by Jack Long
Few can honestly answer the question, “What would you do if you and everyone you knew had fifteen minutes to live?” Thanks to a false missile alert, Bishop Larry Silva of Honolulu now knows that his final fifteen minutes, should he be aware of what they are, would not be spent clinging to something for protection, saying goodbye to his family and friends, or even making his peace with God. Instead, Bishop Silva spent what he thought was his final moments bringing others to peace with God by leading a church of soon-to-be-dead faithful though a ritual known as general absolution.
Without any time to hear the confessions of each and every person who came to Mass that morning, Bishop Silva had two choices: risk his parishioners transitioning from nuclear fire to hell fire or to give the people forgiveness for their sins en masse. Silva chose the latter and offered the sacrament of Penance to the whole crowd at the Mass without hearing a single confession. In doing so, Bishop Silva absolved the people of their sins generally. According to the Washington Post’s coverage, the absolution of these 45 parishioners took “at least 38 minutes” with a single priest presiding over it, while priests overseeing ordinary process of Penance would take a much longer time to hear 45 confessions. Eva Andrade reports to the Hawaii Catholic Herald that this absolution—given to a crowd of dozens—was “the most powerful reconciliation ever” and that “[i]n that moment everything changed and was made right. You could feel the presence of God in that room.”
But why is general absolution not used in ordinary situations? Recently, some priests have expressed preference for the ability to absolve upwards of 5,000 people —as once occurred in New Jersey—over the more time-consuming traditional method. Back in 2001, the Archdiocese of Chicago had one hundred priests publicly argue for the use of general absolution against the wishes of the now-deceased Francis Cardinal George, citing many of the advantages of time-efficiency and communal experience. However, the objections of Cardinal George make it evident exactly why general absolution remains obscure and unused throughout the world. After all, the Cardinal was continuing a policy strenuously argued by Pope Saint John Paul II.
In his Apostolic Exhortation regarding Reconciliation and Penance, Saint John Paul II argued that the rite of general absolution undermines a central part of Catholic tradition handed down by Jesus Christ and the Apostles, the confession of sins. General absolution itself is only to be used in cases such as the one in Hawaii, when there is an imminent danger of mass casualties and is canonical when the penitents are made aware that they specifically confess their sins to a priest as soon as possible, supposing the danger does not materialize.
Confession is essential to the sacrament because the priest, as a healer, must know what the penitent’s sins are in order to judge them correctly and offer the proper penance. Further, the confession serves as an intensely personal liturgical act in which one takes the role of the Prodigal Son and surrenders to the mercy of the loving Father. Even as the confession makes the absolution more personal, John Paul II sees it as a greater communal force than general absolution. As he puts it, “confession in a way forces sin out of the secret of the heart and thus out of the area of pure individuality, emphasizing its social character as well, for through the minister of penance it is the ecclesial community, which has been wounded by sin, that welcomes anew the repentant and forgiven sinner.”
In keeping with John Paul II’s teachings, the Church currently prohibits the use of general absolution except when “danger of death is imminent” or “there is grave necessity [...] there are not enough confessors available.” Considering “the grave necessity” generally comes before occasions like the Battle of Gettysburg, few will likely ever have occasion to experience general absolution and outside of Honolulu, none of those will have long to tell us about the experience.