General Absolution – False Mercy

It seems one result of this Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy is an increased chatter about General Absolution.  I have heard this discussed in two different deaneries. It is not just a Diocese of Joliet (in USA) discussion; immediately after the announcement of the Year of Mercy the internet was buzzing with the idea. In a nutshell General Absolution is ‘absolution without confession of all mortal sins[1].  It is allowed, but only in extraordinary cases. As far as I can tell the last time it was validly used in the U.S. was on ‘March 29, 1979, when the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania was in danger of exploding… Bishop Keeler of Harrisburg granted general absolution to the faithful since every individual person would not have had the chance to go to private confession’.[2] The core of these discussions seems to be this: since it is the Year of Mercy the bishop should offer General Absolution as part of the Church’s enthusiastic participation in God’s gift to His people.

There are many reasons (ecclesial, sacramental, canonical, psychological, and on and on) why this desire to offer General Absolution is misguided, even detrimental; I will leave these discussions to the experts. I, however, want to reflect on one misguided scriptural reasoning. One of the parables I have heard used to discuss the idea of General Absolution in this Year of Mercy is the Parable of the Prodigal Son[3].

‘It is wrongly named’, this logic goes; ‘it would be better named the Parable of the Merciful Father because it shows how the Father is always looking for the return of his son and accepts him back immediately with no conditions. In light of this parable this is what Holy Mother Church should do in this all-important year. Let’s show the world we follow what our Lord taught – mercy for all and what better way than to just forgive all sins’.

But is that what the Lord taught us in this parable. To a certain degree this is what the parable relates to us: the Father is always waiting for us. But what is incorrect is that there are no conditions for the Fathers acceptance – there are (as far as I can tell) at least 3 of them in this beautiful parable.

  • The son has to realize his errors.
    But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger![4]  It is the son who makes the first move at a homecoming.  The father is, as was stated, continually on the watch for his son; but the first move is the son’s – his realization that he alone is the cause of his suffering and alienation; he alone had removed himself from the joy of his father and this is not where he wants to be.
  • The son has to return to the Father.
    I will arise and go to my father…’[5]  It doesn’t matter that the son has realized the reason for his misery, his isolation and loneliness if he doesn’t move to remedy it. The son puts his realization into action; he moves from where he is back to his father.
  • The son puts himself at the discretion of his father.
    “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”[6] He submits himself up to whatever his father will do to him, and there is no guarantee of a positive outcome. Indeed, the son is hoping only to be able to abide near his father, not resume his old place as if nothing had happened. A servant is what he hopes to be; and this is enough; because he understands now what the psalmist sings: ‘I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.[7]

And of course, we see that with these conditions met, the son receives the fullness of his father’s mercy – he is made whole again.

What we see are two understandings of the same parable. One emphasizes only the merciful father to highlight His great love and mercy, but in doing so it strips away the dynamic of relationship and our responsibility in it. It speaks of an almost exclusively top down action with overtones of our right to, and expectation of, His forgiveness.

However, when the parable is viewed in its entirety we see a dynamic of relationship, indeed, a family relationship. There is upward action as well as top-down action.  Forgiveness is given to us from above, but it is desired by us as we look upward to repair our relationship with our loving Father. No expectation of, or an attitude of, ‘a right to’ forgiveness – it is a humble search for healing and mending. Viewed in its entirety Jesus’ parable is an explanation of the normal, individual method of Reconciliation.

Maybe our time would be better spent in helping those we know come to appreciate and participate in the fullness of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and God’s Mercy instead of trying to come up with quick fixes that appeal to the sentimentality of our minds instead of the totality of our hearts.


[3] LK 15: 11-32 (RSV)
[4] LK 15:17 (RSV)
[5] LK 15:18 (RSV)
[6] LK 15:18-19 (RSV)
[7] PS 84:10 (RSV)


Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete: Dominus enim prope est.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed the Lord is near.[1]

This beautiful line from St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is today’s Introit and gives this 3rd Sunday of Advent its name.  The full introit is:
‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God.[2]

We rejoice that Lord is near as we look ahead to the 25th of December, less than two weeks from now.  With the birth of our Lord we can take strength from He who made us. With His gift of coming among us we see Him and know Him better. We can take on His attributes of gentleness and patience; we can live within His love. We can attain the desire of our hearts. The celebration of the nativity of Lord is getting so very near – we can hardly keep within our skins, as the saying goes.

But for us, this evening, we can repeat: ‘Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete: Dominus enim prope est.’with an even more immediate focus.  We can rejoice that in a few minutes we can meet the Lord and reconcile with Him.  We can take part in His gift of the Sacrament of Reconciliation – we can turn towards Him and embrace Him in humility as He once again embraces us in loving welcome.  No worries should cloud our hearts and minds, He will embrace us!  Our Lord is waiting; His presence is among us and He desires our embrace.

St. Paul, in today’s Second reading tells us:
May the God of peace make you perfectly holy
and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body,
be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The one who calls you is faithful,
and he will also accomplish it.[3]

All we need to do, each of us, to make this hope, this prayer of St. Paul happen, is to return to Christ tonight – allow our Lord to give us His gift of mercy, forgiveness, healing.  Push away any uneasiness about this meeting. It is not a meeting of punishment; it is one of thanksgiving – ours for His gift to us – His for our homecoming.

Let’s not miss this opportunity, this special and beautiful moment of embrace with Christ.

Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete: Dominus enim prope est.[4]


[1,4] Philippians 4:4
[2] Philippians 4:4-6
[3] 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24

Smiling Statues

Each of the churches in Rome, especially the major basilicas have unique atmospheres.

When we arrived at the Arch Basilica of St. John Lateran we entered through a side door close to the sanctuary. And as I was walking towards the front of the church I had this very humbling, almost fearful feeling the further I walked – and I know exactly why.

You see, the nave of the basilica is dominated by giant statues on pedestals of the twelve apostles (six on each side) – these great figures were staring down at me.  I had a feeling that they were looking deep into my heart and telling me that it was my turn and asking me what I had done for our Lord.  I have to say that the statues looked mad! From the far recesses of history, those who laid the foundation of our faith were looking to me. Add to that that there are at least 20 popes buried there, and that tradition holds that the skulls of St. Peter and St. Paul are in a reliquary above the high altar and you can understand somewhat the feeling of history bearing down upon me.

What am I doing for Christ’s church? How dedicated am I to our Lord and Savior? Am I a strong stone in His church or a weak one?  All of these questions were bearing down on me as I walked down the nave – and all were demanding a reply. But as if in answer to these questions I noticed in the side naves many confessionals – each one with two languages listed Italian-German, English-Italian and so forth.

The Apostles, who at first were looking down at me accusingly, now seem to be saying they understand. It doesn’t matter how strong of a stone I am now – God will make me stronger!  Take advantage of the His love, use these confessionals, strengthen yourself; help build that strong temple that we started!

Brothers and sisters, as the readings today highlight the church is always building, always in transition. The Church will never be complete until its foundation, Jesus Christ comes back to claim her.  We can’t rest on our successes and we can’t stop because we know we failed and fear that we will fail again; He requires our constant participation. God gives us His strength through the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Reconciliation to heal and grow stronger.  Let’s take advantage of this gifts and in doing so strengthen our part of the temple.  I bet that this will make those statues at St. John Lateran smile.