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Online Edition - Vol. 6, No. 4 - June/July 2000

Circular Letter Concerning the Integrity of the Sacrament of Penance
Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments

This official letter dated March 20, 2000 clarifies teaching concerning the Sacrament of Penance and the necessity for individual oral confession, which is not satisfied by communal penance services. The Circular Letter follows On the Administration of the Sacrament of Penance, sent to the bishops of Australia from the Congregation on March 19, 1999, and "Final declaration of the Interdicasterial/Australian Meeting" , of 1998, signed by Curial officials and Australian bishops.


Protocol No. 700/00/L

Through a mysterious sharing in the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross, the Sacrament of Penance overcomes the division between man and God caused by sin. In this precious sacrament the repentant sinner receives, as a gracious gift of the Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit and through the ministry of the Church, that reconciliation, which is "concentrated in Christ himself, the Lamb without blemish offered for our sins (1 Pt 1: 19, Rv 5; 6; 12:11)", whose "pain and abandonment is thus turned into an inexhaustible source of compassionate and reconciling love".1

For this reason, on the occasion of the ad limina visit to Rome in 1998 of the Bishops of Australia, the Holy Father himself and this Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments made several observations concerning the authentic discipline of the Sacrament of Penance, in particular concerning the altogether exceptional circumstances apart from which "general absolution" may never be administered.

Since this Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 "implies a rediscovery of the Sacrament of Penance in its profound meaning as an encounter with the One who forgives us through Christ in the Spirit",2 this Dicastery has considered it opportune to promote a deepening of an authentic understanding of the sacramental discipline, as well as a correct application of the rite as clearly determined by liturgical and canonical norms. To that end, and after having attentively studied the matter, this Dicastery wishes to state that:

1. The norms in force concerning the Sacrament of Penance are found in the Rite of Penance of the Roman Ritual and in the Code of Canon Law,3 and are based on divine law, the constant doctrine of the Church and her traditional practice. This Circular Letter recalls those very norms, and therefore, it does not constitute an innovation, nor a modification to the law in force. It does not revoke anything permitted by the dispositions of law in force concerning the Sacrament of Penance. Rather, it recalls those norms concerning the authentic discipline of the Sacrament of Penance which the Holy See, in the Rite of Penance, the Code of Canon Law and several discourses of the Holy Father has already repeatedly expressed. Therefore, it should be clearly stated that there may be no "graduality" in the application of the norm of law. The Congregation for Divine Worship itself has no faculty to deviate from the legislation in force; indeed, its responsibility is to safeguard and promote these norms and, additionally, to assist Bishops in the exercise of their pastoral ministry.

2. The divine constitution of the Sacrament of Penance requires each penitent to confess to a priest all mortal sins, as well as specifying moral circumstances that he remembers after a diligent examination of conscience.4 For this reason the Code of Canon Law states clearly that "individual and integral confession and absolution is the sole ordinary means by which a member of the faithful who is conscious of mortal sin is reconciled with God and with the Church. Physical or moral impossibility alone excuses from such confession".5 In specifiying this obligation, the Church has insistently reiterated that "all the faithful who have reached the age of discretion are bound faithfully to confess their mortal sins at least once a year".6 "Energetic efforts are to be made to avoid any risk that this traditional practice of the Sacrament of Penance fall into disuse."7 Indeed, in this Jubilee Year Catholics are called in a particular way "to encounter anew the uniquely transforming experience that is individual, integral confession and absolution".8 In accord with the law and practice of the Church, the faithful must orally confess their sins (auricular confession)9, except in cases of true physical or moral impossibility (e.g., extreme illness or physical condition inhibiting speech, speech impediment, etc.) This disposition would exclude communal celebrations of the sacrament in which penitents are invited to present a written list of sins to the priest confessor. It should be noted that such innovations also risk compromising the inviolable seal of sacramental confession.

3. In giving consideration to the authenitic discipline of the Church concerning "general absolution", the recent interdicasterial meeting of the Roman Curia with a representation of Bishops of the Episcopal Conference of Australia noted that:

. . . communal celebrations have not infrequently occasioned an illegitimate use of general absolution. This illegitimate use, like other abuses in the administration of the Sacrament of Penance, is to be eliminated.

