As the world responds to the COVID-19 (“Coronavirus”) pandemic, many Catholics, including those in the United States, find themselves cutoff from the sacraments, including the sacrament of confession. On March 20, the Apostolic Penitentiary issued guidelines on when priests may grant general absolution to the faithful.
Guidelines on General Absolution
Although it is well understood that individual confession and absolution is the regular means by which a person’s sins are forgiven, canon law envisages the possibility of general absolution. The Code of Canon Law (CIC) 961 reads, in pertinent part: “Absolution cannot be imparted in a general manner to many penitents at once without previous individual confession unless…there is a grave necessity[.]”
In its March 20 decree, “[The] Apostolic Penitentiary holds that, especially in places most impacted by the pandemic contagion and until the phenomenon subsides, there are cases of grave necessity" meeting the criteria for general absolution. “Taking into account the supreme good of the salvation of souls” and the level of contagion, the local bishop must determine “the cases of grave necessity in which it is licit to impart collective absolution: for example, at the entrance to hospital wards where faithful in danger of death are hospitalized, using—within the limits of what is possible and with appropriate precautions—means for amplifying the voice so that the absolution is heard” by those receiving absolution.
The decree then goes on to state that “[i]f the unforeseen necessity arises to grant sacramental absolution to several faithful at the same time, the priest is obliged to forewarn the diocesan bishop as far as possible and, if it is not, to inform him as soon as possible afterward.”
Further Instructions on Individual Confessions
The Apostolic Penitentiary also addressed individual confessions by requiring bishops to inform their priests and flock of the appropriate measures that must be taken to impart absolution by the regular manner. Precautions must be taken to safeguard both the health of the priest and penitent, and ensure that the seal of the confessional is maintained. It may be necessary, for instance, to hear confessions in open-air spaces, including outdoors, or for the priest to wear a facemask while maintaining a safe distance.
Whatever means are taken, it remains imperative that the confessed sins remain private and that there is no possibility for others to overhear.
Consideration should be given to the need and advisability of setting up, where necessary, in agreement with the health authorities, groups of ‘extraordinary hospital chaplains,’ …on a voluntary basis and in compliance with the norms of protection from contagion, to guarantee the necessary spiritual assistance to the sick and dying.
An Act of Perfect Contrition
As a final but crucial matter, the Apostolic Penitentiary exhorted priests to remind the faithful that when they are left with the “painful impossibility of receiving sacramental absolution," they can make an act of perfect contrition directly to God:
It should be remembered that perfect contrition, coming from the love of God, beloved above all things, expressed by a sincere request for forgiveness (that which the penitent is at present able to express) and accompanied by votum confessionis, that is, by the firm resolution to have recourse, as soon as possible, to sacramental confession, obtains forgiveness of sins, even mortal ones.
Although there is no set “formula” for this act offered by the Apostolic Penitentiary, the contrition prayer found in St. John Neumann, CSsR,’s Small Catechism of the Catholic Religion, and which carries the July 24, 1888, imprimatur of the Archbishop James Gibbon of Baltimore, can be used:
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who art all-good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace to confess my sins, to do penance and to amend my life. Amen.
The Society of Saint Pius X’s Response
In conformity with the Apostolic Penitentiary’s guidelines, the United States District of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) will continue to offer the sacrament of confession to those in need of God’s forgiveness. All necessary precautions will be taken to maintain the wellbeing of the SSPX’s clergy and the faithful they minister to. The Society will continue to monitor the regulations issued by diocesan bishops and instruct its priests accordingly on what measures they ought to take in these uncertain and difficult circumstances.
The priests of the SSPX will continue to pray for a swift end to this pandemic. Now is not the time for fear, but to trust in God’s mercy.