By FATHER KENNETH DOYLE
Q. With the COVID-19 restrictions, why doesn't the bishop of our diocese offer general absolution for all those unable to come to church? Our church building is so small that only about 25 to 50 parishioners can fit in for Mass -- and then, only with a reservation. Many are reluctant to come during the pandemic, and the elderly and the sick in particular are anxious to receive the sacrament of reconciliation. (Northampton, Pennsylvania)
A. As I respond to this question, received in mid-October of 2020, most parishes I know of have already resumed -- although on a more limited basis -- a regular schedule of weekend Masses, together with opportunities for parishioners to receive the sacrament of penance.
At the height of the pandemic in March 2020, the Vatican did announce that, in places particularly hard hit by the coronavirus, conditions might exist to grant general absolution to the faithful without their personally confessing their sins first, in cases of grave necessity.
Determination of what constitutes this grave necessity would be the responsibility of the diocesan bishop. The justifying situations envisioned by the Vatican were, though, limited -- the example offered was at the entrance to hospital wards where faithful in danger of death were confined.
The Vatican department making that announcement -- the Apostolic Penitentiary, which deals with matter of conscience -- also noted that where the faithful find themselves in "the painful impossibility of receiving sacramental absolution," they can make an act of contrition directly to God in prayer. If they are sincere and promise to go to sacramental confession as soon as possible, the penitentiary noted, they can "obtain the forgiveness of sins, even mortal sins."
In publicizing that March announcement by the Vatican, the website of the Cincinnati archdiocese was fairly typical. It noted that its priests were authorized to confer general absolution only in the following circumstance: "A hospital ward in which there is danger of death and individual confessions are deemed impossible and the penitents are instructed that they are to confess their sins individually when they next have the opportunity."
Individual confession is the ordinary way of celebrating the sacrament of penance, and the church has always valued the personal contact between the priest and the penitent.
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Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 30 Columbia Circle Dr., Albany, New York 12203.