The teaching of the Church is reflected in precise terms in the requirements of the Code of Canon Law (cf. esp. canons 959-964). In particular it is clear that "A sufficient necessity is not ... considered to exist when confessors cannot be available merely because of a great gathering of penitents, such as can occur on some major feastday or pilgrimage" (canon 961, § 1, 2°).

The bishops will exercise renewed vigilance on these matters for the future, aware that departures from the authentic tradition do great wrong to the Church and to individual Catholics.10

4. With respect to the administration of "general absolution", the exclusive authority enjoyed by diocesan bishops to determine whether a grave necessity is truly present in a given case in their diocese 11 does not permit them "to change the required conditions, to substitute other conditions for those given, or to determine grave necessity according to their personal criteria however worthy."12 Indeed, the Diocesan Bishop makes "this judgment graviter onerata conscientia, and with full respect for the law and the practice of the Church."13

5. Local Ordinaries and priests, to the degree that it applies to them, have an obligation in conscience to ensure that penitents have regular and frequent scheduled opportunities for individual and integral confession of sins in all parish churches and insofar as possible in other pastoral centres.14 In addition, priests are called upon to be generous in making themselves available outside of those scheduled times to celebrate individual and integral confession whenever the faithful would reasonably ask for it.15 "Other works, for lack of time, may have to be postponed or even abandoned, but not the confessional."16

6. The Holy Father has pointed to the personal nature of sin, conversion, forgiveness and reconciliation 17 as the reason why the Rite of Reconciliation of several penitents with individual confession and absolution "demands the personal confession of sins and individual absolution".18 Since individual and integral confession of sins is not only an obligation "but also an inviolable and inalienable right"19 of the faithful, any innovation which would interfere with their fulfillment of this obligation, such as when penitents are invited or otherwise encouraged to name just one sin or to name a representative sin, is to be eliminated.

7. As an aid to a more fruitful reception of the Sacrament of Penance and in the hope of fostering the spirit and virtue of penance among the faithful, the Rite of Penance includes material for "Penitential celebrations", which are described as gatherings of the people of God to hear the proclamation of God's word.20 "Care should be taken that the faithful do not confuse these celebrations with the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance",21 in particular, by making clear to them that such celebrations are preparatory in nature and do not include the sacramental forgiveness of sins. It is to be borne in mind that such penitential celebrations may not make use of the sacramental formula of absolution, nor should they employ the concluding formula from the Penitential Rite at Mass, nor any other formula which could be misconstrued to be an absolution from sin.

8. Neither the Rite of Reconciliation of several penitents with individual confession and absolution, nor the aforementioned Penitential celebrations may be integrated into the celebration of the Mass.22 In addition to the unauthorized innovation 23 in the celebration of the respective rites and of the Mass that this practice would represent, it must be noted, in particular, that such abuses run the risk of creating confusion in the minds of the faithful as to whether a sacramental absolution may or may not have taken place.

9. It is to be recalled that the "Eucharist is not ordered to the forgiveness of mortal sins -- that is proper to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The Eucharist is properly the sacrament of those who are in full communion with the Church."24 At the same time, since the sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice, whenever the faithful receive the Body and Blood of Christ worthily, they are strengthened in charity, "which tends to be weakened in daily life; and this living charity wipes away venial sins".25 "By the same charity that it enkindles in us, the Eucharist preserves us from future mortal sins."26

10. Diocesan bishops are reminded of "the importance of the necessary pastoral care for instilling a greater appreciation of the sacrament in the People of God, so that the message of reconciliation, the path of conversion and the very celebration of the sacrament can more deeply touch the hearts of the men and women of our day".27 In response to God's sacramental gift:

It would ... be foolish, as well as presumptuous, to wish arbitrarily to disregard the means of grace and salvation which the Lord has provided and, in the specific case, to claim to receive forgiveness while doing without the sacrament which was instituted by Christ precisely for forgiveness.28

Since "reconciliation in Christ is achieved in a pre-eminent way in the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance",29 diocesan bishops are to recommend strongly the frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance, even in those cases when, after a diligent examination of conscience, penitents remain unaware of any mortal sins, both by promoting this teaching themselves and by reminding confessors to counsel the faithful that "the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit".30 In the pursuit of that authentic "rediscovery" of the Sacrament of Penance to which the Holy Father calls the Church, "a careful rereading of the Ordo Pænitentiæ ("Rite of Penance") will be a great help during the Jubilee for deepening our understanding of the essential elements of this sacrament".31 Especially in this Holy Year, "when Jesus' invitation to conversion makes itself more deeply felt 32 may one of the fruits of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 be the general return of the Christian faithful to the sacramental practice of Confession".33

Rome, from the offices of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, March 20, the Solemnity of Saint Joseph in the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000.

