to more favorable circumstances. The reasonable and
appropriate time within which confessions can be heard will depend upon the real
possibilities of the confessor or confessors, and of the penitents themselves.
d) The second condition calls for a prudential judgment in order to assess how
long penitents can be deprived of sacramental grace for there to be a true
impossibility as described in Can. 960, presuming that there is no imminent
danger of death. Such a judgment is not prudential if it distorts the sense of
physical or moral impossibility, as would be the case, for example, if it was
thought that a period of less than a month means remaining "for a long time" in
such a state of privation.
e) It is not acceptable to contrive or to allow the contrivance of situations of
apparent grave necessity, resulting from not administering the Sacrament in the
ordinary way through a failure to implement the above mentioned norms,(20) and
still less because of penitents´ preference for general absolution, as if this
were a normal option equivalent to the two ordinary forms set out in the Ritual.
f) The large number of penitents gathered on the occasion of a great feast or
pilgrimage, or for reasons of tourism or because of today´s increased mobility
of people, does not in itself constitute sufficient necessity.
5. Judgment as to whether there exist the conditions required by Can. 961 §1, 2
is not a matter for the confessor but for "the diocesan Bishop who can determine
cases of such necessity in the light of criteria agreed upon with other members
of the Episcopal Conference".(21) These pastoral criteria must embody the
pursuit of total fidelity, in the circumstances of their respective territories,
to the fundamental criteria found in the universal discipline of the Church,
which are themselves based upon the requirements deriving from the Sacrament of
Penance itself as a divine institution.
6. Given the fundamental importance of full harmony among the Bishops´
Conferences of the world in a matter so essential to the life of the Church, the
various Conferences, observing Can. 455 § 2 of the Code of Canon Law, shall send
as soon as possible to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of
the Sacraments the text of the norms which they intend to issue or update in the
light of this Mote Propriety on the application of Can. 961. This will help to
foster an ever greater communion among the Bishops of the Church as they
encourage the faithful everywhere to draw abundantly from the fountains of
divine mercy which flow unceasingly in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
In this perspective of communion it will also be appropriate for Diocesan
Bishops to inform their respective Bishops´ Conferences whether or not cases of
grave necessity have occurred in their jurisdictions. It will then be the task
of each Conference to inform the above-mentioned Congregation about the real
situation in their regions and about any changes subsequently taking place.
7. As regards the personal disposition of penitents, it should be reiterated
a) "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".(22)
b) 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".(23)
c) 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.
8. The obligation "to confess serious sins at least once a year"(24) 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
9. Concerning the place and confessional for the celebration of the Sacrament,
it should be remembered that:
a) "the proper place to hear sacramental confessions is a church or an
oratory",(26) though it remains clear that pastoral reasons can justify
celebrating the Sacrament in other places.(27)
b) confessionals are regulated by the norms issued by the respective Episcopal
Conferences, who shall ensure that confessionals are located "in an open area"
and have "a fixed grille", so as to permit the faithful and confessors
themselves who may wish to make use of them to do so freely.(28)
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. All that I have decreed in this
Letter is, by its nature, valid for the venerable Oriental Catholic Churches in
conformity with the respective Canons of their own Code.
Given in Rome, at Saint Peter´s, on 7 April, the Second Sunday of Easter, the
Feast of Divine Mercy, in the year of our Lord 2002, the twenty-fourth of my
(1) Roman Missal,Advent Preface I.
(2) Catechism of the Catholic Church,536.
(3) Cf. Ecumenical Council of Trent, Session XIV, De Sacramento Paenitentiae,
Can. 3: DS 1703.
(4) No. 37: AAS 93 (2001) 292.
(5) Cf. Code of Canon Law, Cans. 213 and 843 § 1.
(6) Cf. Ecumenical Council of Trent, Session XIV, Doctrina de Sacramento
Paenitentiae, Chap. 4: DS 1676.
(7) Ibid., Can. 7: DS 1707.
(8) Ibid., Chap. 5: DS 1679; Ecumenical Council of Florence, Decree for the
Armenians (22 November 1439): DS 1323.
(9) Cf. Can. 392; Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution on
the Church Lumen Gentium, Nos. 23, 27; Decree on the Pastoral Ministry of
Bishops Christus Dominus, No. 16.
(10) Cf. Can. 961, § 1, 2.
(11) Cf. Nos. 980-987; 1114-1134; 1420-1498.
(12) Can. 960.
(13) Can. 986, § 1.
(14) Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Decree on the Ministry and Life of
Priests Presbyterorum Ordinis, 13; Ordo Paenitentiae, editio typica, 1974,
Praenotanda, No. 10, b.
(15) Cf. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments,
Responsa ad dubia proposita: Notitiae, 37 (2001) 259-260
(16) Can. 988, § 1.
(17) Cf. Can. 988, § 2: John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation
Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (2 December 1984), 32: AAS 77 (1985) 267; Catechism
of the Catholic Church, 1458.
(18) John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et
Paenitentia (2 December 1984), 32: AAS 77 (1985) 267.
(19) Can. 961, § 1.
(20) Cf. above Nos. 1 and 2.
(21) Can. 961, § 2.
(22) Can. 962, § 1.
(23) Can. 962, § 2.
(24) Can. 989.
(25) Can. 963.
(26) Can 964, § 1.
Can. 964 § 3.
(28) Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, Responsa ad
propositum dubium: de loco excipiendi sacramentales confessiones (7 July 1998):
AAS 90 (1998) 711.