Most of those who spent the 1980s in this Archdiocese are no doubt familiar with the practice of general absolution, as it was fairly widely practiced here after its introduction in the 1973 Rite of Penance. The third rite permits absolution to be granted to large numbers of penitents without previous individual confession when certain circumstances are present, such as too many penitents in relation to the number of priests available to hear individual confessions. Consequently, the parish I attended as a child, Saint Odilia, regularly offered communal penance services utilizing this third rite, even after its application was greatly curtailed by the promulgation of the 1983 Code of Canon Law (although this did not draw nearly as much outcry as did the statue of the extremely buff and comely Jesus that adorned the reservation chapel). The new Code required the additional criteria of danger of death or grave necessity, and mandated that the diocesan bishop alone could judge whether such circumstances exist (rather than the leaving the question to the judgment of the individual priest or priests whose sacramental services were being sought).
Despite these canonical clarifications, as well as attempts by at least two Archbishops to eliminate the practice, Form III continues to be offered at certain parishes in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis during both Advent and Lent. In some cases, the knowledge that such services are offered is so wide-spread that thousands of people will attend, many from outside of the parish. In others, the practice continues in a smaller, quieter way.
The skirmishes, however, are growing louder. While one might expect that the bankruptcy filing, the criminal investigation into the practices of the Archdiocese, and the ongoing investigation into his personal conduct might have Archbishop Nienstedt sufficiently occupied, I am hearing that he has still found time to send warning letters to certain priests, threatening a variety of penalties and consequences (some of questionable applicability and canonical legitimacy) should another mass-shriving occur.
No doubt many priests and even lay Catholics will be delighted by this news. For, there are those who believe strongly that individual and integral confession is the only acceptable means for receiving the grace of the sacrament, and they worry (perhaps correctly) that their parishioners and friends are being led astray by these dubious practices. I always felt a certain amount of sympathy for those priests who would regularly report on the illicit Form III services, as I appreciated their desire to faithfully guide those under their care. At the same time, I also felt a need to defend those who both sought and administered general absolution. I have to admit that my own desire to receive the sacrament in this way expanded exponentially during my years of Chancery work, as I was repeatedly confronted with egregious examples of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse resulting from the celebration of what was intended to be a sacrament.
Lets face it, the confessional can be a dangerous and uncomfortable place for many of us. It is a little known fact that at least one priest in this Archdiocese was even killed while hearing confessions. Rev. Henry Jazdzewski was shot five times (including a fatal shot above his left eye) by a woman who alleged that he was the father of one of her children. It was her third attempt at murdering the priest, although she would never stand trial because she was found to be mentally and emotionally unstable (her claim that the priest had fathered her child was not questioned).
Unfortunately, my work in diocesan Chanceries has also taught me that other violations of the sacrament are not unheard of. The crimes of solicitation (seeking sexual activity under the pretext of sacramental confession) and absolution (absolving an accomplice of a sin against the sixth commandment in which the confessor participated) are not as rare as one would hope, nor is the disclosure of information imparted during the confessional or the misuse of such information. Clerical imprudence, too, has played a role in creating skepticism about the practice of individual confession, whether it be priests who insist on hearing the confessions of minors in dimly lit offices without windows or those who find it necessary to question penitents in great detail about certain venial sins.
There are many wonderful confessors in this Archdiocese (we even have the benefit of having a Marist parish, who priests follow the charism of being merciful confessors as taught by the founder of their Society), and I have been very grateful for the grace I have received through their hands. But, many of those who seek general absolution do so to avoid a repetition of hurtful or abusive encounters with priests whose own sins and weaknesses became more a part of the sacrament than their penitent's. Consequently, among the thousands who will attend services at which general absolution will be offered there will be a large number of individuals who are not deliberately shunning the teachings of the Church or illegitimately seeking the 'easier' Form III absolution, but who instead can be properly identified as having been excused from the requirement of individual confession according to the second clause of canon 960.
After all, the physical and moral impossibility that excuses one from the requirement of individual confession can have its root in a variety of infirmities of body or mind, or even circumstantial causes (e.g. relationship to the minister of the sacrament or language difficulties). And, psychological issues or even traumatic experiences might create a situation of relative incapacity. One would think that this Archdiocese, embroiled in a horrific scandal as a result of sexual abuse by clergy, would be particularly sensitive to this reality, and at pains to welcome those whose access to the normal reception of the sacrament has been impeded. Given the revelations of the past few years, and the resulting skepticism that many feel towards Archdiocesan leadership, such an individual's continued desire to receive the grace of the sacrament should be supported and encouraged, and those priests able to maintain their trust commended.
The unpleasant reality of sin being manifest even in our most sacred moments is acknowledged in the Roman Ritual when it introduces the Rite of Penance. The Ritual reminds us that the Church is both holy and always in need of purification, and hence the deep need for penance and expiation in the life of the Church and its liturgy. Similarly, canon law both imposes the obligation to confess and seeks to protect penitents from harmful confessors by identifying and punishing certain crimes against the sacrament and by insisting that the faculty to hear confessions be restricted to only those who 'are found to be suitable' (canon 970). This provision has largely been ignored by bishops in the United States, where priests are usually granted the faculty to hear confessions upon their ordination. Likewise, reports of inappropriate behavior in the confessional are often disregarded as hypersensitivity or are penalized with far milder sanctions than those that Archbishop Nienstedt has threatened to impose on priests who continue to use Form III. (Thankfully, a priest is not obliged to have recourse to his bishop prior to making the determination that an impossibility exists for a penitent, as he would if he were to offer a truly 'general' absolution.) It is perhaps predictable that the much-decried lack of appreciation for individual confession on the part of the faithful has been matched by an equal lack of appreciation for the wisdom of these canonical provisions by their leaders.
If Archbishop Nienstedt truly wants to eliminate the use of Form III in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, I would suggest that he began with these simple steps. Commend those who recognize the need for and benefit of sacramental absolution, in whatever form they seek it. Make the Church a safe and comfortable place for penitents of all walks of life. See that priests are properly trained and have sufficient pastoral experience before conferring upon them such a weighty responsibility. And, finally, reflect on how your own harsh judgments of the conduct and motives of priests and laity alike may have contributed to a distrust in the mercy that the Church offers. Only then could the Archbishop legitimately impose the multitudinous penalties that he has threatened, although one would doubt he that would still have the hubris to do so.