+Jorge A. Cardinal Medina Estévez, Prefect

+Francesco Pio Tamburrino, Archbishop Secretary

End Notes

1. Pope John Paul II, General Audience, September 22, 1999, no. 3: L'Osservatore Romano (23 sett. 1999) p. 6.

2. Pope John Paul II, Gerneral Audience, September 15, 1999, no 1: L'Osservatore Romano (16 sett. 1999) p. 4. Cf. Apostolic letter, Tertio millennio adveniente, November 10, 1994: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 87 (1995) pp. 5-41, here no. 50, p. 36.

3. Cf. Code of Canon Law, cann. 959-991.

4. Cf. Code of Canon Law, can. 988, §1; Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1454, 1456.

5. Code of Canon Law, can. 960.

6. Code of Canon Law, can. 989. Cf. also Conc. Oecum. Trid., sessio XIV, cap. IV: Denzinger-Schönmetzer 1683; sessio XIV, Canones de sacramento poenitentiae, can. 8: Denz.-Schön. 1708; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1457.

7. "Statement of Conclusions: Final Declaration of the Interdicasterial meeting of the Roman Curia with a representation of the Bishops of the Episcopal Conference of Australia", December 14, 1998, no. 45.

8. Pope John Paul II, "Allocution to the Bishops of Ireland," June 26, 1999: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 91 (1999) 1065-1072, here no. 8, p. 1072.

9. Cf. Conc. Oecum. Flor., sessio VIII, Bulla unionis Armenorum: Denz.-Schon. 1323.

10. Statement of Conclusions, no. 45.

11. Cf. Code of Canon Law, cann. 961, §1, 2o; 961, §2.

12. Pope Paul VI, "Allocution to the Bishops of the region of New York in the United States of America", April 20, 1978: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 70 (1978) p. 330.

13. Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Pænitentia, December 2, 1984: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 77 (1985) 185-275, here no. 33, p. 270.

14. Cf. Code of Canon Law, can. 986, §1; Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Normæ pastorales circa absolutionem sacramentalem generali modo impertiendam", June 16, 1972: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 64 (1972) pp. 510-514, here no. IV, p. 512.

15. Cf. Code of Canon Law, can. 986, §1; Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1464.

16. Pope Paul VI, "Allocution to the Bishops of the region of New York in the United States of America", April 20, 1978: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 70 (1978) pp. 328-332, here p. 331.

17. Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1484.

18. Pope John Paul II, Allocution to the Bishops of Australia, December 14, 1998: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 91 (1999) pp. 580-586, here no. 5, p. 584. Cf. also Pope John Paul II, Allocution to the Bishops of Ireland, no. 8: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 91 (1999) p. 1072.

19. Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliantio et Poenitentia, no. 33: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 77 (1985) p. 271.

20. Cf. Rite of Penance, no. 36; Appendix II.

21. Rite of Penance, no. 37. Cf. also Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Normæ pastorales circa absolutionem sacramentalem generali modo impertiendam", no. X: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 64 (1972) pp. 513-514.

22. Cf. Rite of Penance, no. 13.

23. Cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 22, §3.

24. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1395.

25. Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1367, 1394.

26. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1395.

27. Pope John Paul II, General Audience, September 15, 1999, no. 5.

28. Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Poenitentia, December 2, 1984, no. 31: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 77 (1985) p. 258. Cf. also Pope John Paul II, "Allocution to the Bishops of Portugal", November 30, 1999, no. 4: L'Osservatore Romano (1 dic. 1999) p. 4.

29. Pope John Paul II, General Audience, September 22, 1999, no. 5.

30. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1458. Cf. also Code of Canon Law, can. 988, §2.

31. Pope John Paul II, General Audience, September 15, 1999, no 4.

32. Pope John Paul II, Bull Incarnationis mysterium, November 29, 1998: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 91 (1999) pp. 129-143, here no. 5, p. 133.

33. Pope John Paul II, "Allocution to the Bishops of Portugal", November 30, 1999, no. 4.

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